They built New York: Edward Cabot Clark

Sewing machine tycoon developed the Dakota, the city's first luxury apartment building
By Eileen AJ Connelly | October 26, 2015 04:40PM

In this era of $100 million apartments, it’s hard to imagine that the rich once shunned apartment living. But when Edward Clark started building the Dakota in 1880, the city’s first true luxury apartment building was dubbed “Clark’s Folly.”

Clark earned much of his spectacular fortune (said to be $25 million by the early 1880s, which translates to around $6.53 billion today) as a co-founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Co. Inventor Isaac Singer was the better-known, and named, partner, but Clark’s business acumen was credited for their success. Among his innovations was selling on installment plans, an early form of credit.

Clark started investing in real estate in the 1870s, and took note of the handful of successful middle-class apartment houses, like the Stuyvesant, which stood on 18th Street and is considered New York’s first true apartment building. Clark was inspired to attempt a new venture — an apartment building designed for the upper class.

At the time, apartments were synonymous with tenements, and wealthy society types lived in townhouses, mansions or plush hotels.

Clark spared no expense: The Dakota would cost an unprecedented $1 million to build.

Despite his plans for splendor, though, the location on 72nd Street, far Uptown on the edge of still-incomplete Central Park, “seemed like the North Pole,” wrote Stephen Birmingham in the book, “Life at the Dakota: New York’s Most Unusual Address.” In fact, Birmingham wrote that a friend’s comment that Clark might as well be building in the Dakota territories spawned its name. Extending the joke, Clark instructed prominent architect Henry Hardenbergh to include “Wild West” embellishments on the exterior, including the building’s famous Indian carving.

Birmingham wrote that Clark intended the Dakota to be “a short-cut route to opulent living,” and planned to market not to those dining with the Astors and Belmonts, but to newly minted millionaires with less social status. And seeing the city’s rapid growth, he rightly predicted that 72nd Street wouldn’t seem far away for long.

Clark died two years before the Dakota was complete. His heirs continued the project, and when it opened, the New York Daily News called it, “One of the most perfect apartment houses in the world.” It was fully rented before it opened, and Clark is credited with seeing the future of both apartment living and the Upper West Side, said Donald Albrecht, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York.

Now a co-op, the Dakota continues to draw the well-heeled. Last month, a three-bedroom apartment overlooking Central Park sold for $23.5 million.