The Dakota: New York’s First Luxury Apartment Building

More than a century after it helped usher in a new era in haute living, the Dakota still has a hold on the city’s imagination

Skaters in Central Park shortly after the Dakota was built. It's always been a standout.
Skaters in Central Park shortly after the Dakota was built. It’s always been a standout.

New York owes its skyline largely to speculators and egomaniacs, and Central Park’s perimeter is no exception. From the skyscrapers rising along 57th Street to the surprisingly large quantity of flash-in-the-pan luxury development that has gone up (and not infrequently come down) amidst the stately limestone behemoths and whimsical Art Deco towers, the area’s atmosphere of genteel timelessness can be somewhat deceptive. But never when it comes to the Dakota.

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Designed by Henry Hardenbergh—the architect who would go on to build the Plaza and the Waldorf-Astoria—and developed by Edward Clark, a lawyer who made his fortune as a co-founder of the Singer Sewing Company, the Dakota had an almost preternatural presence from the start. Though the oft-repeated tale that it was so named because the Upper West Side was as remote as the territory when the Dakota was built is untrue (Clark was simply charmed by Western names, so much so that he championed renaming Eighth, Ninth, 10th and 11th avenues Wyoming, Montana, Arizona and Idaho place, respectively), it was, from the beginning, a literal standout. When it was completed in 1884, there were few other buildings in its immediate vicinity, save for the recently constructed American Museum of Natural History and a smattering of rowhouses and shanties left over from the area’s quickly vanishing agrarian past.

The Northern facade of the Dakota, completed in 1884 and still a charmer. (Kenneth Grant)
The Northern facade of the Dakota, completed in 1884 and still a charmer. (Kenneth Grant)

But more significant than the role that the Dakota played in the west side’s development was the one it played in the city’s residential transformation. It was New York’s “first truly luxury apartment building,” architectural historian Andrew Alpern argues in his new book The Dakota: A History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building ($55, Princeton Architectural Press), which comes out on October 13.

The Dakota was the first apartment building well-designed enough to lure and keep the upper middle classes, who were reluctant to leave their brownstones for a form of housing associated with tenements. As Mr. Alpern notes, the Dakota had a number of antecedents, but it was the Dakota that finally won the city’s upper crust over to apartment living with features like 14-foot ceilings, oak and mahogany-paneled entertaining spaces, state-of-the-art kitchens, elevators and innovations that kept servants and delivery staff at beck, call and a seemly distance. The popularity of the building, whose 65 original apartments were all leased before the building’s completion, helped to usher in far denser residential development across the economic spectrum.

And unlike many other once-grand buildings that fell on hard times, the succession of owners who maintained the Dakota as a rental until it went co-op in 1961 never let the building’s opulent standards slip. The co-op board maintained it to the same level, even going so far as to restore all of the fireplaces to working order. Moreover, the Dakota has maintained its impressive stature without the stolidness of a 740 Park or 834 Fifth, its allure enhanced by the many famous artists, intellectuals and stars of stage and screen who have called it home: Lauren Bacall and Rudolf Nureyev, Leonard Bernstein, and of course John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Henry Hardenbergh, the architect, who went on to design the Plaza and the Waldorf-Astoria.
Henry Hardenbergh, the architect, who went on to design the Plaza and the Waldorf-Astoria.

The Observer recently conducted an interview with Mr. Alpern via email, during which we discussed the Dakota’s construction, its unique features and why it continues to exert such a strong pull on the collective imagination. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why does the Dakota remain such a source of fascination some 130 years after its construction? I believe that the Dakota is very well known for the wrong reasons. People all over the world connect it solely with the murder of John Lennon, especially as that horrible act took place at the instantly recognizable grand entrance to the building. And of course the continuing residency there of his widow Yoko Ono has kept the spotlight trained on the building. Although much diminished now, the scene setting at the Dakota of the movie Rosemary’s Baby added to the building’s worldwide visibility.

Do you think any more recently constructed residential buildings will have the same kind of magnetism? Part of the reason the Dakota has a hold on the imagination is its great age, and its appearance as a relic of an earlier time. Most of the comparable buildings of that period have disappeared, and those that remain can’t hold a candle to the visual impact of the Dakota. It is a unique landmark, very different from every other luxury apartment house in the city, and far older and bigger than most of them. The Osborne on West 57th Street and the Gramercy on East 20th Street are the same age, but they were lesser lights to begin with, and they never developed a mystique such as the Dakota has. There are no recently constructed buildings that I see as ever being capable of developing such a magnetism.

dakotabkYou write about the role of the apartment hotel—how it led to the development of the apartment house but was itself quickly outmoded. What were some of the major differences of the Dakota that marked it for extreme longevity? It appears that initially the Clark/Hardenbergh team was planning a very grand residential hotel, where the tenants would make the place their permanent residence, but where all the amenities of a hotel would be provided. The nomenclature then was “family hotel” and the included restaurant would be open to both residents and the general public. For some reason, they decided fairly early to make the restaurant a private one exclusively for the residents and their guests, but to keep many of the other hotel-like features. The Dakota survived perhaps because its ownership was held by an exceedingly wealthy family that was not dependent on the rental income.

You write about how the Dakota was the first true luxury apartment building. What features set it apart from the other early apartment buildings? The things that made the Dakota extra special and a real pioneer (and why it qualifies as the first truly luxury apartment house in New York) was space and amenity inside each apartment: very large rooms and lots of them, very high ceilings, all the materials, finishes and details that could be found in a really grand one-family house, the latest in modern equipment in the kitchens and bathrooms, electric lights in all the rooms and the public spaces (generated on site by the Dakota’s own dynamos); also size and grandeur in the building itself (developer Clark said that only very few people could afford to build a palace to live in, but his tenants could afford to live in a palace that he would build). Plus there was a rooftop promenade and play spaces for children on the roof as well (with views in all directions for miles around).

