While my love of history is obvious it might surprise you to know that I am an avid fan of mysteries from Agatha Christie to the “cozy mystery” series created by Charlaine Harris featuring the librarian turned sleuth Aurora Teagarden. As a child I read my way through the Bobbsey Twins series and every Encyclopedia Brown book my mom and elementary librarian could find, and now as a grandmother I’ve recently worked my way through the popular British show Endeavor, and I am presently halfway through 23 seasons of Midsomer Murders.
Recently, I finished the second season of the entertaining Only Murders in the Building airing on Hulu. If you have been on the fence about watching it, I highly recommend it. The series stars Steve Martin, Selena Gomez, and Martin Short who portray characters who live at the fictional Arconia, a large apartment building located on Manhattan’s Upper Westside. The three are brought together when a murder occurs in the building, and they decide to begin a podcast as they sift through the clues to solve the murder. The show is well written with lots of humor as well as a well-crafted mystery full of twists and turns that unfold with each episode.
Most of the storyline takes place in the Arconia apartment building which instantly reminded me of New York City’s famed Dakota building where dozens of actors, musicians, and others of note have lived through the years. It was in front of the Dakota where John Lennon was gunned down in 1980.
It was obvious to me Only Murders in the Building was shot on location in New York. The exterior and courtyard scenes of the Arconia intrigued me, and I did a little sleuthing to find out more about the building.
I discovered that the interior scenes from the Arconia are shot on a soundstage, and the very real Belnord apartment building stands in for the exterior scenes. The Belnord, located at the corner of W. 86th Street and Broadway, has an interesting history of its own going back to 1908. It was an address of note back then, and it continues today where a four-bedroom condominium goes for $14 million, a two-bedroom will set you back $3.6 million, and you can rent a 5-bedroom apartment for $30,000 a month. The last time the Belnord building sold it brought $575 million. The new owners renovated 95 apartments that were then sold as condominiums.
The first mention of the Belnord was made in November 1908 when it was announced the building had been designed by the architectural firm Hiss and Weekes and would be erected by the George A. Fuller Company for the Belnord Realty Company headed by Henry R. Hoyt as the firm’s president and John Sherman Hoyt.
Construction was completed in 1909 with H. Hobart Weeks, one of the architects, boasting in The New York Times the Belnord was “the largest apartment house in [the United States,] if not the world.” With 175 apartments, the Italian Renaissance building took up an entire city block bounded by Broadway, Amsterdam Avenue, 86th and 87th Streets. The building has a granite base with limestone to the second floor and above that terra cotta and ashlar which is finely cut, worked stone.
The building boasted the most modern conveniences for the time including refrigeration that made ice, a central vacuum system, and a gated private drive inside the courtyard for carriages that in 1908 was paved with oak blocks to deaden the sound of carriages and horses. The building is serviced by 14 passenger and service elevators.
The courtyard, often seen in some of the scenes in Only Murders in the Building is beautiful, and at the time the Belnord opened it was touted as the largest interior courtyard in the world being 94 feet wide and 231 feet long. The courtyard also boasts a beautiful fountain of Vermont marble and a children’s playground. Another unique feature was an underground delivery tunnel for trucks and wagons that entered via a ramp from W. 87th Street.
The set of side-by-side two-story tall archways in the middle of the 86th Street side of the building, often seen in Only Murders in the Building, are what caught my eye initially and got me interested in the building itself. As you walk through the archways and look up you can see Roman red frescoes on the curved ceiling. I would love to see them in person!
Though the building did not reach full occupancy until World War I, the Belnord, like the fictional Arconia, has had its share of interesting residents and events that could become great fodder for a talented mystery writer if they were so inclined.
In June 1911, Belnord resident, Mrs. Charles K. Baum, reported a jewelry theft which included several diamond and ruby pieces that totaled $3,500. Instead of keeping her jewelry collection in a safe or a safety deposit box at her bank, she kept them close by keeping them in a chamois bag tied around her waist. Of course, the very day Mrs. Baum decided to slip the bag into a drawer in her apartment it was stolen. After reporting the theft to the authorities, the bag somehow ended up placed on the carpet outside her apartment’s front door with no explanation. The mystery lover in me must wonder if the theft was an inside job or merely an insurance scam of some sort gone awry.
