I’ve hung wallpaper in each of the six apartments I’ve rented in New York. Well, I’ve tacked it up with pushpins—a renter’s hack I’ve used to cover bare walls with kitschy florals and stippled forest scenes. I do it with every move, the same way I adhere contact paper to cracked countertops and roll area rugs over imperfect parquet floors. Living here, you learn to improve on apartments that are worse for the wear of countless tenants, and those who do it best can swiftly make second-hand space seem custom-built. They switch out the fixtures and paper the walls until the rooms cohere in a self-contained universe, a place that says “You are here, now. Separate from whoever came before you, safe from whatever sits outside your door.”
Ask me about a truly successful apartment upgrade and I’ll refer you to Rosemary Woodhouse (you know, the one with the baby). Hers was the ultimate Manhattan real estate success story, right up until it wasn’t. When she and Guy follow their realtor into the Bramford, up the elevator and into the unit (apartment 7E, though the placard looks a bit like 13), you can tell she has designs on the place. “Originally the smallest apartment was a nine—they’ve been broken up into fours, fives, and sixes,” the realtor says, explaining the floorplan. “Now 7E is a four, originally the back part of a 10.” Subdividing, like straphanging, is a fact of New York living—but four rooms are plenty for Woodhouses, childless for now. Rosemary gasps at the size of the living room, at the picture window looking out into the city. Nevermind that the apartment is dark and swollen with clutter: that the chandeliers hang close, the molding is outdated, the stained glass mottled and fussy. She appraises everything with housewifely acumen, then starts talking like an old issue of Vogue: “Yellow and white wallpaper would brighten it tremendously,” she says. A hulking secretary blocks access to the hall closet. We know it is a warning, we note how its broken pediment looks like a pair of horns. She simply waits for the men to move it out of the way, freeing the door so she can access the vacuum.
Afterwards the couple rehash their visit, debating location and commute and price in the timeless dialectic you can still see on HGTV today. Rosemary knows there is potential. “Oh Guy, let’s take it please? That living room could be…” and then she trails off, overwhelmed by the possibilities.
When they do take the apartment, I am always relieved but also incredulous. Happy that they seized the opportunity, doubtful that they can afford the rent, or secure the co-op’s approval. In the film the building is called the Bramford, but of course it is the Dakota, the 134-year-old, 10-story Beaux Arts manse on 72nd and Central Park West. You see it best during the opening and closing credits when the camera glides across its spiky roofline, studded with gables, dormers, and sickly blue-green copper fittings. The National Register of Historic Places calls the architectural style “German Renaissance”—it evokes fairytale castles and the kind of Romantic sensibility that can quickly turn Gothic.
Rosemary’s Baby was Roman Polanski’s first Hollywood film, and the Polish director relied heavily on production designer Richard Sylbert to find the perfect embodiment of the Bramford. It didn’t take long. He immediately suggested the Dakota. “Roman didn’t know New York. I spent 35 years there,” Sylbert later said in This Is No Dream: Making Rosemary’s Baby. “There’s not a place in the book I didn’t know.” The team could only secure permission for exterior shots, so Sylbert visited with his good friend Lauren Bacall, who kept an apartment at the Dakota. The production designer sketched her floor plan, then rebuilt it in Hollywood, right up to the 13-foot ceilings.
In real life, the building was home to not just Bacall, but also Leonard Bernstein, Judy Garland, Lillian Gish, and Yoko Ono and John Lennon, who would be killed outside its gates in 1980. In Rosemary’s Baby, it housed malevolent tenants like the baby-eating Trench Sisters and Satanist Adrian Mercato. With their cavernous rooms, million-dollar views, and tony addresses, apartments like these are the definition of wish fulfillment for many New Yorkers. Nora Ephron, who lived for almost 30 years at the Apthorp (a similarly storied pile) described her tenancy there as a life-changing romance. “I fell madly in love,” she writes in The New Yorker. “This was it. At first sight. Eureka.” And later: “I honestly believed that at the lowest moment in my adult life I’d been rescued by a building.”
