When it was first built by the architect of the Plaza Hotel and the Western Union Building, this early luxury apartment building was far from the center of town. Legend has it that its name is an ironic reference to its distance from the urban core--it was so far north that it was said to be in the Dakota Territory! For this reason, it was expected to be a financial failure and hence was it dubbed "Clark's Folly."
An attorney for the Singer family who later became president of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, Edward Clark envisioned a city expanding north along the west side of the island. He invested five million dollars in the area, buying former farmland from the investment banker Jacob Schiff. Clark wisely took a three-tiered approach to this risky investment, developing first-class row houses along 73rd Street, and working-class tenements on Columbus Avenue. The jewel in his real estate crown was the luxury apartment building facing the new Central Park.
Intended to house members of the upper class, the Dakota was one of New York's first convincing expressions of a new concept of urban dwelling. Combining monumentality with domesticity, the idea of many affluent tenants under a common roof was based on Parisian models first introduced to New York by Richard Morris Hunt in his 1869 Stuyvesant Flats. Clark hoped that somewhat wary potential tenants would recognize the advantages of the multiple-dwelling building: the financial savings, the reduction in domestic staff facilitated by a full-service building, the greater degree of security and the benefits of shared amenities. The eclectic facade of this 200-foot square, nine-story building is enlivened by a picturesque mixture of German Gothic, French Renaissance and English Victorian details. Its load-bearing brick and sandstone walls are reinforced with steel and animated with balconies, corner pavilions and decorative terra-cotta panels and moldings. The structure is capped by a steeply pitched slate and copper roof decorated with ornate railings, stepped dormers, finials and pediments. Its plan resembles a doughnut, with apartments arranged around a large central courtyard that has a single guarded entrance. The courtyard ensures the tenants' privacy and provides access to ample light and air.
The building originally contained 85 suites, ranging from four to twenty rooms in size. These are reached by luxuriously appointed elevators located in four corner pavilions. Service elevators run up the middle of each side and are directly linked to individual kitchens. The elegant apartments are arranged like horizontal townhouses and finished with expensive material accents--features that would have appealed to affluent tenants. Equally appealing would have been the various shared amenities including a dining room, storerooms, a laundry, a kitchen and pantry, a bake shop, wine cellars, an independent power plant, extra servants' quarters, playrooms, a gymnasium, and (originally) a back garden with tennis courts.
Although the cream of New York society remained skeptical of the Dakota and the type of apartment living it heralded, its flats were soon rented. Twenty years later it became a very fashionable address on the increasingly popular Upper West Side.