Origins and The Dakota

The Dakota is a benchmark building in the architectural history of New York, and not just for its colossal beauty.  Built by the firm of Henry J. Hardenbergh between 1880-1884, it marks the beginning of the upper west side’s greatest development period (1880-1930).  Its design also marks a revolution in New York City residential architecture: it is an early example of multiple dwelling design aimed for high class inhabitants which predates the current age of apartments.  The urban shift to apartment living can be traced to coinciding cultural, technological, and economic growth.  These factors include a dramatic influx of population, money, and construction, as well as a northerly and skyward shift of cultural tropes in habitation and transportation.  All facets of this shift are inherent in the Dakota.

Historically European urban centers were, for the most part, unplanned.  Except the richest, most important, or more prominent neighborhoods, building growth was mostly organic and took on a characteristic (often) still notable today.  Lacking regularity, winding cobblestone streets made European cities aesthetically pleasing but commercially nightmarish.  Before 1811 New York City had developed this antiquated style plan.  Some areas were built on a true north-south axis and some had come about through the untraceable growth of bourgeoning urban space.  (The Island of Manhattan sits on a north-west, south-east axis, making all true north-south streets angular to the East and Hudson rivers.)  However, around the turn of the 19th century it became evident that New York’s population would soon grow to unprecedented levels.  Therefore, in 1807 senator Gouverneur Morris produced a plan to maximize the island’s limited remaining space by organizing the city on a grid pattern parallel with the island’s orientation (fig. 1).  This grid was famously instituted in 1811 by land survey.  The surveyor, John Randel Jr., created 1st through 155th streets by setting physical markers at all future intersections in New York’s tracts of farmland.  The grid charted perpendicular roads which yielded rectangular spaces for urban development, commonly called “blocks” by New Yorkers today.

The Commissioner's Map of 1811

Figure 1, The Commissioner’s Map of 1811

However such a plan lacked the excitement and beauty that abnormal street patterns generated through organic growth.δ  A number of variances were added to the plan.  These included sparing Broadway, and the creation of public fields at strategic and important intersections.  However as the city’s population grew it became clear that Morris’ plan did not contain enough public space.  In 1853 the problem became so immense that New York’s legislature earmarked nearly 700 acres to be one of the grandest parks on Earth, Central Park.

Aside from the creation of vast public space, Central Park aided New York’s development by recreating the character of northern Manhattan into a destination.  The prospect of living near such beauty and open air was much desired.  Until the 1880s, however this maxim was seemingly paradoxical.  Although the neighborhoods flanking Central Park began to develop soon after its completion, construction on its abutting avenues lagged by several decades.  The land nearest the park was so desired that all building plots adjacent to it (which would have the easiest access to it, and the most expansive views of it) were monumentally expensive.  One of the first major residences on either border was that of Caroline Astor.  Due to the Astors’ wealth the family was one of the most culturally powerful in America.  It was their house’s construction that sparked an explosion of mansion-building on fifth avenue in the ensuing decades.  Fifth avenue became known for lodging New York’s richest citizens, in some of the most lavish homes ever built.  On the west side, however, circumstances were different.Ψ

Compared to today, far fewer types of residential buildings existed in the late nineteenth century.  The patrician homes of fifth avenue were a new type of single family mansion that had developed out of new heights of wealth and technology.  For the bulk of New York’s history, all high class housing was in the form of predominantly brick row houses (known colloquially as brownstones, referring to the hue of the Brooklyn stone originally harvested for their facades).  Although sometimes mansions in their own right, a row house is generally a thin, three- or four-story property, built in series with other similar buildings.  Traditionally an entire row was built at one time and was inhabited by a single extended family.  A familial patriarch might have designed and built a group of four or five homes, and gifted them to his children, siblings or parents.  Until the late 19th century it was popular to show continuity in a single row; designing all of the houses to look more or less the same.  In this way ancestral wealth was obvious to the eye; there could be no doubt about who owned a large portion of a street if all of its houses looked alike.

Although an entire row might have been inhabited by many immediate families, each row house had the spacious feel of a single abode.  A row house’s entry way was slightly elevated above the street, necessitating a short stairway to the landing (fig. 2).  The front door, usually heavily adorned with a neoclassical arch and pediment, led to the first floor foyer, parlor, and dining room.  Above were bedrooms, and half way below street level, was the kitchen and maid’s rooms.  Today many row houses still litter New York’s older, and more southern areas, but very few entire rows exist.

