Tuesday, June 6, 2023

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

Rating ⭐⭐⭐⭐

I am beyond obsessed with NYC so this book was perfect for me. One downside is that it was written in 1979 and I would love to see an updated version that details the history of the building up to now. My first exposure to this magnificent building came when I was in elementary school and devoured Baby-Sitters Club books like there was no tomorrow. Stacey moved from NYC to Stoneybrook, and her best friend Laine lived at the Dakota. I remember thinking how amazing and intriguing it sounded, this fancy building in the coolest city in the world.

Edward Clark, of Singer sewing machine fame which he partnered with Isaac Singer on to build their empire, commissioned to have the Dakota built in the 1880s. It was not named as such by him initially. He had intended to call it the Clark Apartments, but at first given its location, society referred to it as Clark's Folly. A friend even went so far as to say the building was so far north and west on Manhattan's Upper West Side (and so far from the city's active center), Clark might as well have been building it in Dakota. "And so, in gesture of airy defiance to the critics and skeptics and naysayers, he announced that its name would be the Dakota" (9%).

The Dakota became one of the first true luxury apartment and despite its location and those critics, it was an immediate success from the moment it was ready for tenants.

Here the author details the first one hundred years of the building's life. We get the history of the place and its people - from Boris Karloff to John Lennon. We learn the ins and outs of the building - the secret passages, labyrinth-like interior, and of course GHOSTS.

The author brings the building itself to life, which was helpful given the lack of photos. The author goes into great detail regarding the tenants - famous or not. There's actually way more than we would ever need to know about them, which does make for some uncomfortable reading sometimes. He definitely used language/had a not-okay attitude we would never used today about certain groups of minorities - LGBTQIA+, African-American, and Jewish people. It doesn't make any of it okay, but at least keep in mind this was written in 1979. We've come a long way since then (mostly). I also hope the building is not as discriminatory today as it was then, despite Roberta Flack being the first African-American resident in the 70s.

I love books about buildings with history such as the Dakota, and that's what made this one such a draw for me, despite the negative aspects of the book. And not only did it give a beautiful history of such a unique place, but we also get some history of the immediate surrounding area, which includes Central Park. Any history of NYC is like manna from Heaven to me, so I loved this aspect, too. The earliest days of the building remained the most interesting to me - partiall due to my love for all things Gilded Age NYC. I find the development of the city fascinating as it inched along, slowly becoming what we know it as today.

There were so many anecdotes that I found endearing or interesting. I've included those here along with the point they were discussed in the Kindle version of the text.

(26%) William Henry Pratt, more widely known as Boris Karloff, lived in the building for years and would tell the tale of how every Halloween he would set out a bowl of candy for the children living there. Yet he never had an Halloween visitors, because the children were too scared to even ring the doorbell.

(28%) The Clarks certainly knew how to take care of their tenants. When one gentleman was away for the summer, a water pipe burst, destroying an irreplaceable panel of wallpaper. Instead, the building's painting crew replicated the wallpaper pattern down to the last detail and the tenant could not tell the difference upon his return.

(29%) At one point the building had it's own destructive phantom, referred to as the Mad Slasher - unknown whether it was ghostly or otherwise. For whatever reason, this person was determined to damage the passanger elevators soon after they were installed. Deep gouges were repeatedly carved into the paneled walls constantly. They were determined to be too high for a child to reach and so deep that someone incredibly strong would have had to have made them. It made the living situation incredibly uncomfortable, as neighbors became suspicious of one another. Piles of shredded paper were also found in various corridors, which were thought to be attempts to light fires. One of the biggest events occurred when a can of paint was thrown from the roof of the building into the courtyard below, just barely missing a tenant. Despite attempts to catch whoever was up to know good, no one was ever apprehended. There were no clues even as to who the culprit might have been.

Lastly, this one hits the hardest and makes me so sad for all the history lost. The Dakota has rooftop storage rooms (at least at the time of the writing). Unfortunately, they're all empty now. Decades ago Edward Downes, a resident, discovered a handyman carrying stacks of old file folders. Turns out he was clearing out the room of one hundred year's worth of documents pertaining to the building. Downes was able to save a few documents, but most of it was gone, just like that. All kinds of records - from past tenants, complaints, births and deaths, and so on, were all gone just like that. Jo Mielziner, another resident, had kept years' and years' worth of records of the Dakota in various files and scrapbooks. Unfortunately when Mielziner had passed away a few years earlier in 1976, the files were never found. More history, just gone.

Despite the negative aspects of the book, I truly loved the history of the building and would love to know so much more.



  1. So much history in that city and in those buildings! Glad you liked it.

  2. Ugh. I want to go to New York so bad and just wander around looking at everything! I love history of NY and history of buildings like you do and definitely am adding this to my TBR, if it's not already on the list. And dang that makes me mad about all the lost history in those files!!!!!

    1. I love books like this, and city biographies in general. I do wish it could get an update. It makes me sick thinking about all the history that disappeared. Kind of like how I get sad when I think about the Library at Alexandria being (repeatedly) destroyed.


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