How 'Only Murders in the Building' Pays Tribute to the Upper West Side's History
The Hulu series uses the very real background of its building's setting to further the plot in Season 2.
An advertisement for The Belnord apartment building in a 1911 edition of the New York Sun proudly declares it "the largest in the world," covering the entire city block of West 86th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway, and towers "12 stories high." Offering rentals starting at $2,400 a year, the copy sells the "delightfully peaceful atmosphere about the Belnord. There is no noise or vibration."
These days, The Belnord, which definitely not the largest apartment in the world but still looms in the Upper West Side, has been converted into condominiums. On Streeteasy, the apartments within are listed for between $13,850,000 and $3,600,000. Outside of New York and within, it is probably best known as its alter ego: The Arconia on the Hulu series Only Murders in the Building.
In the second season of the delightful mystery headlined by Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez, the Arconia itself is even more central to the plot. This time our amateur detectives Charles (Martin), Oliver (Short), and Mabel (Gomez) are implicated in and investigating the death of Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell), the building's board president, whose family's history is linked to the very beginnings of the structure. Her grandfather, the fictional Archibald Carter, was the architect, who built secret passageways behind the walls to spy on his neighbors, specifically women. (Gross!) Bunny's apartment has an elevator hidden in its closet, which may or may not be related to her killing. It's all very glamorous and a little sordid.
"I think the richness of a life in a building like that is what is romantic for anyone who may feel particularly about New York from the outside looking at it. 'How do you live there?'" the show's co-creator John Hoffman tells Thrillist. "I loved the idea of offering up this communal, yet complicated, yet particular experience of your home surrounded by other homes and people and New Yorkers and opinions and curiosities outside your window, being able to look across and see a neighbor and know them without knowing them."
When Hoffman, who co-created Only Murders with Martin, and the crew were looking for a location for their bloody tale, they knew they wanted one of the rare upper Manhattan buildings with a courtyard. The first choice was The Apthorp on Broadway and 79th. Nora Ephron famously lived there and a New Yorker essay she wrote, where she described how in the courtyard "the city falls away; you find yourself in the embrace of a beautiful sheltered park," was one of the inspirations for Only Murders. But using it for filming wasn't possible.
"Every little factor made it seem like we were looking for a needle in a haystack when The Belnord offered up some interest," Hoffman says. "That was one of the dream buildings for me." He had lived on the opposite corner when he first moved to the city after college and remembers looking at it "longingly." It's a sentiment embodied in this season's flashbacks by the father of Martin's Charles-Haden Savage, who was having an affair with a woman across the street in 200 West 86th Street, feet away from The Arconia but less storied than the structure in its eyesight.
The Belnord, designed by the architecture firm Hiss & Weekes, was finished in 1908, when the Upper West Side was but a rural summer retreat. "It wasn't a year-round neighborhood or community," says Maya Kadouri, The Belnord's director of sales at Douglas Elliman. In real life, the path from then to now has been riddled with controversy, which, in itself, is an only-in-New York type story. By the time the building was purchased for $15 million in 1994 by real estate developer Gary Barnett, it was in complete disrepair, according to the New York Times. It converted from rentals to condos in 2016 and was revamped by famed architect Robert A.M. Stern, who turned chaotic spaces into luxury residences complete with modern amenities.
Only Murders' fictionalized history doesn't get into all of that. "Keeping the 1908 build of the actual Belnord, and establishing the Upper West Side, and trying to bring people uptown at the time that it was built at the turn of the century—we looked into all of that and imagined through the prism of our victim for the season, Bunny Folger, and the idea that she lived every day of her life in that building," Hoffman says. "She was as much a part of it and it was in her history. The fictionalized narrative that we were playing with felt of a piece to continue making the Arconia more of a character, which is a terrible cliché, but it really is how we look at it."
The real Belnord presumably doesn't have peep holes as Bunny's grandfather designed, but Kadouri mentions that it did have a subterranean parking lot originally. "It still has some passages that most people who live there probably don't even know are there because you wouldn't go into it on a daily basis," she says. For research, Hoffman and Martin spoke to longtime residents and looked through blueprints provided by the building's front office.
"Steve loves blueprints," Hoffman says. Martin is something of an aficionado of these types of buildings. He has lived in the San Remo, one of the other gems of the neighborhood, for years. "He's learned secrets like: Can we combine these two apartments? No, you can't combine these two apartments, but lo and behold, there is already a staircase behind this wall that connects the two apartments," Hoffman says. "During the pandemic, there were a lot of those great stories. There was a video of a woman who found an entire apartment behind her bathroom mirror."
Only Murders moved into the Belnord during the height of the pandemic, but, according to Hoffman, the production tried to invite the homebound tenants to participate in the fun. They offered residents the opportunity to be extras in the Season 1 finale. "Many took us up on that and I got to meet so many tenants of the building who were lovely and generous," Hoffman says. "I think at the time they enjoyed a switch-up, and it's happening right outside. They can look out their windows and watch Selena Gomez and Steve Martin play a scene together. It became, 'This is a nice change from me sitting in my apartment, looking at my laptop.'"
Before Season 2 began filming, I moved into an apartment a block away in a significantly less grand building. When Hoffman, Martin, and company are in the neighborhood for the exterior shots—the interiors are filmed on a soundstage—a certain buzz of excitement flitters about. After all, it is the Upper West Side; if Steve Martin is milling about in a porkpie hat, the alter cockers—it's Yiddish, Google it—are going to know. While Kadouri is hesitant to credit the show with increasing sales in the building, she admits that it has definitely raised The Belnord's profile. "I definitely have buyers come in and want to reaffirm, 'Is this the courtyard that was filmed during Only Murders in the Building?'" she says.
The paparazzi have also gotten wind, as have other celebrities. "We were shooting right at the end of Season 2, and Mariska Hargitay, who's friendly with Selena, pulled up in a car on her way somewhere else, rolled down her window, and shouted out to our crew, 'Is this Only Murders in the Building Shooting here?'" Hoffman recalls. "They said yes, and she said, 'Oh my god, is Selena in there? I want to say hi. And can I be in this show? I love this show.'"