A region composed of squatters' shacks, leveled forests, and graveyards might seem an unlikely birthplace for the Dakota, one of the Upper West Side's most luxurious addresses, but to a maverick businessman like Edward S. Clark, the head of Singer Sewing Machine Co., such a desolate locale was fertile breeding ground for the birth of a legend.
In the late 19th Century, the area destined to become the Upper West Side bore the sarcastic moniker Dakota because of its distance from the bustling urban center farther downtown. Locals said it was so far north, it might as well be part of the Dakota Territory, in which General George Armstrong Custer and his troops had recently met their demise. Clark's colleagues anticipated a financial massacre when the wealthy lawyer - known for pursuing unconventional business directions - tried to lure tenants into a building situated in such a largely undeveloped area.
In addition to that was the stigma associated with apartment life, which increased the likelihood of Clark's failure. "In the 1870s, when the Dakota project got started, "˜nice' people - respectable, upper-middle-class folk - had houses," says Peter Salwen, author and president-elect of the Society for New York City History (SNYCH) in Manhattan. "Nonetheless, Clark remained optimistic."
The entrepreneur's challenge, Salwen elaborates, was to offer tenants "the amenities, the style, and the sense of seclusion they expected. You had to somehow compensate for the fact that the public areas - the parlors and the dining rooms - were on the same floor as the bedrooms, which was rather risquÃ©." He says such buildings were referred to as "French Flats," which lent them a disreputable air often associated with apartments. Salwen adds that a tenement - which, under the law, the Dakota qualified as - was associated with the lower orders of society.
In order to "get his feet wet" and explore the area's real estate potential, Salwen explains, Clark first built a row of brownstones from the north side of West 73rd Street in Central Park to Columbus Avenue, which successfully attracted lower class rental tenants. After that, he developed the block-long, 200-by-200-foot Dakota with a young, still-unknown architect named Henry Hardenbergh, whose later credits included the separate Waldorf and Astoria hotels, the Plaza Hotel and the Art Students League building on West 57th Street.