Gothic Revival Row House

Figure 2, Gothic Revival Row House

In stark contrast to the comfort of New York’s wealthy, New York’s lower classes lived in one type of multifamily dwellings; the infamous tenements.  It is difficult to imagine the destitution that was common in New York’s early tenements.  This is partially due to the extent of its conditions, and partially because almost none still exist.  Although New York is still littered with tenement houses (often who’s railway apartments now house one, two, or three individuals instead of the then-common one, two, or three families) the existing buildings are of the relatively affluent or more recent versions.  The majority of tenements from the city’s history have been torn down.

Tenement buildings are the epitome of unchecked mid-nineteenth century capitalism.  They were designed on a financially responsible and legal model.  However they were so economically responsible that their design had the unfortunate consequence of cultivating death, disease, and depression.  Designers exploited the inhabitants by renting space to massive amounts of people, but providing “few of the amenities we take for granted today, such as light, air, and private bathrooms”.Γ  Often tenements were four or five stories tall, one building plot wide, and contained upwards of twenty families.  The first official investigation into tenement living conditions conducted in 1857, found that almost no buildings provided occupants with the rudimentary public sanitation system that had been installed underneath New York in 1844.  This information was instrumental in connecting impoverished living environs as the source of disease, such as the cholera outbreak of 1865 that killed over 1,000 people.  (An interconnection difficult to prove before modern medical advances.)  The Metropolitan Board of Health was created in 1866 and tasked with protecting public health.  One year later the first Tenement House Act was ratified.  This State law defined a tenement house as “any house, building, or portion thereof which is rented, leased, let, or hired out to be occupied, or is occupied, as the home or residence of more than three families living independently of one another, and doing their own cooking upon the premises, or by more than two families upon a floor, so living and cooking and having a common right in the halls, stairways, yards, water closets or privies, or some of them.”ð   The law required any building under the above definition without the following amenities, was to be vacated, and no longer used.

Every sleeping room had a ventilator or transom window of an area of 3 square feet over the door connection with the adjoining room or with the outer air; that every such house should be provided with a proper fire escape to be approved by the Building Inspector; that the roof over the main hall should be provided with a proper ventilator; and that it should be kept in good repair and not allowed to leak, and that all stairs should be provided with proper banisters; also that every house should be provided with good and sufficient water-closets or privies, and that there should not be less than 1 to every 20 occupants, and that where there was a sewer in the street in front of such a house, the privies or closets should be connected with the sewer; that no cesspool should be allowed in connection with a tenement house unless where it was unavoidable; that the yards of all new tenement houses should be graded and drained, and connected with the sewer; that no basement or cellar rooms should be occupied without a permit from the Board of Health, and that, even then, such rooms should not be occupied unless 7 feet in height from the floor to the ceiling, and also 1 foot of the height above the surface of the ground adjoining the same, nor unless there was an open area properly drained, 2 feet 6 inches wide, extending along the front of the room, nor unless the room had an external window opening of at least 9 square feet…All tenement houses were also required to be provided with proper receptacles for garbage and other refuse, and the storage of combustible material was prohibited, as was the keeping of animals, except dogs and cats.  All tenements were further required to be kept free from the accumulation of dirt and filth and garbage at all times. 

Unfortunately, the law was inadequate and ineffective in execution.  This was partially due to some clauses that were to be upheld on a case-by-case basis, or at the discretion of the Board of Health.  Perhaps the lawmakers did not comprehend the vast quantity of these buildings, and the inadequacy of a relatively few inspectors.

The first law’s fruitlessness was also greatly due to the lack of a stipulated distance between buildings.  No matter how many windows are added to a building, one cannot get fresh air and light if the adjacent building’s windows abut it.  Regardless, this law was the first step toward legalized healthy living conditions for all.  By 1879 a New Tenement House Law was ratified.  This law stipulated that all newly erected tenement had to take up less than 65% of the lot it was built upon.   In theory this would create more space between buildings, ensuring the freshness of available air and light.  Unfortunately, once again, this was instituted discretionarily, which nullified its purpose.  To aid the inspection of such buildings, the Board of Health was given thirty policemen, and a $10,000 budget.   In spite of the New Law’s practical ineffectuality, it demonstrated a further step toward a favorable goal.  It also helped affect a new tenement building design that would forever change the face of urban architecture.

