Read Life at the Dakota Online
Authors: Stephen; Birmingham
The most obvious difference about these new West Side houses lay in their faÃ§ades. The East Side brownstone traditionally had a flattened roofline and symmetrical rectangular windows. The new West Side houses had gabled, dormered, peaked or pyramid roofs, bay windows often of stained glass, arched doorways. Instead of displaying a dreary brownstone sameness, the new houses were faced with a variety of materials, with everything from whitest marble to blue-gray sandstone, with brick that ranged in color from gray to the Dakota's own pale yellow, from the softest rose to the deepest red. The new architectural individuality gave the West Side a sense of variety and fun that the East Side lacked. Going up to the West Side in 1890 felt like entering an entirely different city, one with its own special mores, customs, usages and social tone.
More than three quarters of a century have passed, and the West Side still remains “different.” Differentâbut not fashionable. For all the dreams of the early builders and developers (the grandeur that was planned for Central Park West, for West End Avenue, for Riverside Drive), the West Side never caught on nor achieved the social acceptability of the East Side. Though there is little logic to it, many of the sober East Side town houses have survived as elegant private residences,
while the more fanciful West Side houses have for the most part been divided into apartments or rooming houses. The huge mansion that Mrs. Alfred Corning Clark (daughter-in-law of the original Edward Clark) built in 1900 of white marble and red brick on Riverside Driveâit had a colonnaded private bowling alleyâis gone. So is the Schwab mansion which was just down the street from Mrs. Clark. The East Side palaces of Andrew Carnegie, Otto Kahn, Henry Frick and J. P. Morgan still stand, though they have been put to other uses.
Just how the mystique that the East Side offered better addresses than the West evolved is not all that hard to fathom. In the late nineteenth century, it had a lot to do with the West Side's physical distance from society's traditional epicenter on Fifth Avenue, where New York ladies saw each other daily on their rounds of shopping. To New Yorkers, “The Avenue” was only Fifth Avenue. Then too, there was the elaborate and time-consuming ritual of visiting and calling-card-leaving, a rite so complicated that only the most dedicated could master its intricacies: which card should be left by a lady, which by a husband and wife, which should be left by children, how many cards should be left for each member of the family being called upon, which corners should be turned down, and when the letters P.P.C. should be inked in the lower left-hand corner of a card
(pour prendre congÃ©
âto take leave, indicating that one was going out of town). A great deal of a woman's day was spent depositing the little cards at the houses of her friends and, since a lady with a sable lap robe would not use the elevated trains to deliver her calling cards, and traveled instead in her coach-and-four, the West Side simply seemed too far away.
Later, when America entered the era of the automobile, there was a noticeable tendency for the affluent of American cities to build their homes on the east side of town rather than the west. This occurred when it was noticed that with this arrangement, the motorist had the sun behind him and not blazing in his eyes when he drove to work in the morning, and behind him again when he drove home at night. But why this notion should have persisted in Manhattan to the present dayâwhen hardly any New Yorkers drive themselves to and from workâis unclear. Compared with the airy views available to those who live on unfashionable Central Park West, those who live on the East Side's fashionable Park Avenue live along a boring, airless tunnel of granite and glass, where apartment buildings merely look at one another.
Beneath the surface of much of Park Avenue run the tracks of the Penn Central Railroad's New Haven division, which causes Park Avenue buildings to tremble and china to rattle whenever a commuter train hurtles through the subterranean tunnel. Aesthetically, Park Avenue has almost nothing to recommend it. It is like Chicago's Lake Shore Drive without the Lake, Boston's Beacon Hill without the Common, San Francisco's Russian Hill without the Bay, and Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia without the Square.
