Life at the Dakota: New York's Most Unusual Address

Life at the Dakota: New York's Most Unusual Address

by Stephen Birmingham

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Life at the Dakota is a deliciously entertaining social history that describes the lives of the rich and trendy who have lived at the Dakota - a New York apartment house daringly erected in 1884, "too far up" and on the wrong side of town. This story has the fabulous characters, sharp insights, and captivating anecdotes of Stephen Birmingham's earlier works, and the…  See more details below


Life at the Dakota is a deliciously entertaining social history that describes the lives of the rich and trendy who have lived at the Dakota - a New York apartment house daringly erected in 1884, "too far up" and on the wrong side of town. This story has the fabulous characters, sharp insights, and captivating anecdotes of Stephen Birmingham's earlier works, and the atmosphere of the elegant Dakota is so powerful that the building itself becomes an unforgettable major character. The Gustav Schirmers were among the early tenants. Others such as Boris Karloff, Judy Holliday, Leonard Bernstein, and and Lauren Bacall would follow. In this edition the author has included an afterword on John Lennon's murder at the Dakota.

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Syracuse University Press
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6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.70(d)

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Life at the Dakota

New York's Most Unusual Address

By Stephen Birmingham


Copyright © 1979 Stephen Birmingham
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2631-4


"An Era of Upholstery"

Modern New Yorkers have grown accustomed to the experience of going around the corner to what was last week's favorite delicatessen only to discover that, this week, it has become a wig shop; or finding, where the little place that sold handbags used to be, just off Lexington, that the entire block has disappeared to make room for an office tower. Faced with yet another example of the fact that New York is a restless, ever-changing, never-finished city, New Yorkers simply shrug and go on about their business.

New York in the 1880's was already a city that seemed to have made up its mind that whatever existed was dispensable and replaceable, provided some more profitable use could be found for it. In the years following the Civil War, when great New York fortunes were being made — by men named Rockefeller, Harriman, Gould, Frick, Morgan, Schiff and Vanderbilt, among others — money had become New York's main industry, while the city's secondary pastime seemed to involve systematically turning New York's back upon its past. Anything of even mildly antiquarian or historic interest was the target of destruction, and anyone who deplored the way the city was remaking itself from a sleepy seaport into a bustling capital of finance was regarded as a hopeless sentimentalist. The past was not New York's concern; its concern was the future, and Progress. Buildings were flung up only to be torn down a few years later and replaced by newer, more modern structures. Any structure that didn't quite work or didn't quite pay was demolished to make room for something else that might. The modernization of New York, as it marched toward the twentieth century, was as reckless as it was relentless.

Already it seemed that New York was destined to become a city of towers, that it would grow upward as rapidly as it grew outward. In 1884, the year that the Dakota was completed, the architect Richard Morris Hunt had put the finishing touches on a huge new building on Park Row to house Whitelaw Reid's New York Tribune. The Tribune tower soared an unprecedented eleven stories into the sky and was topped by a tall campanile, but it was not to be New York's tallest building for long. A year later Bradford Lee Gilbert designed the Tower Building, to be erected at 50 Broadway. The Tower Building, which was to occupy a plot of land only twenty-one feet wide, was to rise to a startling thirteen stories, eclipsing the Tribune building in height. The doubters and naysayers confidently predicted that the building would never withstand a high gale. Gilbert was so confident of his structure's safety that he announced that he himself would occupy the topmost floors with his offices, but at least one neighbor in an adjoining building evacuated his property, certain that his building would be crushed by the weight of Gilbert's when inevitably it fell. In 1886, when the building had reached only ten stories, eighty-mile-an-hour winds struck the city and huge crowds gathered on Broadway — at a safe distance — to watch the Tower Building topple. Gilbert, in a panic, rushed downtown and climbed to the top of his building to see how it was doing. All night long the winds raged, and the Tower Building didn't even tremble. It remained standing until 1913, when it was demolished.

All at once the building of taller and yet taller buildings became a matter of competition. Joseph Pulitzer's new building for the World clocked in at fifteen stories and was surmounted with a cupola with a dazzling golden dome. Then came the American Surety Company's tower opposite Trinity Church — twenty stories high. As New York flexed its muscles for the future, there seemed to be no limit to how high a building could go.

At the same time, while all this building was going on, New Yorkers suffered from what a modern psychologist would label a poor self-image. New Yorkers who cared about such matters, and who had visited such European cities as London, Paris and Rome, were the first to admit that New York was becoming a not very pretty city and disparaged (according to a contemporary account) "this cramped horizontal gridiron of a town without ... porticoes, fountains or perspectives, hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness." The rigid, block-by-block pattern of the new streets that were being laid out was considered boring, and the problem of naming the new streets seemed to have defeated the imagination. They were simply numbered, south to north for the streets, east to west for the perpendicular avenues. Sophisticated New Yorkers complained that their city had none of the exuberance and spectacle of Paris — no Place de l'Étoile, no Place de la Concorde, none of the monumental statuary, arches, bridges and vistas that Baron Hausmann had created. New York lacked the intimate, formal little squares of London's Mayfair and Belgravia. Instead of a Piccadilly or a Champs Élysées, New York had Broadway, and the most that could be said for Broadway was that it was very long. The fashionable area to live was now Murray Hill, on Madison Avenue north of Thirty-fourth Street, where a few years earlier gentlemen of fashion had gone quail hunting, though a few diehard families like the Astors still clung to their mansions on lower Fifth Avenue, between Washington and Madison Squares, even though that part of town was rapidly being taken over by "trade." But the houses of the rich, each trying to outdo the others in opulence and splash — and built in wildly varying architectural styles from Moorish to English Gothic to Italian Renaissance — were considered pretentious and embarrassing to the purists. New York seemed capable of creating everything but a style of its own.

