the dakota

Four days ago was the 33rd anniversary of the assassination of John Lennon, who was gunned down by a deranged fan outside his apartment building, the Dakota, in New York City on December 8, 1980. (Robert Horvat did a great article on the anniversary here). The sad events of that day have unfortunately ensured that the Dakota Apartments will probably forever be known, first and foremost, as the site of Lennon’s death. But actually even without that distinction the Dakota is one of the most interesting and historic buildings in New York.

The Dakota is located at 1 West 72nd Street, just across from Central Park. This area was largely undeveloped when real estate developer Edward Clark, who made his fortune from Singer Sewing Machines, decided to build a huge apartment house there in 1879. Clark thought this area would become a very high-class neighborhood; rail service had just been extended to it. Clark hired noted architect Henry Janeway Hardenburgh to design it. Apartment living for upper class people was a relatively new concept in 1879. The idea was to build an apartment house so grand and majestic that it would rival the chateaus of France or the stately homes of England. Oh, and of course, to make a lot of money too.

Construction of the Dakota began in October 1880 and took about four years to build. The design was centered around a large courtyard with an arched entryway, so built to accommodate the (anticipated) rich residents’ carriages. The building originally had eight stories and 85 apartments. It also had a private dining room, a ballroom, servant quarters and a gymnasium. The floors of Clark’s own apartment were inlaid with sterling silver. The place with its common areas was always envisioned as a community; in fact today it is operated as a co-op.

dakota 1890

The Dakota as it appeared in 1890. Note how little has been built up around it; compare with the modern street view shot above.

The Dakota was a rip-roaring success when it opened in 1884. All the apartments were filled before the building was even finished. Edward Clark did not live to see it or to live in his silver-floored apartment; he died in 1882, willing the property to his 12-year-old grandson. The cream of New York society lived there, and parties given at the Dakota in the early years attracted guests ranging from author Stephen Crane to Tchaikovsky, the Russian composer, who attended a dinner party there in 1891.

During the 20th century the Dakota attracted many tenants from the creative and performing arts. Actors Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney, Jose Ferrer and Boris Karloff lived there. So did sports personalities John Madden and Joe Namath, composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, and TV news anchors Connie Chung and Maury Povich. John Lennon and Yoko Ono owned five apartments in the Dakota. On the floor of one of them was a famous portrait taken by Annie Leibovitz, of a naked John on the floor cuddling with his wife. The picture, which later made the cover of Rolling Stone, was taken early on the morning of December 8, 1980. Less than 24 hours later Lennon was dead.

john lennon yoko ono by annie leibovitz

The famous last photo, taken in the predawn hours of December 8, 1980 in the Dakota building.

Earlier, the Dakota was made famous in the movies as the creepy apartment building in Roman Polanski’s horror film Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The interiors were created on a movie set, but the exterior shots are of the Dakota, with its unmistakable gables and Central Park overlook.

Far from being famous for one single event, the Dakota is an example of how buildings take on a life of their own. Likely it will continue to be a part of the culture of New York. With apartments in the building regularly selling for upwards of $30 million today, it’s not going anywhere.

The photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono is under copyright, taken in 1980 by Annie Leibovitz and was used on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. I believe my use of it here constitutes fair use under U.S. copyright laws.