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Life at the Dakota: Exploring New York City's Most Unusual Address

If these walls could talk…

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  • Photo Credit: Library of Congress

On Central Park West between 72nd and 73rd Streets stands a building difficult to overlook: the Dakota. The oldest remaining luxury apartment building in New York City and a National Historic Landmark, the Dakota was constructed between 1880 and 1884 in the Renaissance Revival style. With its intricate façade and lurking gargoyle statues, it stands out from the city’s residential buildings even more today than it did in the 19th century.

Once upon a time, it was considered unfashionable to live in the Dakota, its namesake a pointed joke about the building’s location. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, far away from the city’s downtown hustle and bustle, it was akin to the western frontier in the eyes of New Yorkers. However, over the years the Dakota’s reputation has changed considerably. In the 20th century, it even attracted famous residents like Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, and John Lennon—who was infamously murdered outside the building in 1980. 

As the years have passed, the unique building retains much of its old-fashioned charm. Stephen Birmingham—author of other social histories, notably Our Crowd—turns his gaze to the history of the luxury apartment building and its tenants both quirky and famous alike in Life at the Dakota. The national bestseller offers a glimpse of bygone eras in New York City, from the late 19th century to the 1980s.

Read on for an excerpt of Life at the Dakota, then download the book!




Life at the Dakota

By Stephen Birmingham

That something of this sort might one day happen was not entirely unexpected. Tenants of the Dakota had been watching, with some apprehension, as the building’s owner, Stephen C. Clark, passed his seventy-fifth birthday and moved toward his eighties without committing himself as to what his plans for the building’s future might be. The Dakota had now belonged to the Clark family for three generations. Everything the Dakotans had they owed to the benevolence—and extravagance (or perhaps nonchalance)—of the Clarks. There had been the building’s famous services, for example. When the Dakota first opened its doors to rental tenants in 1884, it had a full-time operating staff of 150 people. In addition to the customary elevator men and women, doormen, janitors and porters and watchmen, there was a resident housekeeper who supervised a staff of resident maids. There was a resident laundress with her own laundry staff, and laundry was picked up at individual apartments in special wicker baskets and returned washed, ironed, darned and mended and with buttons sewn on, each piece separated with a sheet of pink tissue paper. There was a gentlemen’s tailor in the basement. There was a house carpenter, two house painters, a house cabinetmaker, a house electrician, plumber and glazier. Before the days of the automobile, there had been Dakota stable boys to handle visiting carriages and a separate Dakota stables two blocks away for tenants’ horses, landaus and coupés.

On the ground floor of the Dakota proper there was a full office staff operating under a “lady managerette” and a paging system whereby individual tenants could notify the front desk of their needs and wishes. The Dakota even had a baronial private dining room, with its own captains and white-gloved waiters, just for tenants and their guests. Each afternoon a printed menu was discreetly slipped beneath each apartment door so that tenants, if they desired, could phone down to Miss Kay, the dining-room managerette, and specify their orders for dinner in advance. Here, for $1.50, one could select, to quote from a 1907 bill of fare:

Caviar Oysters

Celery Salted Almonds Olives

Cream of Asparagus

Broiled Spanish Mackerel

Pommes Parisienne Cucumbers

Partridge, Fantaisie

Potatoes soufflées Peas


Lettuce and tomato en surprise

Neopolitan ices Gâteaux assortis


Napkins and tablecloths were of the heaviest linen. Silver was of such heavy plate that even today such pieces of the original set as have been salvaged show no sign of wear. Goblets and finger bowls were of stained glass. In each of the four passenger elevators, a silver tray was placed for messages, mail and calling cards.

As the twentieth century progressed, of course, more and more of these lovely little services began to disappear. The laundry and tailoring and housekeeper and maid service went first. Not long after World War II, the dining room—which had never been a profitable or really practical operation—closed for good. The front-office staff was reduced to four, and by 1960 the building’s entire staff was down to only forty-five. Still, for New York this was a high staff-to-tenant ratio, and that the building had been kept up as well as it had was, in large part, thanks to the Clark family.

As Stephen C. Clark entered his twilight years the Dakota became very solicitous of the family. Stephen and Susan Clark, who lived across the Park in East Seventieth Street, were frequently invited to dinners by various of the Dakota’s distinguished tenants, all of whom were eager for some hint of what would happen to their building when the inevitable happened to him. It was perhaps not exactly a coincidence that, in March 1959, Architectural Forum, a Luce publication, published a lengthy photographic essay extolling the architectural splendors of the Dakota. Lest the Clark family fail to be impressed by the article, C. D. Jackson had the photographs put together in a twenty-two-page album inscribed “To Stephen Clark with the compliments of C. D. Jackson and the editors of Architectural Forum.” Marya Mannes, already a well-known author, lecturer and critic, showered Mr. Clark with a series of charming little verses, each calculated to convey to him how much his tenants loved him, and his building, and how certain the tenants were that he, or someone just like him, would always care for them.

life at the dakota excerpt
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  • The Dakota overlooking Central Park, c. 1900.

