Did you know the building from Only Murders in the Building was inspired by a gay bathhouse?

Here's the queer history of the hotel that inspired the Arconia from the smash hit TV show.

Only Murders in the Building starring cast.
Image: YouTube: Hulu

The season 2 finale of Only Murders in the Building premiered on streaming services last night, so upfront – no spoilers from the finale are contained in this article. (You’re welcome).

The show, starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez is set in the fictional Arconia building – believed to be inspired by the real-life Ansonia hotel in New York. Most viewers who were tuning in last night are probably unaware of the extensive queer history that comes from the basement of the Ansonia.

Imagine it – the year is 1968. On New York City’s 74th Street and Broadway, the streets are lined with towering, early-20th-century buildings with elegant mouldings and bay windows. Though one building lies vacant, decaying: The Ansonia.

Steve Ostrow, a former opera singer turned businessman, sees potential in the basement of this once opulent structure. He rents the premises from landlord Jake Starr. Ostrow recalls in his memoir the key to success in a business venture like this: “you can either fulfil a need, or create a desire”. And so, he did both. On September 12, 1968, Ostrow opens arguably the most famous gay bathhouse in history.

Steve Ostrow and his wife Joanne open the Continental Baths with one clear vision: to create a safe space for gay men that is welcoming, shielded and above all else – clean. The bathhouse was meticulously designed by Richard Ohrbach to capture the glory of Ancient Rome. Together over the years, Ohrbach and Ostrow collaborated to create the Mecca of gay bathhouses.

One of the rooms, designated for cruising, was decked in black marble, resembling a labyrinth. Another large room, dubbed the Orgy Room, was designed like a Roman amphitheatre. Over time, they added a cabaret lounge, stage, gym, licensed bar, STD clinic, travel desk, restaurant, and waterfall. There was a surplus of 400 private rooms for patrons to have sex.

As the popularity of the Continental Baths grew, Ostrow decided to book entertainment. Some famous names of stars who have graced the Bathhouse stage include Andy Kaufman, Barry Manilow, Lesley Gore and Patti LaBelle.

The Continental Baths’ stage was the launching point for Bette Midler’s career. Donning a towel on her head and debuting famous songs like ‘Friends’, Midler was adored by the gay community that came through the bathhouse doors. It was her performances in the Continental Baths that earned her the nickname ‘Bathhouse Betty’. Later in her career, she recorded an album using her Bathhouse credentials as the title.

Since homosexuality was illegal in New York, the club was raided by police regularly. Attractive policemen would be sent to the baths to rent a room, strip down to a towel, and wait for one of the patrons to touch them so they could be arrested. Ostrow believes that the baths were raided by police over 200 times, and each time, Ostrow claims he always came down to the police station to bail them out.

Outraged by the consistent arrests and public humiliation that gay men had to face, Ostrow and other passionate advocates collected 250,000 signatures and marched to city hall in New York. They demanded legislation of homosexuality in private places among consenting adults. After the law change, the Continental’s popularity dwindled as more clubs could open.

Eventually, the attendance decreased, as the establishment became more of a place for straight patrons to enjoy the entertainment. The facilities became desolate and drug use increased. In his book, Live at the Continental, Ostrow recalls how the hard-drug era had hit New York and his business: “Stoned-out bodies were crushing into me as I walked – needles and syringes littered the halls.”

By 1976, Ostrow thought his work in New York had been done, and so he closed the Bathhouse to pursue a similar venture in Montreal. Once a place of grand design and vending machines dispensing KY Jelly, after 1976, the basement of the Ansonia returned to vacancy. (Until it was turned into another historic sex club – Plato’s Retreat).

For all you Only Murders in the Building fans out there; rest assured, the show has been renewed for another season. Who knows? Maybe the Continental Baths will inspire the plot for season 3.

To read more articles about TV shows we’re loving, such as Only Murders in the Building, click here.

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