Book Review: Why ‘Dakota’ Matters in the Land of Skyscrapers

Book Review: Why ‘Dakota’ Matters in the Land of Skyscrapers

Earlier on we discussed the issues of tracing the history of the World’s Tallest Buildings. Because of missing or inaccurate data and these being prone to historic interpretation, you’ll find yourself in a bit of limbo when venturing into the 1880’s, but at least the history is pretty well documented since that decade.

Things are more of a challenge when tracing the origins of the resiscraper. The earliest tower that undoubtedly can be called one is Emery Roth’s Ritz Tower which was built in New York in 1926. But contrary to the constructive inventivity which gave rise to the office tower, the residential tower had a two-millennia-old reputation to overcome.

Ever since the insulae (apartment buildings) in ancient Rome, those who could afford lived in a house, and those who could not in an apartment. In New York of the 1870’s, these apartments were called tenements. Around this time, and about a decade before Chicago architects designed structures which are now being referred to as the first skyscrapers, New York witnessed the birth of apartment buildings offering shared luxury and amenities that were a choice for those seeking a luxurious and bohemian lifestyle in city which was rapidly running out of space.

dakota
The Dakota. source: Cagsawa at Flickr

Enter The Dakota. Just like the Home Insurance Building in Chicago can be considered as the first skyscraper, the apartment house at 1 West 72nd Street facing New York’s Central Park is the first residential skyscraper. Both buildings may lack the physical height but they definitely represent the upward ambition and helped breaking ground for the mighty towers we see today.

The Dakota was built in between 1880 and 1884 on a plot in the Upper West Side which at the time was considered to be faraway land. Like many famous buildings which define New York, it was a product of a successful partnership between architect and commissioner, in this case the craftsmanship of the architect Henry Hardenbergh and the vision of Edward Clark. The latter is portrayed as a Steve Jobs of his age, as he didn’t invent the sewing machine but because if his vision and eye for marketing and details made the Singer Company one of the most successful companies of his age.

This is just one of many stories and angles which are being presented in the book The Dakota which was recently published by the Princeton Architecural Press and written by Andrew Alpern. Like Edward Clark, Mr. Alpern is Manhattan native and an attorney with a keen interest in architectural history and real estate. He is the established author of many titles about New York apartment buildings, plus a very entertaining one on New York holdouts. Inspired by questions about the Dakota and surprised by the lack of good references about it, he decided to write one of his own. The result is a triumph.

The Dakota discusses the early days of luxurious apartments in New York City and the development of the Upper West Side, plus it profiles Henry Hardenbergh and Edward Clark. Mr. Alpern does a great job capturing the vision, and pointing out the details which have made the Dakota the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building (as the subtitle suggests) and still a top address in today’s housing market, and he does so with enthusiasm. The book doesn’t come with a bibliography but instead includes a good number of papers and articles which you usually find in references. The inclusion of many floor plans, historical images of the in- and exterior and lists of residents makes it an excellent source for research.

dakota_02A look inside. Note markings are my own.

It doesn’t happen often that a book is interesting, accessible, and looks great because of the printed quality and the images, but The Dakota checks all these boxes. It makes me happy to know books like these are still being published these days. The book is a tribute to a great building, and is mandatory reading for everyone interested in New York or residential real estate.

The Dakota
Andrew Alpern (author), Kenneth G Grant (photographer) and Christopher Gray (contributor)
Princeton Architectural Press (October 13, 2015)
Hardcover | 224 pages | ISBN-13: 978-1616894375
more: publisher’s info page

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