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People iceskating in Central Park, with the Dakota in the background, from ‘Shepp’s New York City Illustrated’ (1894) (all images courtesy Princeton Architectural Press)

There’s no shortage of myths and legends about the Dakota, that formidable, castle-like apartment building at West 72nd Street and Central Park West in Manhattan. There’s the unshakeable attachment to the 1980 murder of John Lennon just outside, and Yoko Ono’s continued residency. There’s its turn as the exterior of the eerie home of Mia Farrow and her tormenting satanists in Roman Polanski’s 1968 Rosemary’s Baby. And like any old structure, it has its share of ghost stories, including, as related on a recent Bowery Boys podcast, the specter of its developer Edward Clark.

Cover of ‘The Dakota: A History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building’ (click to enlarge)

You won’t find any of that in the new book The Dakota: A History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building by Andrew Alpern, out last month from Princeton Architectural Press. Instead, the architectural historian is interested in the Dakota’s 19th-century beginnings, and how the completion of the building in 1884 by Clark influenced apartment-style living in New York City and beyond. Clark was a co-founder of the Singer Sewing Company, and with architect Henry Hardenbergh, whose designs were also behind the Plaza and the now-demolished Waldorf and Astoria hotels, envisioned a goliath structure with peaking roofs, and even a dry moat bordered with iron dragons. “Clark’s project was the pioneer, and unquestionably the first truly luxury apartment building in New York,” Alpern writes.

For The Dakota, Alpern sourced descriptions from the writing of architectural historian Christopher Gray, who shared his articles for mining, and collaborated with architect Mia Ho on recreating floor plans from rental plans, alteration drawings, and other sources because “the original architectural drawings for the Dakota have eluded discovery.” Interestingly, the plan for the Dakota wasn’t to be an astronomically priced palace, as it is today, but something for the upper-middle class.

Pages from ‘The Dakota: A History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building’ (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

Pages from ‘The Dakota: A History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building’ (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

Contrary to popular belief, the Dakota didn’t get its name for being so far from Manhattan civilization that it might as well be the Upper Midwest. Alpern writes that “while it is true that when the Dakota was built there was little in its immediate area, that ‘little’ included the American Museum of Natural History, the fast elevated trains running up what is now Columbus Avenue, and several score of row houses.” He adds that “everyone agreed on the great prospects for the area: The El made commuting downtown from the West Side faster than by surface transit from much father south, and Central Park had been a major tourist attraction for a decade … West Side terra was hardly incognita, or even Dakota.”

Still, the Renaissance-inspired building was a contrast to the low constructions around it, which felt rural in many ways. A whimsical drawing from an 1889 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper shows country homes with goats and ducks running free, and the startling silhouette of the Dakota looming behind. The area had been gridded since the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, waiting for the population to push north. With its 60+ apartments, some with up to 20 rooms, all with high ceilings, fine wood walls, and staircases built from marble, it aimed for a new kind of communal living for a city where the wealthier classes were interested in opulent convenience.

Along with other buildings going up at the same time like the Osborne, Navarro, and the Gramercy, the Dakota was pivotal in introducing New York City to the idea of living in apartments as desirable, even elitist. Long before famous names like Judy Garland, Rudolf Nureyev, Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Boris Karloff, and numerous others made it an iconic status symbol, it was a reflection of the city’s growth and emerging 20th-century character.

A romanticized drawing of the Dakota, from ‘Frank Leslie’s Newspaper’ (September 7, 1889)

Pencil drawing of the Dakota entrance by Richard Britell

Possibly the earliest image of the Dakota, taken from a lantern slide, while still under construction, with the Central Park statue of Daniel Webster, in bronze on a granite pedestal, sculpted by Thomas Ball and erected in 1876, just four years before work on the Dakota began. (courtesy of Brian Merlis)

Early image of the Dakota with the Langham Apartments 
at 135 Central Park 
West, completed in 1906. The sentry box for the guard has been replaced by a sign that warns visitors that “Any Person Taking Flowers or Leaves or defacing shrubbery in any Portion of the Park will be detained or Arrested and Punished.” (1910) (Detroit Publishing Co.)

The west façade of the Dakota (1889) (courtesy Office for Metropolitan History)

A pre-1891 image of the Dakota, with the statue of Daniel Webster in Central Park

A pencil drawing of the Dakota over a tinted gesso base by Richard Britell

The Dakota from the northeast, with the 1930 Majestic Apartments at 115 Central Park West at the left (photo by Kenneth Grant)

The Dakota: A History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building by Andrew Alpern is out now from Princeton Architectural Press.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

2 replies on “The Decadent Dakota: New York’s Luxury Apartment Pioneer”

  1. If you are in love with this building, I highly recommend the fun novel “Time and Again” by Jack Finney. It’s a time-travel romp that hinges on the Dakota and has lots of period illustrations (including from Frank Leslie’s).

  2. What great history portrayed in the article! When I was looking for condos over at corcoran.com I found out about The Dakota just by looking around and researching the area and was taken back by how much history that building has and what influence it has had in real estate.

    Now that I pass by it everyday on the way to work I always take it in.

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