For anyone who lived on the Upper West Side, strolling the streets was an architectural dream. Several grandiose buildings, many from the time of The Gilded Age, are still there, rewriting their stories. When the series Only Murders in the Building launched its first season, I could have sworn it was about The Apthorp, the famous residential building that sits between 78th and 79th streets. It seems I was wrong.
The building designed by architects Clinton & Russell for William Waldorf Astor, was built between 1906 and 1908 and occupies every block between Broadway and West End Avenue. Its grand interior courtyard is a city classic and a New York City landmark. It was the setting for the movie Heartburn because it was the story of director Nora Ephron and she lived there from the 1980s until the 2000s. “I fell madly in love. I was looking for a place to live and one afternoon I took just ten steps to an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and my heart stopped. That was it. At first sight. Eureka. Ten steps and I said, “I’ll take it,” she wrote in 2006, reminiscing about her passion for Apthorp. “I honestly believed that, at the worst moment of my adult life, I was rescued by a building”, she continued in his genius writing style.
Apthorp was home to celebrities besides Nora, people as George Balanchine, Al Pacino, Conan O’Brien, Jennifer Hudson, and Cyndi Lauper, among others. In the second season of the series, which rescues the story of the fictional Arsonia, they describe (and show) a little of the inner courtyard with the same message as Nora about her building.
“From the street, it’s lumpen, mid-European, and solid as a tanker truck, but its core is a large courtyard with two marble fountains and a lovely garden. Enter the courtyard and the city crumbles; you find yourself in the embrace of a beautiful protected park. There are stone benches where you can sit in the afternoon while your children happily run around, ride their bikes, fight each other and threaten to fall into the fountain and drown. In spring, there are tulips and azaleas, in summer, hostas and pale blue hydrangeas.”
The building also had a controversial character, Barbara Ross, who resembles Bunny. “She had a way of meeting you in the hallway and making you feel guilty even though you were totally innocent. She was, in short, a character from a nightmare,” confessed Nora.
All this led me to believe that Apthorp would be the inspiration for Arconia, but again, I was wrong. The series is recorded on the facade and interior of The Belnord, on 86th Street, a contemporary of the Apthorp and also home to famous people, such as Lee Strasberg (Marilyn Monroe visited frequently) and Walter Matthau, among others.
For showrunner John Hoffman, being able to shoot in the building was a dream he once thought impossible. “I was obsessed,” Hoffman told the New York Times. “It’s a cliché to say that the building itself is a character, but I like the challenge of overcoming that cliché a little bit. What takes us out of our apartments to meet people? How well do you know your neighbors? Do you only connect when necessary? The ways in which we come together when we live in these spaces is what’s really interesting,” he explained.
And if there was still a mystery, it was cleared up this week. If there isn’t an Arconia, there is an Ansonia, which is located between 73rd and 74th streets on the Upper West Side. The 17-story building, the first to have air conditioning and central heating, is beautiful and has a sinister history, perfect for the podcast. The address was the scene of crimes (crime films, such as Single White Female and Don’t Say a Word) and even a swing club.
Also from the Gilded Age period, it was founded by pedophile billionaire William Earl Dodge Stokes, whose apartment had a secret elevator and access to peepholes to spy on women getting dressed in other units. When he invested in the area, he was far from the current prestige.
His goal was to surpass the nine-story Dakota, which was new to the city at the time, and build the “largest hotel in Manhattan”. It would have the largest indoor pool in the world, restaurants decorated in the Louis XIV style, Turkish baths and a large fountain that houses live seals. When it officially opened in 1904, Ansonia also had a ballroom, bank, barber shop, and tailor shop on site.
His vision was that Ansonia could be self-sufficient, or at least contribute to its own livelihood. For this, he created a vegetable garden on the roof, but that project failed. Over time, the building was the address of criminals and the scene of at least one death. A building that would yield many episodes for our favorite podcasters, do you agree?