Dakota—the Most Famous Apartment Building in New York City

The venerable Dakota is one of the first luxury apartment buildings in New York and certainly the most famous. Designed to resemble a Renaissance chateaux and styled as a fortress surrounded by a moat, the Dakota has a romantic feel and an air of the unattainable.

Built in 1884, it was the first building to rise along Central Park West and subsequently launched the development of the Upper West Side. Picture this: before the Dakota was being conceived in the late 1870s, the city was solidly built up only to midtown (the 30s streets). The present location was sparsely inhabited and extremely difficult to get to. As Central Park was still new, it took a special vision to dream up luxury living along the Park located way above the populated areas of the city. The man with the vision was Edward Clark, co-founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, who had the foresight to see that property adjacent to Central Park would be golden. 

Speaking of gold, Dakota was still Indian Territory at that time and rich in the prized metal. Clark’s building was so far uptown that the project was met with widespread skepticism. Mocking the edifice as “Clark’s folly,” his critics cried that the building was so far uptown that it might as well be in Dakota. Clark’s response? Naming it just that: the Dakota! Clark played up the metaphor by decorating the building with Indian motives, the most prominent of which was the head of an Indian over the main entrance.

Clark propagated the idea of naming Upper West Side avenues after western states and territories, though it never materialized—with the only exception being his luxury apartment building. The name stuck and the Dakota proved to be pure gold. Despite the remote location, it was a huge social and financial success from the very start—all apartments were rented out even before the building opened. Sadly, Edward Cabot Clark never got to enjoy seeing vision turn into a reality—he died in 1882, while the Dakota was still being constructed.

During the Gilded Age, luxury living was associated with private mansions while apartments suggested poverty and low social status. The Dakota was one of the first places that changed that notion once and for all. It was built to the highest standard of luxury: there were originally 65 apartments, with no two alike, and each containing 4 to 20 rooms.  The floors were inlaid with mahogany, oak, cherry, and even sterling silver. There was a large dining hall on the premises, but if the tenants did not feel like dining in the restaurant they could request for meals to be sent up to their apartments by dumbwaiters. Electricity was generated by an in-house power plant, and the building had its own central heating. The upper floors were set aside as servants’ quarters and children’s playrooms.

The Dakota’s modern-day notoriety owes itself to the tragic death of former Beatle John Lennon.  In 1980, he was assassinated by a crazed fan right in front of the building.

Besides Lennon, the Dakota was the residence of quite a few famous personalities: Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Rudolf Nureyev, Leonard Bernstein, Rosemary Clooney, and Yoko Ono, among others. The list of Dakota’s rejects is no less impressive: Melanie Griffith, Antonio Banderas, Cher, Billy Joel, and Madonna were among those turned down by the board.

While so many old luxury apartments went out of fashion, the Dakota, built in 1884, remains one of the most desirable addresses as well as one of the most attractive residential buildings in the city. 

  • Location: West 72nd Street @ Central Park West
  • Built: 1881-84  
  • Architect: Henry J Hardenbergh
  • Style: an eclectic mix of German Renaissance, French Renaissance, Gothic Revival

2 Comments Add yours

  1. A wonderful building. It’s just a shame that so many people will only be aware of it in connection with the tragic fate of John Lennon.

    Liked by 1 person

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