Rosemary's Apartment

The Dakota came to the forefront of the world's collective consciousness when Roman Polanski featured this turn-of-the-century apartment in his first American foray, Rosemary's Baby. Although the building's interior scenes were shot in a Hollywood set, the dark and forbidding exterior lent an appropriate tone to the horror film that remains a nail-biter even forty years later.

Unfortunately, the film did a grave disservice to the popular image of this unique German Renaissance building-- as one of New York's earliest luxury apartments, the Dakota was built in 1884 with engineering principles that were pioneering for its time. These included the use of sound-proofing (the walls are as thick as 28 inches), fire-proofing (to avoid the need for ugly fire-escapes), steam-powered lifts (with separate passenger elevators, service elevators and dumb-waiters), a central boiler room for steam heating and dynamos for electric lighting. The presence of an inner courtyard and the strategic positioning of hallways ensured an efficient play of natural air and light in the fifteen-foot high rooms, a far cry from the sinister and claustrophobic scenes in Rosemary's Baby.

The most fashionable addresses of the time were on the east side of Central Park bordering Fifth Avenue, and therefore the construction of the Dakota on the Upper West Side (which was then as remote and sparsely inhabited as the state of Dakota) was viewed by native residents with amused curiousity, a precursor to the east-side--west-side divide that continues to this day! The Dakota was the brainchild of Edward Clark, who made his fortune as a partner of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, and was commonly referred to as "Clark's Folly" since it was believed nobody would want to live in an apartment, especially one with an outrageous two-storeyed roof that had gables, turrets, pyramids, towers, wrought-iron fences, chimneys and flagpoles. Yet, as the building neared completion, all sixty-five flats (ranging in size from four rooms to twenty rooms) had been rented out, and people came from all over to gawk at a building that stood as stately and self-assured as a fort, dominating the western skyline.

In fact, the fame of the building had spread beyond the country's shores. One celebrated incident surrounded the visit of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky to the Dakota flat of his music publisher Gustav Schirmer-- after visiting the roof overlooking the majestic Central Park, Tchaikovsky was left with the impression that the entire building was Schirmer's house and the Park was his private garden. He subsequently noted in his diary, "No wonder we composers are so poor"!

Over the years, and especially after the Dakota became a cooperative in 1961, residents have made innumerable renovations and reconstructions inside, pulling down walls to combine flats as well as dividing the high ceilings horizontally to erect lofts. Many architects feel that this may lead to an eventual weakening of the foundation, and efforts by the New York Landmarks Commission to assign it a heritage status have only succeeded in prohibiting changes to the building's fa├žade. The haphazard changes to the interior have also resulted in corridors (and especially the labyrinths in the eighth and ninth floors) becoming confusing mazes, and old residents talk about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ringing doorbells of wrong flats as a result of getting lost!

Of course, the Dakota lives on in infamy because of December 8, 1980. As John Lennon and Yoko Ono, arguably the building's most celebrated residents, returned home from a studio session late that night, a man emerged from the shadows of the main gate on West 72nd Street, and emptied bullet after bullet into Lennon's body. The Strawberry Field corner in Central Park, diagonally across from the couple's seventh floor flat, serves as a waking reminder of Lennon's legacy. But to hundreds of tourists who look up from this intimate alcove to the overbearing Dakota, the city's most elegant apartment house will forever be associated with the city's most dastardly and senseless crime.


AFTERTHOUGHT
Dakotans feel about the Dakota much the way, as it has been said, Bostonians feel about Boston: They believe in the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of the Dakota.
Stephen Birmingham, Life at the Dakota