Henry O. Meyer, the owner of the newspaper Sanitary Engineer, was inspired by the New Tenement House Law.  With the help of other interested parties, Meyer began a contest that offered a $500 prize, to a tenement design that best provided amenities to its inhabitants but only used the target 65% of the plot.   The winner was James E. Ware, and his “dumb-bell” building design (fig. 3).  The theory behind the dumbbell design, was to maximize exterior surface area.  By tapering the external walls toward the central staircase, a space was created on which twice the amount of windows could open into.  The street and yard facades did not need to be altered, as air and light were already accessible. (As the middle of the building was squeezed, and facades remain, the shape of this building resembles a dumbbell from above.)  Build two dumbbells next to each other and the negative internal space yielded a shaft.  The dumbbell design became extremely popular, and was pervasive enough to influence an amendment of the New Tenement House Act in 1887, that required all buildings that housed more than one family on a floor to contain openings to outer air in interior halls.

 

Two Dumbbell Tenements

Figure 3, Two Dumbbell Tenements

Although this design’s initial reception was positive, it contained a surplus of problems in its own right.  Many old problems remained; the air shafts were often small enough to reach across.  Some new complications were created as well.  The interior air shafts became garbage pits, causing noxious smells to waft into the apartments of both buildings.  Also, with the addition of so many more windows noise was incessant, especially in the warm months.  Fortunately the first wave of dumbbell tenement design after 1879 would be the last era of public ignorance.  It was in period that Jacob Riis, one of the cause’s most notable activists, fought against tenement building design.  For the first time New York’s destitute had a voice.  This voice would impact further laws pertaining to environmental conditions, most notably The Tenement House Laws of the City of New York in 1901, and the New York State Multiple Dwelling Law of 1929.

Riis’ biography is a classic story of the American dream.  Coming to America as an immigrant, Riis experienced the desolation of tenements first hand.  Through hard work he rose in ranks and became a prominent member of a new socioeconomic class that was developing out of the modernization of commerce. (Riis actually rose to rub shoulders with future president Theodore Roosevelt.  As his boxing partner Riis gained Roosevelt’s respect which was instrumental in aiding the plight of the tenements.)  The bourgeoning upper middle class resounded throughout western culture, from Paris to New York.  This population enjoyed high class luxury but without the congenital stores of wealth and power.  Housing posed a problem for the nouvelle-riche.  When the upper middle class rose out of tenement life scant few options existed to house them.  To fill this niche, a new type of building was fabricated to reflect the class’ particular wealth.  Unsurprisingly it was another champion of the upper middle class who developed the style of housing that would accommodate members of his class for decades to come, and establish the precursor to most urban living today; the apartment.

Edward C. Clark, a New York lawyer, was president and part-owner of I.M. Singer and Co. (Later renamed Singer Manufacturing Company, and today known as The Singer Company.)  Founded by Clark in 1851 with Isaac Merritt Singer, the company was known for technological innovation, continually advancing the engineering of automatic sewing machines.  In 1865 the I.M. Singer and Co. became well known for corporate ingenuity as well.  Clark established the hire-purchase plan, which was the “prototype of all installment selling, or time payment purchases.”β  The purpose of the plan was to ensure the sale of their products over the course of several small payments to those who could not afford the total price.  Installment purchasers would be even better equipped to pay for their products after they were sold by using the products to acquire income.  This created an entirely new group of consumers.

After the company gained moderate success Clark decided to invest in real estate.  He built a number of public and private buildings near his home in Cooperstown, New York.  In 1876 Clark initiated plans for a pet project, Kingfisher Tower, a miniature gothic style tower on Otsego Lake.  The designer that won the bid was Henry Janeway Hardenbergh.  Although the tower’s design was mocked by critics, today it is revered as a beloved and graceful monument.  The partnership of these two men was novel.  Over the ensuing decade the two men built and designed several buildings together that would become some of New York’s most significant.

The pair’s first urban endeavor was a relatively new residential platform; a luxury Apartment Hotel, dubbed The Van Corlear (fig. 4).Δ  The Van Corlear was not the first luxury apartment building in New York.  In the preceding decades, the french flat style of dwelling had come into vogue.  These grand buildings, often five or six stories tall, housed single families on each floor.  However, Clark envisioned a luxury dwelling that was part hotel.  A major expense of upper class living was the staff necessary to maintain an affluent life.  Aside from the wages paid to full time maids, butlers, cooks, etc. an upper class abode had to include extra rooms for the staff to live and work in.  For the upper middle class this extra real estate was far too impractical.  By removing these extra rooms (such as full kitchens, maids rooms, pantries, water closets, etc.) and hiring a single large staff, Clark modeled his apartment building like a hotel.  However this hotel’s guests were not temporary occupants, but long term leasers.  Therefore the staff’s costs divided into each tenants rent could be ensured regularly.  This housing style pervaded all American culture, but the Van Corlear was just a prototype.  The model that was famed around the world and the true success of Clark and Hardenbergh’s apartment-hotel was the Dakota.