New York, in the late nineteenth century, was also an astonishingly dirty city for a variety of reasons. Only about half of New York's families had bathrooms; the rest were served by outhouses. The Saturday-night bath had become a national ritual, but brushing one's teeth was unheard of. By 1885, some 250,000 horses — pulling carts, carriages, trolleys and public omnibuses — jammed New York's streets. The clatter of horse-drawn traffic up and down Broadway continued night and day. Venturing out into the streets on foot was for the daring, and strollers encountered an obstacle course between piles of steaming dung which swarmed with flies. In hot, dry weather the horse manure in the streets quickly dried to a fine powder and swirled in the air as dust. Ladies wore heavy veils for shopping, not out of modesty or for fashion, but to keep this unlovely substance out of their mouths, eyes and noses. New York horses were driven until they expired, and as many as a hundred horses collapsed daily in the streets. It was often a matter of days before the carcasses could be hauled away, and the odor of decaying horseflesh added its own pungency to the city air. In the 1880's, meanwhile, New Yorkers were only beginning to get used to the luxury of paved streets in certain areas.

Forty-second Street had become the northernmost limit of fashionability; beyond that Fifth Avenue and its adjoining streets had a ragged, unfinished look. Still, though the metropolis consumed less than a third of the area that it does today, New York had already become a city of inconvenient and time-consuming distances. It took a Manhattan businessman anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half to get from his home to his place of work in the slow-moving traffic of the densely congested streets. In 1883, when finishing touches were being applied to the Dakota, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to great civic fanfare, after thirteen years in the building. (Like the builder of the Dakota, the designer of the bridge, John Roebling, would not live to see the completion of his great project.) The Brooklyn Bridge was not designed to appeal to the aesthetic sense. It was without the ornament, spontaneity or romance of bridges that crossed the Seine, the Arno or the Thames. Its beauty was in its stern, no-nonsense practicality — a utilitarian bridge in which every exposed cable slung from the two sturdy towers at either end clearly had a duty to perform: to support the roadbed. The bridge was designed to provide New Yorkers with the novelty, and the convenience, of driving across the East River instead of crossing it slowly by ferryboat. The bridge also dramatized New York's need for a public transportation system less cumbersome than the hansom cab and horse-drawn omnibus, and suddenly the phrase on everyone's lips was "rapid transit."

London had had a subway system since 1863, but New York had not yet gone underground for at least two reasons. For one thing, New York was built on solid rock, and tunneling through the Manhattan schist presented enormous engineering obstacles. For another, during the years when "Boss" Tweed had the city in his grip, Tweed and his "ring" controlled the surface transportation lines and wanted no competition. Still, a number of ambitious underground plans had been proposed. One was the "Beach Pneumatic Tunnel," a scheme by which a blast of air, blown out by a giant blowing machine at the rear of a car, would force an underground car along a track like a sailboat before a wind. It was an era of extravagant speculation and high-blown promise; the backers of the Pneumatic Tunnel claimed that it would carry passengers from one end of Manhattan to the other at the rate of 20,000 people per hour. A short experimental section of the Beach Pneumatic Tunnel was actually built under Broadway between Warren and Murray streets, a distance of one short block. This precursor of the jet age did not work well. It traversed the distance in more time than it took to walk it.

Still another proposal called for building an entire underground street below Broadway, complete with sidewalks, gas lamps, shops and stalls. This street would be wide enough for horse-drawn vehicles and would have a railroad track running down its center for steam-driven locomotives pulling trains. This project came to naught when John Jacob Astor III and other powerful landlords protested that the underground avenue would weaken the foundations of their buildings.

And so, instead of building down, New York built up, and elevated railroads began to sprout along Sixth Avenue, Third Avenue, Ninth Avenue and eventually Second Avenue. The four-car green-painted trains carried passengers uptown and downtown from daybreak to midnight at the astonishing speed of thirty miles an hour. Though certainly convenient, the elevated trains were not an unmixed blessing. They were bumpy and noisy — horses reared in fright at the approach of each clattering locomotive — and they were not without danger. Newspapers filled with accounts of accidents and of trains that had jumped their tracks and threatened to dump their passengers into the street some thirty feet below. One hair-raising turn on the Ninth Avenue line seemed particularly hazardous. The engineers, it seemed, believed that the proper way to accomplish this turn was at the highest speed. After several accidents the engineers decided they were wrong.

