The Dakota – the first luxury apartment building in New York City – was not just a building; it was a rule-breaking revolutionary concept. In the 1880s, the Gilded Age wealthy resided in palatial private residences, while apartment living was associated with poverty. The Dakota changed these rules forever.
They called The Dakota Clark’s folly. But how did Edward Clark, a cautious, practical lawyer, come up with such a novel idea, and how did he finance the endeavor? The answer, surprisingly, has to do with the profits from Singer sewing machines!
Isaac Merritt Singer, an all-around colorful character, was quite the opposite of Clark. Handsome, tall, muscular, and not burdened with matters of conscience, he wandered through life, hustling from one endeavor to another, including acting, business, and some inventing. A polygamist, at some point, he was married to five women at the same time and fathered all together 24 children. After improving on the design of the existing sewing machine, he decided to patent the machine as his own invention. This is when the paths of Singer and Clark crossed, and a 20-year unlikely partnership began. Not only did Clark manage to produce a patent, but he also proved to be a natural salesman and a promoter, selling the concept of a sewing machine. He preached that the machine allowed women to spend less time sewing, freeing it for other family tasks. In a stroke of genius, he pitched the idea to their husbands, who ultimately were footing the bill.
When Singer died in 1875, Clark ended up with the Singer Sewing Machine Company money and zeroed in on real estate as his next venture.
Much like the sewing machine was a reflection of changing times, the Dakota took advantage of changing social structures. The emerging middle class craved the lifestyle of the super-wealthy, and Dakota provided the perfect illusion of living in a palace, but without the expense and effort of owning a private house. According to the original design, each of the seven main floors would contain six apartments with a common layout. However, while marketing his edifice, Clark offered custom options to prospective buyers. He ended up with 64 uniquely designed units varying from 4 to 20 rooms, increasing the illusion of individual palaces despite being under a common roof.
All apartments were sold before the Dakota even opened – quite a stunning success for such a bold innovation. In fact, between 1884 and 1929, there was not a single vacancy at the Dakota. Clark himself had an apartment in Dakota, which sadly he did not get to enjoy – he died in 1882, two years before the building opened.
The Dakota, aka Clark’s folly, stands as a monument to his daring, innovation, and business acumen. Clark did not think of it as his legacy, and he was not interested in being remembered for it. When asked why, at the age of 69, he decided to become a developer and construct a major apartment building, he answered with disarming simplicity, “To make money.”