 

The Van Corlear

Figure 4, The Van Corlear

 

The exterior design of the Dakota is both eminent and prolific.  With its more than fourteen foot high ceilings and extra attics in the top apartments, its eight stories reach a considerable height.  (This height dwarfed Calavert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould’s original five-story, red brick victorian gothic American Museum of Natural History, the only other prominent building on the avenue at the time.)  Its facade is in the German Renaissance Revival style, and built from yellow brick, stone, and terra cotta (fig. 5).  Its gabled crown is replete with dormer windows and accented by copper trim.  The southern facade includes two pavilions, which cap semicircular oriel windows that run to the second story.  The crown is separated from the four story shaft on the seventh floor with a braced cornice underneath an ornate metal rail.  The shaft includes a trim of vertical earth colored quoins, at each oscillation on its face.  The two story base is marked by carved panels above, and below, a stone brocade that slips under street level into a dry moat.  The two story segmental gauged double archway, flanked by a sentry box and two metal urns mounted on large pedestals, is ornamented with pilasters, panels, moldings, and medallions.  This entryway leads one not into a lobby entrance, but into one of the most significant aspects of the buildings design; the interior courtyard.

 

The Dakota from Google Street View

Figure 5, The Dakota from Google Street View

 

Below ground the Dakota’s courtyard is the ceiling to a network of staff pathways and boulevards.  Ground level, the courtyard itself doubles as both a scenic entrance to the residence as well as a carriage turnaround.  Most significant, however is the courtyard’s action on the apartments.  It functions as a shaft, expediting light and air exposure to the back of its onlooking apartments (fig. 6).  Of course this utility is not novel to the Dakota.  Mentmore Tower, for example, the country home of Baron Mayer de Rothschild in Buckinghamshire, England, is another example German Renaissance Revival built with an interior court (fig. 7).  (Unlike the Dakota, however, Mentmore Tower has two central foci, one interior and one exterior.  In this way it is able to both attain the utility of light and air exposure, and uphold the traditions of its inspiration, the late 16th century, Wallaton, in Nottingham, England.)  The Van Corlear also includes a courtyard that functions as a light and air shaft (fig. 8).  However it is a relatively smaller and perpendicular shape, and therefore resembles the classical court of Mentmore.  On the avenue facing end of the building, especially where the street-facing ends meet it, the blueprint shows a thick mass of interior rooms, many of which have no exposure light or air.  The design of the Dakota, however, adds large shafts at each end of the Dakota’s rectilinear court, thereby economizing the Dakota’s interior surface area, and forming a shape that more resembles a dumbbell.  In this way Hardenburgh relieved massive interior areas that afflicted the Van Corlear’s apartments.  The much larger apartments in the Dakota include no rooms that omit access to light or air.Θ

 

Figure 6, The Dakota's Blueprint (7th Floor)

Figure 6, The Dakota Floor Plan

 

Figure 7, Mentmore Tower Floror Plan (another example of German renaissance Revival Style)

Figure 7, Mentmore Tower Floror Plan

 

Figure 8, The Van Corlear Floor Plan

Figure 8, The Van Corlear Floor Plan

 

It seems that New York City was something of an experiment in urban living.  Through trial and error designers learned to balance livability and expense for both the rich and poor.  Light, air, and space are a necessity for all people.  Manhattan began to push toward its physical limits these luxuries became exponentially rare.  Morris’ map shows a fiscally feasible but ignorantly planned city.  The city responded with Central Park, a reaction that benefited all citizens.  Since the beginning of the city the wealthy had these essentials en masse in the row houses and later brownstone mansions.   It was the strife of the lower classes to live without these necessities, however through the modernization of design and culture, they were becoming more and more feasible.  The new upper-middle class had the fortune to design wholly new cultural accommodations.  By cherry picking the aesthetics and comfort of aristocratic homes and the economic designs of the tenements, architects began a cry of revolution in the city’s history that still reverberates today.

 

Footnotes

 Much of the Dakota’s initial spirit, including its name, was contingent the sparse area it was built in.  It was the first residential building erected on Central Park West.  Although Clark was mocked that his building’s name was fitting because it was built so far away from the heart of New York, (and therefore might have well been in one of the Dakotas) the allusion of manifest destiny in conquering the upper west side was a marketing ploy used by various relators.  Countless buildings in the neighborhood were similarly named after western territories and states. Alpern, Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan, 98.

