BOOK REVIEW: Life at The Dakota

If there ever was a book that has it all, a book that holds your attention, a book that makes you want to know more, this is it.

“Life at the Dakota” is a socioeconomic history of the famous New York City residential building. Yes, that one – the one where scenes from Rosemary’s Baby were filmed, the one where Jason Robards once slept overnight at the wheel of his car, the one where a resident displayed a her favorite stuffed horse, the one where John Lennon was murdered.

The Dakota was constructed between 1880 and 1884 and opened October 27, 1884. It was built by the architectural firm of Henry Janeway Hardenbergh with the design by Edward Clark, the head of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

The Dakota was, indeed, a building well ahead of its time, with central heating, its own in-house power plant, the first elevators installed in a residential building, a gymnasium, and much more. Before it was opened for residency, all of the apartments were leased, and no vacancies existed from then until 1929.

The book begins with an in-depth history of New York and the Central Park West area, including the dichotomy of the lifestyles and economic factors between the East and West Sides. Here we learn about the Who’s Who and Who Wants to Be and Who Doesn’t Care Who’s Who.

The original apartments, dining room, gymnasium, tennis court, servants’ rooms, laundry rooms, wine cellar, et cetera were lavish or simply practical, according to function. No cost was spared. We find that over the years, even at the onset, residents took to moving and rebuilding walls and reconfiguring the space. One resident even had a sunken pool installed, only to be covered over at another time, and then rediscovered during a future remodeling project decades later.

There are numerous stories about many of the residents and the employees, their quirkiness, their practicalities, and their contributions and influence on The Dakota. There are people whose names were, or are, well-known, and those who are now shadows in history or pop culture, but intriguing nonetheless.

The building became a co-op in the early 1960s, and we learn how that occurred with all its brouhaha, and how that continues to impact its operation today – or at least until 1979 when this book was published.

This is a very tightly-written book and is, therefore, extremely interesting and difficult to put down. Each chapter is filled with so much material on the people, politics, cloak-and-dagger tomfooleries, and economic data that I want to learn more, yet it’s a shame that the book ends its account in 1979. It practically screams for an addendum to share what happened since then.

I recommend “Life at the Dakota” for anyone who likes history, architecture, mystery, intrigue, and/or entertaining ideas. Yes, it even has a trio of old cocktail recipes.

There is a book that has it all, a book that holds your attention, a book that makes you want to know more – this is it!

Life at The Dakota
By Stephen Birmingham
Published: 1979; 2015
Publisher: Open Road Media
Pages: 243

©Susan Marie Molloy, and all works within.

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