The website for 432 Park Ave., the tallest residential spire in the Western Hemisphere and latest Manhattan investment for the super rich, boasts the building’s amenities: a billiards room, a spa, and apartments with marble panels and extraordinary views. Sounds great. Too bad another New York icon has had those beat … for the past 131 years.
The Dakota, located on the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West, was one of the first luxury apartment buildings in New York and certainly the most lavish. The list of features included in historian Andrew Alpern’s coming book, The Dakota: A History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building, would make the average New Yorker weep: tennis courts, marble staircases, oak- and mahogany-paneled dining rooms, 14-foot ceilings, ornate fireplaces, and, of course, those Central Park views. The book is loaded with original floor plans, historic images of the interiors, and profiles of the building’s many notable residents through the years.
The irony is that when the building was completed in 1884, unlike 432 Park Ave., it wasn’t meant for the super rich—it was built and marketed to the aspirational upper-middle class. The first recorded list of residents mentions stockbrokers, lawyers, dry goods manufacturers, and a Mr. Albert Griesbach, whose stated occupation was “linens.” Rents ranged from $1,000 to $5,600 per year.
(The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator goes back only to 1913, when $1,000 was equivalent to $24,000 in today’s dollars.) In a reversal from the present day, the first seven floors were originally designed for the building’s residents, while the eighth and ninth floors—hotter, harder to get to, and, as a result of the pitched roof, cramped with low ceilings—were reserved for staff apartments.
In his charming 1979 book, Life at the Dakota: New York’s Most Unusual Address, Stephen Birmingham wrote of the ninth floor that “one felt as though one had left the Dakota and New York completely, and had stepped into the passageways of some strange, gone-to-seed hotel in the British Midlands.” In what is surely one of the best euphemisms in architectural history, Birmingham also noted that the ninth floor had gradually become home to many transient “young men [with] theatrical ambitions.”
It was in just the early 1960s when the Dakota became a co-op, and in the resultant years, Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Rudolph Nureyev, Judy Garland, and, perhaps most famously, John Lennon and Yoko Ono became residents; the building began to take on a cult status. The movie Rosemary’s Baby, which used exterior shots of the Dakota and featured a 19-year-old Mia Farrow running around its palatial hallways (though those were filmed elsewhere), solidified the building’s fame. Then Lennon’s assassination, which occurred in the building’s archway, cemented its infamy.
In a sense, the Dakota’s history as told through Alpern’s book is the same story as New York’s.
When it was built, much of upper Manhattan was still farmland. Accordingly, Alpern includes an 1881 clipping from the Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide, which deems the promise of the future apartment building “a marvelous change on the West Side.” Just four years later, as the first residential apartment boom was under way, Alpern includes a triumphant 1885 article from the same publication that calls the Dakota “one of the noblest apartment houses of the world.” By 1932, three years after the stock market crash and three decades after the novelty of elevators had worn off for most city residents, a piece from the New Yorker refers to the Dakota merely as a “solid, commodious, respectable building.” Thirty years after that, as similar buildings were being torn down across New York, there’s a clip from House & Garden magazine that calls it “the famous septuagenarian chateau on Central Park West.”
In another respect, however, the Dakota is in a league of its own, in large part because of its original owners, the Clark family—made wealthy by the Singer Sewing fortune—who acted more like benevolent parents than like landlords for the better part of 75 years. It’s unclear whether the Dakota was ever a profitable enterprise (when it opened, it had a staff of 150, which doesn’t include maids and cooks employed by individual households who lived in the upper floors), and, as Birmingham notes in his book, “rents were hardly ever raised” until it became a co-op in the 1960s.
There’s also the fact that those amenities, that architecture, and, again—let’s linger on it for a moment—that location are extraordinary. At this point, the Dakota is one of the most exclusive addresses in the city. According to StreetEasy.com, the building has six active listings (three active, three in contract), the cheapest of which is a four-room apartment on the market for $3.6 million. And yes: Glassy condominiums with $100 million penthouses do keep popping up like weeds along 57th Street. None, however, have been able to challenge the quiet grandeur of the Dakota.
To be fair, it’s had a century-long head start.
The Dakota: A History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building by Andrew Alpern will be available on Oct. 13 from Princeton Architectural Press.
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