It sounds extreme, but then many New Yorkers are deeply invested in their apartments. At parties here, the unasked question isn’t so much what you make, but what you pay in rent. The city attracts a population of highly-driven, unsentimental careerists, the kind of people who might walk through your front door and offhandedly say “I’d give my firstborn for this place,” and no one would bat an eye.
There are a million clichéd narratives you can latch onto after you move to New York to justify the soaring rents and the stink of garbage in summer. Mine was an essay by Joan Didion—“Goodbye to All That”—which was more about leaving the city than staying there. It was published in 1968, the same year Rosemary’s Baby premiered. When I spent my sophomore summer interning at a magazine in Manhattan, I went so far as to paint a quote from that essay on the bedroom wall of my Bushwick apartment, a line so earnest I won’t repeat it. Instead I’ll quote this part, about Didion’s dreamlike transience here: “It was difficult in the extreme for me to understand those young women for whom New York was not simply an ephemeral Estoril but a real place, girls who bought toasters and installed new cabinets in their apartments and committed themselves to some reasonable future.”
Rosemary is one of those girls. The morning after she and Guy make love in the empty living room (the moving boxes and Chinese takeout and beer cans right next to them, the city light pouring in from the picture window, the ragged romance of two scrappy kids on the make) she sets to work, requisitioning a team of workmen in my favorite kind of montage: the home reno. Here a man rolls high-gloss white paint over old wallpaper. Here another hangs new wallpaper, a yellow-green print that screams flower child. In the hall, up goes an architectural pendant lamp. In the bedroom, a man unrolls a white shag rug with a flourish. A team of movers carry furniture to the living room like a trail of ants. Rosemary hangs tapestry-like curtains, she lines the shelves in the hall closet with green gingham contact paper. She is here to stay.
“Roman said to me, ‘Let’s make ‘em think we’re doing a Doris Day movie,’” Sylbert said. And Rosemary’s finished apartment does have that covetable, commercial gleam. Post-makeover, it is the stuff of #TransformationTuesday—lifestyle eye candy so anachronously suited to Instagram I find myself sharing a screenshot or two on the app every time I watch. Almost overnight, their apartment goes from Old-World enclave—all dark wood trim and gilded frames—to sleek Scandinavian aerie.
When neighboring tenant Minnie Castevet makes her first visit, she remarks on every detail (“Look how you put the table! Now, isn’t that interesting?” “I saw it in a magazine,” Rosemary tells her) no doubt comparing the decor to that of the last, late tenant. In the bedroom, the walls are papered in a field of flowers. In the kitchen, the appliances are brand new and butter yellow. The living room is the purest expression of Rosemary’s taste. The furniture is simple and low to the ground, upholstered in shades of mossy green. The room is dotted with stacked floor cushions, the last word in bohemian casual. The wide picture window is ringed with built-in seating and framed by gauzy golden curtains (“All I ever did to that apartment was hang 50 yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows,” Didion wrote in that old essay.) Tabletops are dotted with pin-thin candleholders and tasteful nude torsos.
It is so perfectly hip, so deeply appropriate for Mod role model Mia Farrow, that the interiors mostly hold up today. It’s like something out of a magazine, but it’s also deeply relatable—an editorial you could walk right into without taking off your shoes. That’s thanks to Sylbert, who constructed each room so faithfully Mia Farrow once spent the night there. “It was a real apartment,” Farrow said in Designing Movies, a memoir of Sylbert’s life in film. “It had a wood burning fireplace and I fell asleep in a real bed, and it was a real kitchen and I had a real blender and a real stove. It was just an authentic apartment.”
When Renata Adler reviewed the film for The New York Times in 1968, she said as much. “It is almost too extremely plausible,” she writes. “The quality of the young people’s lives seems the quality of lives that one knows.” To Adler, that is the essential flaw of the film. It’s certainly the flaw that undoes Rosemary. For months, she convinces herself that nothing is out of the ordinary because her life looks so ordinary. She’s not swanning through some Gothic castle or scaling the rickety stairs of a haunted house. She’s sewing seat covers and cooking rare steaks on the seventh floor of a New York apartment building. She is doing the laundry. She has bought the toaster and hung the cabinets, and a woman who does those things can’t entertain the idea of the devil.
