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From its inception, the Dakota has been an imposing presence in the history and landscape of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Located at the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West, the massive apartment house occupies its entire 200 x 200-foot lot. It was built in 1880–1884 for Edward Cabot Clark, the wealthy co-founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company (along with his business partner, Isaac Merritt Singer). The building allegedly earned its name because of its isolated location across from a then-incomplete section of Central Park—a location that echoed the remoteness of the recently acquired Dakota Territory. Other accounts suggest that Clark’s fondness for the West inspired the name. This interest is evident on the building proper, where the figure of a Dakota Indian appears near the peak of the 72nd Street entrance. Elsewhere, arrowheads and wheat ornaments abound.
As designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh, aspects of the building’s plan embody French Beaux-Arts qualities, particularly in the arrangement of the apartments around a central courtyard. The principal rooms of the original 65 units (of which no two were alike) were arranged enfilade, but were also accessible from connecting halls and corridors. This organization was conducive to the lavish social life of the building's original inhabitants.
The mostly brick exterior of the building employs elements of the North German Renaissance style. Its upper levels have abundant high gables and the facade is adorned with decorative balustrades and light beige terra-cotta panels and spandrels. The main entrance is an arched porte-cochere, large enough to accommodate carriages in the 1800s. Technological amenities included Otis elevators and central electrical and heating plants.
The first tall building to be constructed along Central Park, the Dakota was located within an urban environment on the verge of flourishing. Several row houses had already been built along the then-unpaved Central Park West and an elevated railway ran nearby, on present-day Columbus Avenue. In fact, the Dakota was the centerpiece of a larger urban development scheme. By 1880, Clark had purchased several lots in the neighborhood. In the late 1870s, he hired Hardenbergh to build a number of row houses on 73rd Street. These houses shared the Dakota’s artesian well, its furnaces, and its electric dynamo. The unarticulated wall on the west side of the Dakota suggests that Clark envisioned another large apartment house on the site next door.
Despite its unconventional location and ornamentation, the building quickly became popular with wealthy New Yorkers, functioning as one of the architectural and social nodes around which the Upper West Side developed. Initially equipped with a restaurant, gym, playroom, and a separate garage and stable, the Dakota promoted communal, hotel-like living. Rather than having private estates and independent dwellings, the tenants at the Dakota shared the space and staff—an arrangement popular at the turn of the century.
Originally conceived of as a rental property, the Dakota became a cooperative in 1960. Throughout its history, the Dakota has been home to famous artists and entertainers, including Leonard Bernstein, Judy Garland, Rudolf Nureyev, Joe Namath, and John Lennon, who was murdered just outside its grand 72nd Street entrance.
In 1972, the Dakota was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and four years later was designated a National Historic Landmark, no doubt due to its massive yet elegant presence, as well as its social history and notable occupants. It became an official New York City Landmark in 1979. Lennon’s murder in 1980 cemented the site’s memorable place in the city’s history, a position that it is unlikely to relinquish.
Stern, Robert A.M, Gregory Gilmartin, and John Montague Massengale. New York 1900: Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism 1890–1915. New York: Rizzoli, 1983.
Gray, Christopher. “The Dakota’s Back 40.” New York Times, June 03, 2012.
Gray, Christopher. “The Dakota’s Cousins and How They Grew.” New York Times, October 20, 2013.
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