    Photo Credit: Museum of the City of New York

She need not have wasted her ink, nor should the others have wasted their dinner invitations, their birthday cards or their thoughtful little Christmas gifts. When Stephen Clark died, in September 1960, there was an anxious wait for news of his will. Then it was learned that Clark had not left the Dakota, which he had owned outright, to his children or grandchildren. He had left it instead to the Clark family’s foundation. At first this seemed well and good, though there was a certain nervousness in the building since dealing with the caprices of a foundation, or committee, is not the same as dealing with an individual. What the tenants of the Dakota did not realize, however, was that under New York State law a foundation cannot operate or own an unprofitable property. And, by 1960, the Dakota was not operating at a profit if, indeed, it ever had.

As far as Ernest Gross was able to ascertain that Friday evening, Mr. Zeckendorf had not become the Dakota’s landlord—yet. What Zeckendorf had done, it seemed, had been to make the Clark Foundation an offer of $4,500,000 to buy the building. He had made his offer at five o’clock on Friday and had given the Foundation until noon the following Monday to accept or reject it. The Foundation had indicated its willingness to accept, or so Mr. Gross was told, and Zeckendorf had already advanced a certain sum in what, in real estate parlance, is called “earnest money.” In his hastily arranged meeting with C. D. Jackson, Gross pointed out that the Dakota only had two and a half days—over a weekend, at that—to come up with a matching or perhaps better offer.

A hasty meeting of Dakota tenants was called, in which Gross and Jackson attempted to explain the nature of the catastrophe, the disaster, that was at hand. All sorts of people whom nobody had seen before came out of the woodwork. Lauren Bacall, newly widowed and who had come into the Dakota only recently, sat on a table and shouted unprintable curses at all involved; she had just finished decorating her apartment at some expense. Beside her sat Judy Holliday, in tears; she had already been pronounced ill of incurable cancer and wanted to die in the building she considered home. Even old Miss E. Bruce Leo, who had not set foot outside her eighteen-room apartment in years, appeared in a picture hat and a long, trailing gown. Some said Miss Leo was already a hundred and two, and she had become the Dakota’s Madwoman of Chaillot. (Among other oddities, she kept a stuffed horse in her parlor.) “I will not be put out of my house! I will not be put out!” Miss Leo kept shouting. Almost everyone shouted, cursed, stamped, sobbed and pounded their chairs on the old dining room’s inlaid marble floor. The meeting had started in confusion, and quickly it became chaotic. Order was impossible, and when the meeting broke up it was not so much adjourned as dispersed as an angry, violent mob. Ernest Gross and C. D. Jackson returned to the Jackson’s apartment for drinks and to ponder how, if at all, the Dakota might be saved.

What Gross and Jackson had discovered that night was that New Yorkers, in times of crisis, do not necessarily pull together. At that December meeting, everyone in the Dakota was pulling for himself, for his or her own precious place of residence. Sometimes, in times of crisis, people need a leader or captain, and co-captains were what Gross and Jackson decided that night to be. The sizes of the egos involved in the Dakota were such that they had to be brought under some firm command if anything at all were to be accomplished. The Dakota had often been called New York’s answer to Grand Hotel. It might, more aptly, have been compared with Ship of Fools or the Orient Express. Though there had never been, as far as is known, any actual murders at the Dakota Apartments, there had been a number of odd, untidy doings. All had had to do with the capricious and unruly egos of the Dakota’s passengers. Like a great ship, the Dakota had developed creaks and sighs and moans. Nevertheless, there had been compartments in which many people passed their days; there were stewards and porters—whose palms needed periodically to be greased—to care for their needs, and there had been someone continuously passing through to collect the fare. On board the Dakota some had been traveling grande luxe, in First Class accommodations, others had settled for Cabin Class, and still others had been in steerage. But now that it had been abandoned by the Clark family, the Dakota was a ship without a pilot, and, like the great luxury liners of the past, it seemed doomed.

And yet, there were special problems. The Dakota was, after all, a part of New York City. All around it the restless seas of New York had seethed and surged and battered the Dakota’s tarnished sides. Those who called the Dakota home should have been more anxious about those seas because, for years, everything that had happened to the city of New York (and was to happen in large cities throughout the country) happened, in microcosm, to the Dakota. The building had come to represent everything that was pleasant and rewarding about life in New York, but it also reflected everything about New York life that was threatening, frightening and uncertain. Every battle or crusade that the city had undergone had also been confronted, on a smaller scale, at the Dakota. But no one had noticed much of this. The Dakota had been regarded by its residents as a charming anachronism, one that would never change. Now the Dakotans were discovering the truth of the ancient axiom that nothing is more certain than change—and they cared for this discovery not at all.

As in any old structure, there had been strange, recurrent scuttlings—“mice in the walls.” The Dakota’s mice were both real and figurative—tiny creatures that had been nibbling and gnawing at the Dakota’s famous underpinnings of respectability, security, pride and doughty longevity. Behind the Dakota’s stern, implacable façade—the buff-colored brick, the carved Nova Scotia freestone trimmings, the niches, balconies and balustrades with spandrels and panels and cornices of terra cotta, the friezes and finials and gargoyles and oriel windows—changes had been taking place. Now Dakotans would have to face up to their existence, and swallow a bit of pride.

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Featured image: Library of Congress