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The Dakota: Fame and Survival in New York City

How does a building get famous? How do a building’s residents shape its history? What would the Upper West Side be like without The Dakota?

Over the past 135 years, The Dakota building has maintained its complicated place in the spotlight. It was built on the Upper West Side when the area was farmland; scandalously far north (and west) from everything else at the time. Some critics suggested the building would fail; it was so remote it may as well be in ‘Dakota territory,’ which is the rumored reason for its unique name. It anchored the subsequent residential book on Central Park West, it survived three financial crashes and drastic neighborhood reconstructing, and it’s been home to famous artists, thinkers, and Bohemians for decades. In some ways, Manhattan’s Upper West Side has been built around The Dakota. No matter what time of day you head to West 72nd to see the building, you’ll need to make your way through a sea of tourists, snapping photographs of a structure most people can only imagine.

The most “famous” spot on West 72nd is in the building’s entryway, where John Lennon was murdered by a fan on December 8, 1980, cementing The Dakota in New York and pop culture history. The building has famously been home to Lauren Bacall (she lived there for 52 years!), Judy Garland, and Leonard Bernstein. One of Marilyn Monroe’s photo shoots happened in Judy Holliday’s apartment in The Dakota (where Holliday later died from cancer). The building’s exterior was used in Rosemary’s Baby, a horror film with a cult following, which is supposed to be set inside The Dakota (but was filmed elsewhere). The building has come to represent as sort of a celebrity in New York, but this was far from the architect’s intention in 1880.

You’ll notice the chateau-style building has no fire escapes or utilitarian apartment building detailing on its facade. It looks more like a castle than a building with¬†an elevator, full of 103 individual apartments across 10 floors. But wealthy people at the turn of the century didn’t want to live in apartment-style homes all together in one building. Those families were more likely to buy a single-family home near Gramercy Park, for example. But the “aspiring middle class” was the perfect target, families who were moving up, geographically and economically, ready to take a chance on a new neighborhood.

Some of the funding for construction came from Edward Clark, the founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Clark put $1 million into the building’s construction in the 1880s, knowing his family would soon call it home. A special apartment was being built for him with sterling silver floors, but he died in 1883 before the building was ready for them to move in.

So in its first years the building was marketed to people aspiring to join the upper class–The Dakota’s earliest residents were stock brokers, manufacturers of dry goods, lawyers, and other traders and businessman. Rent would’ve cost between $1,000 and $5,600 for one year, roughly $30,000 in today’s money. The rents remained in a steady range until the building voted to become a co-op in the 1960s. The Dakota’s co-op board today is notoriously one of the most ruthless and selective in the city, yet another part of the exclusive reputation that the building has maintained for so many years. Today, the smallest apartment in The Dakota (a four-bedroom unit on a lower floor) sells for $3.6 million (which, 100 years ago, would’ve been about $150,000).

In its early years, The Dakota employed over 150 people on staff. The staff quarters at the time were the eight and ninth floors – they were the highest, the hardest to get to, the hottest, and they had lower ceilings than the rest of the apartments because the building’s roof is slanted. Today, the opposite is true, as the most sought-after apartments are on the upper floors.

Luxury buildings with selective co-op boards are opening everywhere with the goal of giving residents an experience similar to The Dakota. Exclusivity, location, lavish amenities, etc. are advertised as tall grass buildings with multi-million dollar condos pop up all over Manhattan–but none seem to measure up to the humble 10 floors of The Dakota. The Dakota has survived and maintained its status throughout almost a third of New York’s history. How has this building remained so famous?

What challenges do buildings like The Dakota face today? What might change if the structure wasn’t known for its celebrity residents?¬†