With its sharp peaked gables, multitude of windowed dormers, ornate panels, balconies, and turreted windows, the architecture of the Dakota Building invokes emotions of gothic antiquity. Located in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, overlooking Central Park, it stands in dramatic contrast to the modern skyline, a rare survivor from a long past era. The world has certainly changed in the Dakota’s near hundred and forty-year existence and, as you might have guessed by its inclusion in this Dark Distraction, it has collected and kept its share of secrets while providing homes for more than a few ghosts among its lodgers.
The building was designed and built by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh’s architectural firm, consigned by Edward Clark, a partner in the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Construction began in 1880 and finished four years later, though Clark died before completion. It is said that the building was named the Dakota due to its distance from downtown. At the time, the northwest region of the city was largely undeveloped and remote, not unlike the Dakota Territory.
Apartment living was an all but unheard-of concept for the affluent and wealthy of the day. Clark sought to change that. His vision for the Dakota was to create a community, not only of the fiscal elite, but also of the cultural vanguard of artists, musicians, and thinkers of New York. To that end, it has been the home of countless celebrities and notable personalities. The list is vast, but to name a select few; Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Boris Karloff, Judy Garland, John Madden, Joe Namath, Jason Robards, and many, many, more all lived there at one time or another.
Probably the most famous of all the Dakota’s residents, and a natural segue into the paranormal claims surrounding the building, is John Lennon and Yoko Ono. On the evening of December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman waited for Lennon at the south entrance of the Dakota, shooting him in the back with four .38 hollow-points. He died on the scene. Since his death, several witnesses claimed to have observed him leaning on the arch to the south entrance, bathed in ominous light. One report allegedly comes from Yoko, who saw John sitting at his piano in their apartment and heard him speak, “Don’t be afraid, I’m still with you.”
John Lennon had his own brushes with the paranormal during his time at the Dakota. In addition to witnessing a UFO from his apartment window, he had several encounters with what he called the “crying lady.” Numerous other tenants have shared similar experiences with this benevolent spirit, who is generally believed to be the ghost of Elise Vesely, who managed the building from the 1930s to the 50s. Her profound sadness stems from the loss of her son, who was killed by a truck outside the Dakota. The tragedy left a lasting mark on Elise as she took on an exceedingly protective attitude toward her tenants, particularly children, afterwards. Some have posited that her protective nature has continued into the afterlife, binding her to the building and its tenants. Others say that she stays to take care of another ghost of the Dakota, a young girl in a yellow taffeta dress who can be seen bouncing her ball in the halls. It is commonly reported that, if she engages with you, she will inform you that it is her birthday.
Throughout the decades, workmen have experienced some of the more pronounced manifestations, generally during major renovations. One painter fell to his death after an encounter with the young girl, who some accuse of pushing him. Others have reported heavy iron rods being tossed across the room, objects moving on their own, or disappearing entirely. In the late 1930s an electrician named John Paynter was in the basement, puzzling over the Dakota’s confusing wiring configuration when a strange figure materialized out of the shadows. He was short, wearing a frock coat and small, wireframed glasses. Most notably the man wore an extremely unconvincing wig that he would remove and shake at Paynter before vanishing in the same way he had appeared. This happened several times before he was shown a picture of Edward Clark and identified him conclusively.
One of the darker periods of activity began in 1976, following the death of famous Broadway set designer and Dakota resident Jo Meilzneir, who was killed by a cab outside the building. Again, it was during a period of great renovation, when elevators (coincidentally designed by Meilzneir) were being installed, among other improvements. Workers were assailed with flying objects, a can of paint fell from the rooftop, nearly killing a man, and bizarre incidents of vandalism were occurring. Specifically attacked were the wooden elevator panels, gouged with what appeared to be a massive blade. Even as they were replaced, the new ones were damaged under mysterious circumstances. Piles of shredded paper began appearing in odd areas about the building, as if someone were interrupted in the act of arson. Neighbors banded together in a covert surveillance effort to try and catch the culprit, but they only succeeded in discovering which of their neighbors were having affairs. In the end, they chalked it up to old Edward Clark, disgruntled over the alterations to his precious Dakota.
While Clark certainly didn’t build the Dakota over the gateway of Gozer the Gozarian, it has certainly reached legendary status for it’s hauntings and otherworldly atmosphere. Director Roman Polansky immortalized the iconic building in his cult classic, Rosemary’s Baby, using it as the exterior of his Satanist infested Bramford Apartments. Even today, residents still report strange happenings and unexplained phenomenon, qualifying it as one of the most haunted sites in New York, if not the entire United States.