New York City's Famous Dakota Apartment Building:
Does John Lennon still live there?
© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved
In a critique of the horror classic Rosemary's Baby, a reviewer proclaimed that the "brooding Dakota apartment building gives the best performance in Roman Polanski's thriller."
Whether "brooding" is the right adjective depends on your perspective. The same can be said of whether or not you believe the Dakota is haunted.
Many ghostly allegations have been repeated over the years, including the tale of the murdered John Lennon, seated at his piano, assuring Yoko Ono he was all right. So how and when did these stories originate? Are they true? Or do they simply serve to make the Dakota building even more alluring?
The Dakota's history began in 1877 when Edward C. Clark, co-founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, purchased a lot at 72nd Street and Central Park West. At that time, it was a wide-open space, far from competing buildings and the hum of downtown Manhattan.
The architect, Henry Janeway Hardenbergh (who later designed the Waldorf Astoria, among other landmarks), was contracted to create a "family hotel." This was, at the time, a new concept - one that combined the comforts of an elegant home with the conveniences of an attendant staff and in-house services like a bakery, restaurant, and barber shop. Construction began in the fall of 1880, and the building was completed four years later.
Sadly, Clark never saw the finished Dakota. He died in 1882. Though his only, married son Alfred (long rumored to lead a gay alter-life in Europe) was alive and well, in 1887 the property was willed to Clark's grandson, Edward S. Clark, not yet in his 20s.
From its groundbreaking, the gabled, gothic Dakota attracted public and media attention. Newspaper stories called it "one of the most perfect apartment houses in the world." Every New York City landmark could be viewed from its location; every breeze captured from its elevation.
Those arriving in horse-drawn carriages accessed the private courtyard via the arched entrance on 72nd Street. Inside the building, four bronze and marble staircases served residents, while four iron staircases were dedicated to servant use. There were four passenger elevators, and four servants' elevators. Such divisions were both aesthetically-driven and practical. General help - not including personal servants - numbered nearly 150 when the building first opened for tenancy.
Designed with self-sufficiency in mind, the Dakota had its own power plant. To add an even greater degree of personal comfort, however, the building manager purchased coal and kindling in large quantities. It was delivered to apartment owners' door, at their request. Planners also accounted for outdoor recreational needs, although the original gardens, and croquet and tennis courts no longer exist.
To purchase an apartment in the Dakota was - and is - the sign of ultimate wealth and influence. It is therefore no small wonder that some residents consigned themselves to being carried out "feet first" rather than ever sell. In 1905, piano maker Charles S. Fischer died in his apartment - the cause, an "apoplectic stroke." His funeral was held there several days later. New York subway builder John B. McDonald also died in his apartment. His body remained there until being taken to St. Patrick's Cathedral for a requiem mass. The Manhattan subway system completely halted operation for two full minutes to honor McDonald's passing.
In the 1930s, prior to the repeal of Prohibition, popular and influential columnist O. O. McIntyre bemoaned the slow disintegration of the "aristocratic" nature of West 72nd Street. Calling it the "street of scandals," McIntyre's only kind words were reserved for the "fashionable Dakota." It was a far cry, said McIntyre, from the cheaper buildings filled with speakeasies, chorus girls, gigolos, prostitutes, and kept women.
More than 130 years after its construction, the Dakota is still an exclusive enclave of the well-known and wealthy. And, apparently, the co-op board plans to keep it that way. Applicants ranging from Antonio Banderas, to Billy Joel, to Cher have reportedly been denied purchase approval. Some residents publicly decry these decisions, worrying that the building's "artistic" sensibilities are being replaced on the sole basis of larger wallets.
If there are ghosts roaming the courtyard, staircases and private hallways of the Dakota, it's anyone's guess as to who they might be. The subway builder? The piano maker? Other apartment owners who passed away, and just can't let go? Or maybe it's Edward Clark himself, finally enjoying the architectural dream he made a reality.
Whatever the truth, the Dakota will likely remain one of New York City's most prestigious addresses for generations to come. If generations from the past retain their tenancy, more's the better. ☁