‘Only Murders in the Building’s Real-Life Arconia Has a Scandalous History


The Big Picture

  • Only Murders in the Building takes inspiration from the Ansonia Hotel, a real-life New York building with a shady history and mysterious secrets.
  • The Ansonia, built in 1904 by William Stokes, featured an extravagant design and housed various animals including seals, geese, chickens, and even a small bear.
  • The building also had ties to gangsters and scandal, including involvement in the infamous 1919 baseball scandal and the death of racketeer Al Adams. It later became a cabaret club before being renovated into luxury condominiums.

Only Murders in the Building gets its name from the rule its characters make about their investigative true-crime podcast: only murders that occur within their apartment building may be covered on the show. Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez star as residents of the fictional Manhattan building the Arconia, portrayed by the real-life Belnord building where they film the show. But the idea of a New York building with so many mysterious secrets and murders was inspired by another New York skyline structure. Per Vanity Fair, the Ansonia Hotel not only inspired the Arconia in name but also in its history’s shady characters.

Only Murders in the Building

Three strangers share an obsession with true crime and suddenly find themselves wrapped up in one. When a grisly death occurs inside their exclusive Upper West Side apartment building, the trio suspects murder and employs their precise knowledge of true crime to investigate the truth. Perhaps even more explosive are the lies they tell one another. Soon, the endangered trio comes to realize a killer might be living among them as they race to decipher the mounting clues before it’s too late.

Release Date
August 31, 2021


‘Only Murders in the Building’s Arconia was Inspired by New York’s Ansonia Hotel

The building was erected in 1904 by William Earl Dodge Stokes, heir to the Ansonia copper fortune who eventually left the family business and sued his own brother. Designed by French architect Paul Duboy, the Ansonia occupies a full city block on Broadway between 73rd and 74th Street. Its 17 stories tower above the streets below with 400 unique units inside. It’s a Parisian-inspired design with Juliet balconies, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a marbled spiral staircase. Today, a 3,000+ square foot, four-bed, three-bath unit in the building is, according to Vanity Fair, listed at around $9 million. But who was William Stokes, and how did he end up getting shot three times by his own girlfriend?

William Stokes Made Many Enemies Throughout His Wild Life

Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez), and Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin) looking stunned in Only Murders in the Building
Image via Hulu

Stokes spared no expense when building his 1,400 rooms, 300+ suites, ballrooms, barbers, and bank. Only Murders in the Building Season 2 sees a flashback to the Arconia’s “infamous playboy” architect (Stokes-style mustache and all) who was responsible for installing peepholes in the walls through which to watch women. At the age of 42, Stokes saw a photo of 15-year-old heiress Rita Hernandez de Alba de Acosta in a shop window and decided to make her his teenage bride. Reluctantly, Rita agreed to marry Stokes for the money, provided him with a son, and divorced him at 21. She is alleged to have broken the record for the highest divorce settlement at the time, with $2 million in cash and $36,000 in annual alimony.

Keeping with the wild theme, Stokes’ hotel featured a fountain in which live seals swam! His obsession with housing animals didn’t stop there either, with four geese and a pig as personal pets, ducks, 500 chickens, six goats, and a small bear all housed on the roof. In 1907, the Department of Health put an end to his “farm in the sky”. During his second marriage to 24-year-old Helen Ellwood, William’s 22-year-old mistress, Lillian Graham, attempted to blackmail him for $25,000 with their intimate love letters. At the Ansonia, the vaudeville showgirl ended up shooting Stokes in the leg three times. Stokes survived long enough for Helen to divorce him regardless, and during the resulting trial, Helen sought the opportunity to inform the judge of Stokes’ 47 chickens still inhabiting the building, despite the Health Department’s demands.

Arnold Rothstein and the Famous ‘Black Sox’ Baseball Scandal

Just like in Only Murders in the Building, where the Arconia houses celebrities like Sting and Amy Schumer, the real-life Ansonia frequently welcomed the stars of its day. Baseball icon Babe Ruth and boxer Jack Dempsey were regulars at Stokes’ hotel, with Chicago White Sox’s first baseman Chick Gandil becoming responsible for one of the Ansonia’s most infamous scandals. At the Ansonia, Gandil met gambler Joseph “Sport” Sullivan, former teammate “Sleepy” Bill Burns, former Detroit Tiger Bill Maharg, and boxer Abe Attell. Their plan was to throw the 1919 World Series for a payday of at least $10,000 apiece.