On fashionable upper Fifth Avenue, meanwhile, where apartments have an identically graceful view of the park as can be had from Central Park West, park-facing apartment dwellers must close off the view with heavy draperies on most clear afternoons because of the descending sun's punishing glare. Fifth Avenue is further handicapped by being the traditional course for New York's periodic noisy parades, which not only stop all traffic on the street but leave it strewn with garbage, refuse, half-eaten hot dogs, discarded noisemakers and paper hats. Then, too, there is the fact that for a long stretch of upper Fifth Avenue the pungent animal stench from the Central Park Zoo permeates the living rooms of some of New York's wealthiest people. Despite all this, the east side of Fifth Avenue between Sixty-first and Ninety-sixth Streets remains one of New York's most desirable addresses.
South of the park, New York's most elegant storesâSaks, Tiffany's, Gucci, Elizabeth Arden and so onâhave been established on the east side of Fifth Avenue, mysteriously bolstering the East Side mystique. (An exception is Bergdorf-Goodman, which is on the Avenue's west side; when the late Edwin Goodman opened his emporium there, he was warned that he was putting his store on the wrong side of the street where “no one wants to shop.”) Two almost identically appointed hotels face each other on opposite sides of Fifth Avenueâthe Gotham on the west side and the St. Regis on the east. The St. Regis is fashionable, the Gotham is not. Even the New York Telephone Company, in the days before it began its relentless switch to an all-digit system, seemed to endow East Side telephone exchanges with grander-sounding, old-family namesâTEmpleton 8, BUtterfield 8, REgent 7, ELdorodo 5, RHinelander 4, BEekman 4, and so on. To West Side exchanges went less flossy, more prosaic prefixes such as CIrcle, LEhigh, UNiversity and SUsquehanna.
The most subtly pervasive differentiation, however, between the
East Side and the West has been the fact that the West Side has long been considered “very Jewish.” In a senseâand in the sense that New York itself is very Jewishâit is. In the nineteenth century, New York society (with the exception of August Belmont, who “passed”) was markedly non-Semitic. By the early twentieth century, with hundreds of thousands of Russian and Polish Jews pouring into the city as a result of czarist pogroms, society became quite anti-Semitic. Even the older established German-Jewish banking families, a number of whom had built mansions on Fifth Avenue, looked askance at their “unwashed” co-religionists from Eastern Europe. And so, faced with the snobbishness of the East Side, where they were unwelcome, upwardly mobile East European Jews tended, as other immigrants had done before them, to settle on the West Side, bringing with them their traditional emphasis on education, culture and the arts.
The West Side was rapidly becoming New York's cultural center, but this fact in itself was a drawback to the area in the minds of some New Yorkers. To some people a close proximity to culture was offensive. New Yorkers have long placed a high priority on privacyâthe quest for privacy amounts almost to an urban paranoiaâand culture inevitably involved the coming and going of the public, as visitors streamed in and out of theaters, museums, schools and churches. Culture attracted out-of-towners, tourists, strangers, children, crowds.
Not to everyone's taste was the idea of living next door to public places, along with the people who ran and supplied them. Today, the stamp of culture on the West Side, with Lincoln Center as its focal point, is more pronounced than ever. The difference between the two sides of town is apparent at a glance. Along Columbus Avenue on an average balmy evening, throngs of people stroll on their way to and from theaters, concerts, lectures, restaurants. Across town, along the quiet stretches of Fifth and Park Avenues, and on the streets between, people come and go in limousines and taxis; there is virtually no pedestrian traffic after dark. Behind their closed shutters and drawn curtains, East Side residents have sealed themselves within lives that are sheltered from the streetâlocked-up, private.
In the twenty-five years between 1885 and 1910 the West Side had become a neighborhood bristling with luxury apartment houses. Dozens followed the Dakota's leadâthe Graham Court, the Chatsworth, the Langham, the Manhasset, the Hendrik Hudson, the Prasada, the
Kenilworth, the Apthorp, the Alwyn Court, the Turin and the Lucania to name just a fewâwhile wealthy East Siders continued to live in private town houses. But the phrase “luxury apartment house” remained, in a social sense, something of a contradiction in terms. Luxury was not the equivalent of fashionability, and the proud and snobbish East Side was not going to be tricked into thinking that it was. The West Side had become a land where people lived in layers. It was a land of prosperous immigrants. It was a place where people rented, rather than owned, their homesâa world of public housing versus private. The men who lived at the Dakota might be presidents of banks and manufacturing companies, but they were still, to society's way of thinking, “in trade,” and therefore associated with the working class.