The decorative ironwork on the dry moat. (ScoutingNY)
The decorative ironwork on the dry moat. (ScoutingNY)

What the dry moat a common feature of the time? A dry moat around a building creates a double advantage of providing light to the basement and protection and privacy to the first floor apartments. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries when sidewalks were wider than today, it was a very common feature of upscale buildings. Even with the incursion of a moat, there was still a wide enough sidewalk. When increased traffic throughout the city was the impetus to widen the roadways of the streets and avenues, stoops were shorn off residences, and moats were filled in, to the detriment of many grand buildings. Then building laws were changed to bar new ones from being constructed, as they trespass onto the public space beyond the property ownership line.

The apartment of late actress Lauren Bacall, which is listed with Warburg at $23 million and is currently in contract.
The apartment of late actress Lauren Bacall, which is listed with Warburg at $23 million and is currently in contract.

Do you believe that any developers or architects working now are as astute at responding to unseen needs and desires of their clientele as Clark and Hardenbergh were? The architect who immediately comes to mind is Robert A.M. Stern. Bob has the something extra that Hardenbergh obviously had—the ability to understand the goals of the developer and to craft a project proposal in which his own ego (not insignificant) is subservient to that of the builder (often even bigger). Akin to what Hardenbergh did at the Dakota, Bob takes ideas of luxury living giant strides ahead of the competition and then works with the developer to loosen the budget sufficiently to make the added investment that will allow Bob’s ideas to be realized. He did that spectacularly with 15 Central Park West, where he and the Zeckendorfs created an over-the-top level of luxury that became instantly desirable amongst the über-rich. Proof of the concept is evident in the astronomical resale prices that apartments there have fetched.

At the time of the building’s construction, the decision was made to put the main entrance on 72nd Street rather than Central Park West, which would seem unimaginable to a developer today. Many of the finest buildings in New York are accessed from the side street. The grand limestone-fronted masterpiece by McKim Mead and White at 998 Fifth Avenue has a grand 50-foot-long iron-and-glass marquee protecting its massive entrance doors on East 81st Street. There are practical reasons for this, as it’s easier and less obtrusive to come and go on a less-trafficked side street than on a major avenue. Many other newer buildings have the best of both worlds by keeping both avenue and side-street entrances open and manned. 15 Central Park West does that with its entrance driveway on 62nd Street and its pedestrian doorway on CPW.  

Bacall's dining room—note how small the table and chairs look.
Bacall’s dining room—note how small the table and chairs look.

The Dakota remained a rental until 1961. However, there had been co-op schemes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Why did the co-op take so long to catch on? The earliest co-ops were the Hubert Home Clubs, of which The Chelsea was one. They were hybrids that provided rental apartments whose income subsidized the maintenance of the building for the resident owners. They needed to be professionally managed, and that was done with mixed success. It is only with the generally-rising economic markets we have been experiencing since the end of World War II and the improved laws governing co-ops, that they have flourished.

When the Dakota opened it had some of the most modern amenities, but it now lacks many of those found in new skyscrapers, like pools, yoga and Pilates rooms, conference centers, etc. What constitutes a luxury building has changed dramatically over the years. In the 1880s, a single bathroom would have sufficed even for three or four bedrooms, because small sinks in built-in marble countertops would be placed in closets for convenience, and people simply didn’t look on bathroom usage the way we do today. Closet space for clothing in today’s luxury apartments covers far more square footage than ever in the past. To bring the complement of bathrooms and closets up to modern standards, luxury buyers often sacrifice other space and make significant and expensive alterations. Some accept these burdens because they like the elegance and cachet of an older building. Others require all the bells and whistles of a new project. It is one of the drivers of New York’s real estate market that the city can support both camps.

The film Rosemary's Baby used the Dakota for exterior shots—and it would seem, inspiration—though the interior scenes were filmed elsewhere. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images)
The film Rosemary’s Baby used the Dakota for exterior shots—and it would seem, inspiration—though the interior scenes were filmed elsewhere. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images)

The building is known for being home to actresses, intellectuals, dancers and famous artists. But the early residents had quite staid jobs, as your book illustrates—bankers, lawyers, businessmen. When and how did the building’s population shift to more artistic residents? In the beginning, it was the staid segment of New York’s population that had the money to afford the luxury-level rents that the Clark family charged for the apartments. Over time, alternative newer buildings were constructed that appealed to the wealthy of the city, who have always wanted the newest and the best. But the Dakota remained a visually unique and romantic-looking building, which appealed to intellectuals and those in the arts.

Was there anything that surprised you greatly in the course of researching this book? In looking very closely at the many early photographs of the building that I uncovered, I was very surprised to discover how several aspects of the building’s architecture developed over time. In particular, I had always assumed that the pair of grandly huge gas-powered wall-mounted lights flanking the entrance were original to the building. They certainly look eminently suitable and venerable. In fact, they were late additions, as was the copper-clad sentry box and the pair of cast-iron urns on circular pedestals.

One of your previous books is Holdouts! about little buildings that stood in the way of big developments, which you co-authored with the late Seymour Durst. How did the collaboration come about? Seymour was an old friend with whom I would periodically have dinner. Our conversation would range widely, but would often center around some current problem he was having in creating a property assemblage that he hoped would eventually be the site of a full-block office-building project. He personally dealt with the holdouts he encountered. One especially memorable conversation included stories of several past holdout situations he had experienced or knew about. When I said, “Seymour, there’s a story for a book there,” he responded, “So write it!” 

The Dakota: New York’s First Luxury Apartment Building