New York City's Iconic Dakota Helped Gild the Gilded Age

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
The Dakota apartment building, once an isolated behemoth in an empty part of town, is now surrounded by the constant thrum of traffic on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. ullstein bild/Getty Images

The HBO series "The Gilded Age" depicted the lavish homes of old-money families and rising industrial tycoons on New York City's Upper East Side in the 1880s, where a stretch of magnificent mansions on Fifth Avenue became known as Millionaire's Row.

But at the same time, across Central Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, another architectural masterpiece arose that arguably had a much greater impact upon life in America's biggest city.


The Dakota, an elegant multifamily building located at West 72nd Street and Central Park West, probably is most famous today as the place where ex-Beatle John Lennon once resided, before his murder in 1980. But there's much more to the Dakota. When it was completed back in 1884, the Dakota was envisioned as a place that would popularize the idea of European-style apartment living for affluent New Yorkers and was designed to provide them with everything that one of New York's single-family brownstone houses could offer. In doing so, it became a major influence upon how people lived in the city. It also played a role in transforming the Upper West Side from a distant, undesirable location into one of the world's most valuable stretches of real estate.

As local architectural historians explain, the Dakota also is a New York landmark with a story so quirky and compelling that even Julian Fellowes might be hard-pressed to make it up.


The Beginnings of New York City Apartment Culture

When the Dakota was built, the idea of apartment living in New York was still fairly new, and architects and developers were busy trying to figure out what would attract Americans to rent a living space in a big building they shared with a lot of other people, instead of living in a house. In the 1870s, a few early apartment houses sprung up in Manhattan, including The Albany at Broadway and 51st Street. But the living spaces inside tended to be small and didn't let in much outside light. Even so, those prototypes apparently intrigued a developer named Edward Cabot Clark.

"Clark was president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company and very rich, so he had lots of money to invest," explains Andrew Alpern. He's an architect, attorney, historian and author of the 2015 book "The Dakota: A History of the World's Best-Known Apartment Building." "He saw this and said, I can do better."


Clark and his architect, Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, started out with the Van Corlear, a five-story red brick building with 36 apartments on Seventh Avenue between 55th and 56th streets that was modeled after The Albany, but with an improved design. "The rooms were much larger, the apartments were larger, and it had a large courtyard, so there was much better light and air," Alpern says. In addition, it had elevators and a driveway with a ramp that allowed horse-drawn wagons to descend into the basement to make deliveries to residents. The building also contained opulent touches, including Spanish mosaic floor tiles in the hallways, vestibules and landings, and possibly an intercom and bell system, as this 2006 article from The New York Times details. When the Van Corlear opened in 1878, its apartments — which were described at the time as "a strictly foreign mode of living" — rented so quickly that Clark knew he was onto something.

The Dakota apartment building soon after its completion in 1884. Central Park West was still a dirt road at this time.
Library of Congress

A year later, Clark focused upon an expansive piece of land on the Upper West Side that belonged to Jacob Henry Schiff, the financier who had played a key role in industrializing the U.S. in the late 19th century. "His idea was that he would build a really nice house there, but his wife threatened divorce," explains Mosette Broderick, a clinical professor of art history at New York University, and an authority in the area of 19th- and 20th-century architecture and urbanism. "So he sold the land to Clark."

To help finance the project, Clark built a row of brownstone single-family homes on West 73rd Street, and pumped the rent money into the new building's construction budget. "He was a smart businessman," Alpern explains.

The Dakota was bigger than the Van Corlear and built from lighter-colored brick and sandstone. Architecturally, it also was more adventurous as well. Though some sources describe it as a blend of German Gothic, French Renaissance and English Victorian, Broderick says that Hardenbergh didn't really follow any particular style. "It's a design that is odd," she says. "It pops up and pops out, and has these big gables and does all sorts of things. And it is kind of unrestrained."

Additionally Clark had Hardenbergh make it even more luxurious, with bigger apartments and rooms and fancier detailing, according to Alpern.

"The rooms were laid out very cleverly, so that a visitor would not get a glimpse of the family of the individual apartments," Broderick says. "If someone came over and sat in the parlor, she couldn't see that your bed was unmade."

"There are lots of little window seats which have a blind from the inside," Broderick notes. "So if you're sitting there and the sun changes its course, you could slightly alter the blind and continue reading." Additionally, "the kitchen even had a little balcony. So that if you had in a summer a wet mop or garbage, or whatever that might smell, you can put it up there so that it wouldn't cast any odor within the kitchen itself."

The Dakota is surrounded to this day by its original Zeus and serpent cast iron fence.
Library of Congress

But the design also retained some of the Van Corlear's innovations, including the delivery ramp to the basement, beneath the outdoor courtyard where carriages would turn around after delivering passengers. Additionally, Clark built a boiler house behind the Dakota, and laid insulated pipes to bring steam and hot water into the building, an innovation that protected against fires and explosions. The building was even equipped with its own small generating plant to provide electricity, an innovation that had just been demonstrated by Thomas Edison.

The Dakota also featured amenities such as private tennis and croquet courts, according to Stephen Birmingham's book "Life at the Dakota: New York's Most Unusual Address."

Clark, who died in 1882, sadly never got a chance to see his completed masterpiece. As a visionary, Alpern likens him to a late 19th-century version of Steve Jobs. When it came to apartment living, "he invented something new, just as Jobs did with his iPhone, and made it so luxurious that he created a need that people didn't know they had. Jobs did it with his electronics, while Clark did it with his building."


From Business Owners to Entertainment's Elite

Clark's plan was to market the Dakota to New Yorkers who were well-to-do executives and professionals, but not robber-baron wealthy — the sort of folks who might otherwise have lived in a three-story brownstone. At a time when apartments were mostly occupied by widows or widowers, or people waiting for relatives to die off so they could inherit their house, the Dakota was a risky business proposition, Broderick notes. To make things even edgier, it was located in what then was a largely undeveloped part of Manhattan.

Little wonder that some people derided the Dakota as "Clark's Folly," according to Birmingham's book.


Contrary to that prediction, the Dakota was fully rented before it even opened, with well-to-do business owners and their families flocking to the place. Unlike the musicians and actors who later occupied the Dakota, early tenants included presidents of banks, mining companies, railroads and sugar refineries, according to Birmingham's book. Other residents included the Adams sisters, who were heirs to a chewing gum company fortune.

The Dakota's presence also stimulated the development of the Upper West Side and led to other developers building luxury apartment houses — the Osborne, the Graham Court, the Ansonia and the Majestic, among others. In imitation of the Dakota's formula, they all offered big rooms with high ceilings, according to Birmingham.

The filigree gates at the entrance to the Dakota provide a peek into the porte cochere where Gilded Age carriages picked up and dropped off passengers. It was here that John Lennon was shot Dec. 8, 1980.

The Upper West Side took off even more in the early 1900s, after New York City rescinded a law that had restricted the height of multifamily buildings. After World War I, "they pull down the old row houses and build multiple dwelling units," Broderick notes.

The Dakota evolved as well. The building's population eventually shifted, with the bank presidents giving way to Hollywood stars such as Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Boris Karloff and composer Leonard Bernstein, according to Birmingham's book. Ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev was another famous resident, according to a 2015 article. Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono moved there in 1973, according to The New York Times.