The streets beneath the elevated lines were dark. As the trains rattled by, they spewed out ashes, hot cinders and live steam onto the sidewalks below and into the second-story windows of the buildings they passed. During the great blizzard of 1888 some 15,000 New Yorkers were trapped in elevated trains on tracks that had become blocked by snowdrifts, and a number of enterprising souls made a tidy business out of raising ladders from the street and helping passengers climb down, at a dollar a head. At least one train that was too high for a ladder to reach was stalled in the air for sixteen hours while the passengers were kept from freezing with whiskey that was hoisted up from the street by ropes.

The avenues along which the elevated lines ran quickly became soot-blackened slums, their buildings divided into tenements of sunless two-room "Dumbbells" (so called because the floor plans were of a shape) or "railroad flats." The word "flat," which had been perfectly acceptable in England and Europe, took on a new connotation in New York. Living in a flat, to a New Yorker, denoted misery and poverty of the meanest kind. At the same time, the elevated trains, which ran northward from the Battery, enormously speeded the city's northward expansion. The entire island, all the way to the Harlem River, was now easily accessible. But in terms of building, it was for the most part an expansion of the poor. The rich remained on Fifth Avenue and Murray Hill.

Visitors from Europe, meanwhile, deplored the noisy ugliness of the elevated railroads. A reporter from the Revue des Deux Mondes in Paris wrote condescendingly that he had seen "well-dressed, well-bred New Yorkers clinging to straps, jaded, jammed, jostled, panting in the aisle of these hearse-like equipages, to reach their goal." Still, for a city that ranked practicality above beauty, it had to be admitted that the transportation system was now both fast and cheap. During rush hours it cost only a nickel to take "the el" from one end of Manhattan to the other. At other times it was a dime. For all the convenience and economy, as New York became a city of straphangers one also had to be wary of the "dip," or pickpocket, a practitioner whose counterpart could be found in medieval paintings and in all crowded cities of the world.

By the 1880's a number of imposing hotels had already been built in the city. There was the Astor House, on Broadway and Barclay Street, which had been built by John Jacob Astor in the 1830's. Further uptown, and even grander, was the St. Nicholas Hotel on Broadway and Broome Street, which had cost one million dollars to build and could accommodate some eight hundred guests; the St. Nicholas boasted the unheard-of luxury of central hot-air heating. The Metropolitan Hotel was equally costly and sumptuous, and contained a hundred suites of "family apartments," which, it implied, could be leased as permanent residences. But the newer Fifth Avenue Hotel was unquestionably the most elegant in town and advertised "more than one hundred suites of apartments, each combining the convenience and luxury of parlor, chamber, dressing and bathing rooms." Private bathrooms were an extraordinary novelty. The Fifth Avenue Hotel also introduced another controversial feature — an elevator, described as a "perpendicular railway intersecting each story." Theretofore, elevators had been installed only in a few of the taller office buildings. In buildings of only six stories, such as the Fifth Avenue, one expected the drudgery of stairs.

The new luxury hotels gave New York a cosmopolitan, sophisticated air, along with a transient population the city had not known a generation earlier. The plush-covered lobbies and opulent bars and restaurants in these hotels lent a European tone to the city. Still, there was something about Victorian New Yorkers that was put off by all the plush. Proper New Yorkers remained, at heart, rather puritanically moralistic. America still looked to England as her model for social decorum, and Americans felt more at home with English austerity and reserve than with French silk and gaudiness. To some critics the hotels seemed more like palaces of license, caravansaries of carnality, or worse. The effect of the hotels on New Yorkers' morality was pondered, and one social commentator of the time asked whether the hotels did not "open an era of upholstery, with a tendency to live in a herd, and the absence of a subdued and harmonious tone of life and manners?" Upholstery, obviously, was somehow synonymous with sin. Another travel writer warned visitors to the city that "Hotel life is agreeable and desirable for masculine celibates; but he is unwise who takes his wife and family there for a permanent home. How many women can trace their first infidelity to the necessarily demoralizing influences of public houses — to loneliness, leisure, need of society, interesting companions, abundance of opportunity and potent temptations!" Still another found hotel living unsuitable even for masculine celibates. "Gentlemen," he noted primly, "will never consent to live on mere shelves under a common roof!"

Meanwhile, to everyone's amusement, a newly rich millionaire named Edward Clark was building, of all things, a luxury apartment house at a location that wasn't even an address — Seventy-second Street and Eighth Avenue — so far out of the swim of city life that it seemed like the North Pole. Clark was spending a million dollars on this foolishness, and, obviously, it would never work. Still, New York in the 1880's had become a city of mad, entrepreneurial schemes, many of which didn't work. Into this mood of hectic speculation and crazy chance-taking, Mr. Clark's scheme fitted perfectly. It was an era of folly. Building the Dakota could be Edward Clark's.


Excerpted from Life at the Dakota by Stephen Birmingham. Copyright © 1979 Stephen Birmingham. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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