δ In a 2011 article, Scholar Rose-Redwood demonstrates that the belief of the utilitarian character of the grid has been so culturally perpetuated that today it is more comparable to myth, and that in fact the grid’s utility was “part of a broader vision of empire and disciplinary self-conduct informed by metaphysics of divine revelation.” Rose-Redwood, “Mythologies of the Grid in the Empire City,” 410.

 Although it is widely believed that this was an aesthetic choice, in an additional text to the proposed map, the commissioners explain that the grid was to be built in tandem “with the plans already adopted by individuals as not to make any important changes in their dispositions,” and that the previously developed areas of the city would not be destroyed, Morris, De Witt, and Rutherford, Remarks of the Commissioners for laying out streets and roads in the City of New York, Under the Act of April 3, 1807”.  This very possibly could have been an economical choice as much as an aesthetic one.  Broadway is New York’s oldest road, as its original path (called the Weckquasgeek trail) was used by the native Lenope people, and was developed into the Heere Straat (High Street) soon after the Dutch arrived.  Jackson, The Encyclopedia of New York City, 159.

Ψ It is evident by the 1811 grid plan, and the periodic disposition of its subsequent construction, that as New York City grew older, and its population swelled, the city developed in a northward trajectory.  The grid was not an immediate establishment.  It happened over the course of decades.  The existence of transit to the Upper West Side is therefore a Euthyphro dilemma: was public transit added into these areas because it began to populate, or did the population incurrence spur the building of transit?  Population, transit, and northward expansion are for the most part inextricably linked.  In my Central Park West Transit Timeline (fig. 9) these histories are simultaneously mapped on a single graphic.

 

Figure 9, Central Park West Transit Timeline

Figure 9, Central Park West Transit Timeline, (Data from “Historical Census Browser”, University of Virginia Library, accessed July 5, 2014, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu/index.html)

 

 Often one builder bought several consecutive land plots, but built only one or two houses on each plot.  The average New York City plot size is twenty to twenty five feet wide, and one hundred feet long.

 Also, this style equated wealth with width; a concept foreign to most New Yorkers today, who equate wealth with height.

 What rows do exist are hard to spot as most of the remaining examples were built later, and therefore each house is designed in a different style.  New York City Landmark’s Preservation Commission, Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District Designation Report, 18, 25.

 An important exception being 97 Orchard Street.  Built in 1863, this building preserves something of a classic tenement design, before any living standards were legalized in the following decade.  Later, to meet standards the building underwent meager renovations until it was sealed in 1935, and opened as the Tenement Museum in 1988.  Using historical artifacts, such as crime scene photos taken in 1918, the Museum has recreated much of the building’s original interiors.  “Exploring 97 Orchard Street,” Tenement Museum, accessed July 4, 2014, http://www.tenement.org/research.html.

Γ New York City Landmark’s Preservation Commission, Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District Designation Report, 236.

 “Cholera in 1866”, The Graduate Center: CUNY, accessed, July 4th, 2014, http://www.vny.cuny.edu/cholera/1866/cholera_1866_3new.html.

ð Veiller, The Tenement House Reform in New York, 1834-1900 1900, 17.

“1879”, Living City Archive, accessed July 4th, 2014, http://www.livingcityarchive.org/htm/framesets/themes/tenements/fs_1879.htm,

Veiller, The Tenement House Reform in New York, 1834-1900 1900, 25.

β “Singer History,” Singer Direct Company, accessed July 4th, 2014 http://www.singerdirect.co.uk/singer-history.htm.

Δ Although Christopher Gray of the New York Times claims the Van Corlear is the first apartment hotel.  Gray, “An Unusual Design is Improved and a Landmark is Born.”

Θ The reasoning behind this elision of luxury and tenement architectural design many be more than utilitarian, however.  It is possible that the rhetoric of the period had a hand in the necessity for such a light shaft-like courtyard.  The Dakota’s novel way of enticing the upper middle class to rent, rather than purchase their own apartment, left the building inside of the category of tenement, as stipulated by the First Tenement Housing act.  Therefore, the following legal incursions on the strife in New York’s ghettos may have, by default, affected the designs of the wealthy.  In fact, within the vast majority of the residential architecture on central park west, this type of shaft is evident in one way or another, sometimes forming the building into a U, with the lobby after an entrance, sometime a, E, using shafts in the back facade, instead of any court, etc.  The only design which does not necessitate a shaft are Emery Roth, and Irwin Channing’s, and as a future essay on this website explains, the bases of these towers still fall under tenement law, even though their distinctive skyscraper tops do not.

 

 

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