They were joined by a representative of New York mob boss Arnold Rothstein, the gambling king known as “The Big Bankroll”. Rothstein was a famous gangster, who was portrayed on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire by Michael Stuhlbarg, and who inspired the name of Robert De Niro‘s character in Martin Scorsese‘s Casino. Bookies had the Sox winning the World Series over the Cincinnati Reds by three-to-one, but the odds shifted after those in the know began betting heaps of cash on the Reds. After a string of losses and delayed payments from the gangsters, the players dropped the fix and focused on winning again, but ultimately lost regardless. Star hitter “Shoeless” Joe Jackson testified, admitting to accepting $5,000 from his teammates, but eventually, everyone was found not guilty, likely due to the intervention of Arnold Rothstein’s political power.


This ‘Only Murders in the Building’ Scene Gave Us Selena Gomez’s Best Performance as Mabel

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This wasn’t the only instance of Stokes housing gangsters and dirty deeds in his building, however. Like the mustache-twirling villain that he was, Stokes sought to take land once owned by the New York Orphan Asylum. He yearned for the dirt road of Broadway to be paved and orphan-free, making the Ansonia the “grandest hotel in Manhattan”. Once his dream came true, he invited racketeer Al Adams (known as “The Policy King” and “The Meanest Man in New York”) to reside at Ansonia indefinitely. After two years, Stokes found Al Adams dead in Suite 1579 with a bullet in his head. The death was deemed a suicide but was possibly linked to unpaid debts. Stokes himself was considered a suspect.

The Ansonia Was Later Renovated Into a Cabaret Club Before Being Turned Into Luxury Condos

Martin Short as Oliver Putnam performing on stage in a detective uniform in Only Murders in the Building Season 3
Image via Hulu

William Stokes died of pneumonia in 1926, and with Rothstein dying of a gunshot to the abdomen in 1928, that era for the Ansonia soon came to a close —but that doesn’t mean the wild antics the building housed were over. The Ansonia was left to William’s son, Weddie Stokes, who had no interest in running his father’s empire. As a crooked landlord himself, Weddie soon ended up in jail. The Ansonia sold at auction to Jacob Starr for a mere $50,000. Starr had no interest in renovating the property and was pushing for it to be demolished, but in the 1960s he found an opportunity to rent the swimming pool-turned-basement to Steve Ostrow, who turned it into a cabaret sex club called the Continental Baths.

The site of Stokes’ original Turkish baths was now a gay club complete with a waterfall, K-Y jelly dispenser, and even a designated orgy room. The club’s patrons would often find themselves enjoying sex acts while simultaneously watching Broadway-caliber performances. The Continental Baths welcomed early career-making turns from Barry Manilow and Bette Midler alike, the latter of whom rose to fame as “Bathhouse Betty”, named after the Ansonia venue. In 1977, the Baths closed and were reopened as Plato’s Retreat. One of the world’s most infamous sex clubs, Plato’s Retreat was a “clothing optional”, members-only club that featured a 50-plus-person Jacuzzi, a backgammon lounge, an open bar, a full buffet, a disco, and mattresses on the floor.

Upstairs, meanwhile, Starr rented the rooms out to residents. With the building falling into disrepair due to Starr’s refusal to renovate, the residents formed the Ansonia Residents Association. They protested by refusing to pay their rent until the building was repaired and successfully appealed to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to preserve the building. Today, we have the Ansonia Residents Association to thank for its current luxury condominiums. The building now houses wealthy residents from various industries, much like the fictional Arconia in Only Murders in the Building, and although its history is rich with murder, mayhem, and secrets, the Ansonia is now thankfully less dangerous than its fictional series counterpart… or is it?

Only Murders in the Building is available to stream on Hulu.



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