The Dakota is home to NYC celebrities
"One of the most perfect apartment houses in the world.”
–New York Times
Lauren Bacall’s recent passing revealed some interesting aspects of her life in her New York home: The Dakota, the historic co-op apartment building at Central Park and West 72nd Street.
One of the stories circulating about Bacall involved a brief encounter she had with a Dakota doorman on his first day on the job.
The movie megastar, known for her distinctively husky voice and her curt New York attitude, was stopped by the doorman as she attempted to get in the building and he asked where she was going. After getting chewed out by Bacall he pleaded ignorance. “How was I supposed to know it was you?” he asked. “The voice,” she replied. “The voice.”
Bacall isn’t the only star who has kept the Dakota staff on its toes. The building is filled with celebrities paying rents between $4 million and $30 million and consequently the edifice itself has reached superstar status.
The Dakota is probably best known as John Lennon’s home and the spot where he was gunned down in 1980 as he returned home from a recording session in Midtown.
People have been raving about the nine-story building for over a century. After its 1884 opening, The New York Times describes it as “one of the most perfect apartment houses in the world.”
The concept for this stunning structure in the now upscale community of the Upper West Side came from visionary Edward Clark, half owner and president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.
In the late 19th century, the Midtown area was centered around 23rd Street and paved boulevards turned to dirt roads as they headed north. At the time, the Upper West Side was a piecemeal collection of small settlements, vacant lots and farmland sprinkled with dilapidated country houses and shabby saloons.
1880s: Dakota dominates skyline
With the planned expansion of the 9th Avenue elevated railway line on the horizon, Clark anticipated New York City’s developments soon would spread north along the west side of Manhattan.
The multimillionaire purchased $5 million in real estate in his target area and built row houses along 73rd Street and working-class tenements on Columbus Avenue. He reserved the Dakota, adjacent to the newly opened Central Park, as an exclusive home for the wealthy.
Clark challenged architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, who later designed the Plaza Hotel, to produce a unique design that would attract New Yorkers to move to the area. According to legend, the isolated location gave the building its name, as it once appeared to be as remote and empty as the Dakota Territory. “The name caught on,” according to The Times, “and (Clark) made it official.”
With its unique layout and blend of architectural styles – German Gothic, French Renaissance and English Victorian – Hardenbergh’s building accomplished Clark’s mission and today remains one of the most sought-after addresses in the city.
Well-known Dakota residents:
- Lauren Bacall
- Leonard Bernstein
- Connie Chung
- F. Ambrose Clark, grandson of the original building owner
- José Ferrer
- Roberta Flack
- Rosemary Clooney
- José Ferrer, actor
- Roberta Flack
- Yoko Ono
- Judy Garland
- Lillian Gish
- Steve Guttenberg
- Judy Holliday
- Boris Karloff
- John Lennon
- Sean Lennon
- John Madden
- Joe Namath
- Jack Palance
- Rudolf Nureyev
- Yoko Ono
- Maury Povich
- Gilda Radner
- Rex Reed
- Robert Ryan
- Neil Sedaka
The elegant structure, some called "Clark's Folly," was built between 1880 and 1884 for $2 million ($48.8 million in today’s money).
The Dakota is also notable for its new concept of urban dwelling, which impacted U.S. city lifestyles. Before its opening, well to do New Yorkers lived in houses with their servants because the cramped city apartments were not considered suitable for the wealthy.
Instead of each apartment dweller having his/her own servants, the Dakota provided maids, janitors, laundresses, elevator operators and doormen. The staff’s salaries were divided among the tenants and were included in their rent.
The housekeeping staff lived in quarters in the top two floors, until modern times when upper floors became associated with prestige and they were redesigned and rented out. Another major change occurred in 1969 when the Dakota was converted into a cooperative.
There's more light with the hollowed square design
The Dakota is a square building with a courtyard in its center and a single guarded arched entrance, flanked by large planters. The courtyard design (soon copied by many buildings) ensures each tenant’s privacy and provides each residence plenty of light and air.
The master design of the apartments positioned all the parlors and master bedrooms looking out on the street, while dining rooms and kitchens face the courtyard. Some of the residences are 50 feet long and many of the ceilings are 14-feet high. The floors are made of cherry, oak and mahogany, with accompanying massive mahogany doors and oak paneling.
The largest room in the gabled and turreted Dakota was the public dining room on the ground floor, which was fashioned after an English manor house, with a 15-foot fireplace, inlaid marble floor and carved oak ceiling. Also in the Dakota’s early days it had a playroom and gym on the 10th floor and tennis and croquet courts in the courtyard.
German Gothic dominates the Dakota’s eclectic architecture
Originally, the Dakota had 65 apartments ranging from four to 20 rooms and no two apartments were alike. The residences are accessed by staircases and luxurious elevators located in the courtyard’s four corners. There are also separate service stairs and elevators that accessed the kitchens. The service elevators were the first to be installed in a NYC apartment complex.