One of the more interesting residents of the Belnord was A.S. Vincent who was one of the best-known pigeon tamers in the world and president of the United Homing Concourse. He maintained his pigeon coops on the Belnord’s roof. In early August 1918, the U.S. Army took 45 pigeons used by the soldiers at Camp Upton on Long Island to the roof of the Belnord and released them in hopes they would fly to their home coop on the base some 70 miles away. Newspaper articles indicate the pigeons passed the test. Wouldn’t a mystery surrounding a soldier’s body found in one of the pigeon coop be an interesting mystery storyline.
In October 1920 the wealthy silk merchant, Isaac Mendelson, who lived at the Belnord, was found dead in his office and the door to his immense steel safe ajar. Police instantly suspected murder and robbery. After a bit of investigation, however, a half-filled bottle of Lysol was found beside the body, and in a glass nearby there was evidence that some poison had been used. Mendelson left a note only asking that his wife be notified. No reason for the suicide was found, however. Mendelson had a fortune of several million dollars, but relatives stated he had lost two million recently. It seems to me that a loss of a couple of million when you have several is a poor reason for someone to take their life. Hmmm…did Mendelson really ingest that Lysol on his own?
Another terrible death occurred in February 1921 when Mrs. Marion Peters, who lived in an apartment on the 8th floor with her husband, leapt to her death. It was later reported Mrs. Peters had been nervous and under the care of a nurse. When she asked the nurse to take a message to her husband, Mrs. Peters used the opportunity to jump from a window to the courtyard below. I wonder what made Mrs. Peters so “nervous?”
Ever hear of Joseph Leblang, the proclaimed “Theater Ticket King of New York”? In April 1931 Leblang died in his apartment due to heart disease. Leblang, an immigrant from Budapest, built up his successful business where theatergoers could get tickets for less than box office prices dating back to 1895. The business was in Gray’s drug store at Broadway and 43rd Street, so over time the LeBlang’s agency – Central Ticket Agency – was referred to by many as “Gray’s.” As his fortune grew, Leblang was known to advance money to numerous producers for shows he felt would be moneymakers. Leblang also invested heavily in real estate and at one time owned the entire block on the eastside of Times Square from 42nd to 43rd Streets and the George M. Cohan and Cort theaters. I’m sure if the writers of “Only Murders in the Building” dug hard enough they could find situations from Leblang’s life that could be added into a mystery.
The Belnord is also known for at least two situations that are well known in legal history including the first time in New York that damages were recovered against a landlord for injuries sustained not only to the owner of the lease, Charles S. Reed, but his family members as well. In November 1913 the Reed family received a settlement of $1,000 from the Belnord Realty Company due to coal gas that had been blowing into their apartment.
The Belnord also figured prominently in one of the longest running disputes in landlord-tenant history. The bad feelings went all the way back to 1954 when landlord Lillian Seril fenced off a portion of the Belnord’s courtyard from tenants and converted the building’s entrance to a butcher shop. Through the 1960s and into the 1970s tenants complained about lack of repairs and building maintenance, a lack of hot water, improper elevator maintenance, and a leaking roof.
Beginning in 1978 and continuing for the next five years half of the renters in the building withheld their rent to protest Seril’s actions and try to force her to make the necessary repairs. By 1984, the tenant fund that held the rent monies had reached $1.5 million dollars! Art D’Lugoff, owner of the Village Gate and a Belnord resident, helped fellow residents pay legal fees in an action against Lillian Seril.
The matter was finally resolved at the end of October 1994 when a settlement between Seril and the tenants was announced along with the sale of the Belnord to a new owner who agreed to spend $5 million for necessary repairs, etc. What I find interesting is that the entire time the dispute was going on until her death in 2004, Lillian Seril was also a tenant of the building living in a $450 per month rent-controlled apartment. There’s a mystery plot in there somewhere, right?
If you are looking for something to view that’s a little different, you like mysteries, you like comedy including dark humor give Only Murders in the Building a try, but make sure you go all the way back to the first season.
I’m already looking forward to Season Three!
If you enjoyed this post, you might like my latest book – Georgia on My Mind: True Tales from Around the State – which contains 30 true tales from all around the state including three stories from Atlanta, and yes, there will be volume two out soon! You can purchase the book here…in print and Kindle versions.