Thomassons are architectural relics that persist after they’ve stopped serving any purpose. My friend Laura taught me the word while we sat in the shoebox bedroom of my third apartment and stared at the explicable metal knob protruding from the wall. We guessed it had once been part of the heating system, and eventually I hung a mirror off of it (purpose: restored). After that, I started seeing thomassons everywhere in that apartment.
I lived then with two other roommates on the second floor of a Crown Heights brownstone, an 1860s, single-family home that had since been subdivided into four units. Because of that, none of the pieces fit together quite right. Poorly built walls and heavy steel entryways marred every stairway landing. The hinged transom windows over our bedroom doors, initially devised for better ventilation, had been painted over and nailed shut to meet new fire codes. My bedroom was so small I kept my clothes in a deep closet off the hallway. It was so deep, in fact, I didn’t even notice the plastered-over archway at the back of it until the lease was almost up. It was a ghost door—a remnant of the building’s original plan, when our floor would have held a series of salons, one opening onto the next, instead of a warren of self-contained bedrooms.
When the Dakota opened in 1884, it boasted 65 apartments (all of them let), in layouts ranging from four to 20 rooms. Like my brownstone, the floor plan was designed so that one room opened gracefully onto the next along a central axis; making it easier for the inhabitants to move between spaces and offering deep, open vistas. At the Dakota, they call this type of layout enfilade. In the less glamorous places I have lived, it’s called a railroad apartment. Outside the city, it’s a shotgun house.
But let the Dakotans keep their graces. At the Bramford, Rosemary never benefits from those vistas. Despite the white paint, the minimal decoration, the low furniture, Rosemary’s apartment is stifling. The production designer secured the set with catches instead of nails, so walls could easily be removed to achieve the best possible camera angles, and still the place feels airless. The only consistent view with any depth comes from the end of a long corridor, facing the front door, and even those shots are wide-angle. Polanski said he wanted the apartment to “always be overwhelming Rosemary, to have it even curve, if we can do that, so the walls are enveloping her.”
Throughout the film we return to that view—as voyeurs crouched at the end of the corridor—and it’s only the last 10 minutes that we understand why. It turns out Rosemary has a thomasson too, right there in her hall closet. After a few days on ice in the air-conditioned hum of her bedroom, she suspects her lost child may not be so lost after all. She pulls a baby-blue housecoat over her nightgown, steps into her slippers, pads across the shag rug and down the hall to that closet, where rows of yellow and white towels and sheets sit neatly stacked. She tears them off to discover a hidden door—one wall she never thought to paint or paper over. Beyond it lies the Castevet’s apartment, the other six rooms to her four, the palette black and red and foreboding, the artwork steeped in occult symbolism. It’s the inverse of Rosemary’s modern nest, and all along it’s been bleeding through into her home like a poisonous gas.
So she fetches a chef’s knife, holds it to her chest and crosses the threshold, an image of twist domesticity that will only grow stranger when she approaches that catafalque-as-cradle.
There is so much wrong with Rosemary’s Baby. The spineless, conniving husband. The predatory neighbors. The druggings and the assassinations and the rape. But when I’m finished fawning over the interiors and guessing at the square footage of that Bramford two-bedroom, the part that chills me most is the hall closet sitting behind the camera lens. We spend so much time and money and effort on our homes. They’re the sets we build to help us inhabit a character. In buying the right cushions and picking the perfect shade of eggshell we are shoring up a sense of self—something doubly important in a city like New York, where every waking moment spent past your front door is overwhelmingly communal, surveilled, public. In our apartments, at least, we can let our guard down, be ourselves. How unnerving then, to realize you were never really safe there. That what you thought was a wall was a door all along.