Built to cater for the well-to-do, the Dakota featured many amenities that were exceptional for the time. Electricity was generated by an in-house power plant and the building has central heating. The Dakota was outfitted with its own stables, telegraphic office and florist. The building also has an elaborate dumbwaiter system that allowed meals to be sent up quickly and unobtrusively to each apartment’s kitchen.
Clark believed the Dakota’s tenants would recognize the financial advantages of the multiple-dwelling building: the reduction in domestic staff, the greater degree of security and the benefits of shared amenities. His assessment was right and the apartments were quickly rented. Within 20 years, the Dakota was recognized as a very fashionable address in the popular Upper West Side.
Unfortunately, Clark never saw his dream become reality as he died two years before the building was completed. (In his will, Clark left each of his children and grandchildren a city block of Manhattan property.)
Steinway, Bernstein and a Beatle have all called Dakota home
From its early years the Dakota attracted famous New Yorkers. The Steinways, manufacturers of handmade pianos, were among the first residents. Decades later famous pianist, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein selected Dakota’s Apartment 23 as his NY home. It had four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a great room with park views and a wood fireplace, a library, a formal dining room and a kitchen with a breakfast room. It sold for $21 million with the realtor getting over a $1 million commission.
♫ Yoko, Sean & John at home ♪
In 1973, John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, started talking about a family and decided they needed more space than their two room apartment in the West Village. In addition to larger size the couple wanted their new home to have good security.
After considering homes on Long Island and Connecticut, the couple chose the Dakota and bought actor Robert Ryan’s seventh floor apartment. Somehow they got the approval of the Dakota’s notoriously picky board, which has rejected Melanie Griffin, Cher, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, Alex Rodriguez and others.
John was a doting dad to Sean
Two years later, Yoko gave birth to a boy, Sean. About his son's birth John Lennon said, “I feel higher than the Empire State Building.”
The Lennons socialized with neighbors who also had children. Sean was friends with the children whose father owned the Tavern on the Green. Most Dakota neighbors remember John being a doting dad preoccupied with raising his son. Lennon would take regular walks in the park, so Sean could ride his bicycle, neighbor Roberta Flack recalled.
“Sean loved his dad,” she told The New York Times. “There was a lot of holding hands and looking up, and a lot of holding hands and looking down.”
John also loved New York.
After spending a good portion of his Beatle life on concert tours, living in hotels and hiding from the mobs of people, John embraced the anonymity he found in the Big Apple, according to reporter Anthony DeCurtis in The New York Times’ May 16, 2009 edition:
John was a big fan of NYC
“ ‘New York is the greatest place on earth,’ Lennon insisted with the enthusiasm of an out-of-towner who has just unhinged his jaw to chomp his first deli sandwich. For all his worldliness as an artist, Lennon had led a sheltered life as a member of the Beatles…. So he embraced the heady freedom New York offered, leaving his mop-top past behind like a new arrival from a small town, eager to become who he wanted to be….”
Yoko Ono, who had been a student and an avant-garde artist in New York in the 1950s and ’60s, “was intimately familiar with the city. ‘She made me walk around the streets and parks and squares and examine every nook and cranny,’ Lennon said. ‘In fact you could say I fell in love with New York on a street corner.’
“His proximity to the docks and the meatpacking district (when he lived in the West Village) reminded Lennon of his hometown port city of Liverpool, as did the characteristic gruffness of New Yorkers. ‘I like New Yorkers because they have no time for the niceties of life,’ he said. ‘They’re like me in this. They’re naturally aggressive, they don’t believe in wasting time.’
“By the time the couple began working on the album Double Fantasy in 1980, life in New York seemed to be on firmer — and safer — footing, though it was still raw enough that in 1979 Lennon and Ono donated $1,000 to purchase bullet-proof vests for the city’s police force.
“Lennon was eager to return to public life, and he was still singing the praises of his adopted city. ‘I can go right out this door now and go in a restaurant,’ he told a BBC reporter on Dec. 6, 1980, in an interview to promote the album’s release. ‘You want to know how great that is?’
“Two days later, Lennon was shot to death outside the Dakota. He was 40-years-old. He had just returned home from a recording session with Ono and, rather than have their car pull directly into the Dakota’s driveway, he got out at the curb so that he could greet the fans waiting outside. It was an emotionally generous gesture, maybe even a naïve one: trusting the city too much, underestimating its dangers.”
Visiting Strawberry Fields on the anniversary of John's death
John Lennon's assassination prompted thousands to gather that night at the Dakota and hold an impromptu vigil. The outpouring of grief spread throughout the world.
Yoko, who still lives at the Dakota, donated $1 million to create a special 2½-acre section of Central Park as a memorial to the rock musician. The site, called Strawberry Fields, is right across from the Dakota – a spot frequented by John and Sean during their visits to the park. –TDowling
© 2014 Thomas Dowling