Finally, in addition to the social, there was the inescapable economic factor. Fashionability in New York
have a lot to do with cost, and everyone knew that West Side land had always been less expensive than East Side land. (The effect was circular: lower cost of land meant decreased fashionability, and vice versa; in the end, every New York story is a story of the price of real estate.) Everyone knew that one of the attractions of West Side apartment living was that for much less money, one could inhabit much more space. The corollaries to this were obvious: One lived on the East Side if one could afford the expensiveness of it, on the West Side if one couldn't quite; one lived on the East Side by choice, on the West Side out of necessity.
It was not until after 1910 that expensive apartment houses began to be built in any number on the East Side. That was the year that the noisy, smoke-belching locomotive lines running into Grand Central Terminal were electrified, and the forty acres of unsightly railroad yards and track that ran along Fourth Avenue were covered over and paved. The result was Park Avenueâa wide, straight street that stretched northward to the horizon and had a parklike mall running down its center. With the trains gone, builders immediately began developing Park Avenue as a prime East Side residential address. Two blocks over, upper Fifth Avenue also benefited from the disappearance of the trains, and grand apartment houses began going up along the east flank of Central Park as well. These years prior to World War I accounted for 563 Park Avenue (1910), 635 Park Avenue (1912), 960 Park Avenue (1912), 410 Park Avenue (1914), 820 Fifth Avenue (1916) and 907 Fifth Avenue (1916), many of which remain among New York's most
fashionable addresses today. By then the population of Manhattan Island had grown so staggeringly, along with the cost of land, that tiered living was the only practical answer. And the new East Side apartment houses were elevated to instant fashionability because, after all, they were on the East Side.
The new East Side buildings were noticeably different from the older West Side buildings, however, in at least two ways. Architecturally, they were much more restrained, their exteriors almost austere, less gaudily ebullient than West Side buildings, more in keeping with the East Side's brownstone primness and propriety and aversion to show. Also, the new East Side buildings were not christened with exotic names. The practice had not gone out of fashion, exactly; it was just that it seemed “too West Side.”
Snobs in Reverse
The Dakota's First Familiesâthe F.F.D.'s, as they sometimes referred to themselvesâwere a predictable mix of an aspiring few (who might one day decide to elevate their status by moving to an East Side address) and a comfortable majority who were perfectly content with who they were and where they lived, and who simply ignored East Side snobbery. Gustav Schirmer's son, for exampleâa grown man when his family moved into the Dakotaâwould marry and settle his family on the East Side, first on Gramercy Park and later on Murray Hill. Other families like the Steinways would refuse to be swayed by fashion and would remain loyal to the Dakota for two generations.
Very quickly the Dakotans managed to develop a reciprocal snobbishness and sense of exclusivity about their particular principality on the Park and the acre of real estate upon which the Dakota rested. Dakotans often congratulated themselves for having the soft morning sunlight with which the building was blessed, and for escaping the fierce afternoon sunlight with which Fifth Avenue was cursed. A frequent comment heard in those days was, “It's so
Avenue!” (Though why Fifth Avenue should be windier than Central Park West is anyone's guess.) Though squatters' shacksâat least in the beginningâwere scattered on all sides about the hems of the Dakota's lacy skirts, their presence was explained away with the comment that they gave the neighborhood “a pleasant rural air.” Another pronouncement that became popular at the Dakota was, “Fifth Avenue takes a turn at Seventy-second Street, crosses the Park to the Dakota, and then goes back East again.” But of course Fifth Avenue didn't do that, and it was all an attempt at an illusion. Central Park West was not Fifth Avenue, nor would it ever be. In their hearts of hearts Dakotans knew that the Dakota had been built as an imitation of the rich New York life, not the real thing. The Dakota was designed to convey the impression that, though one was in an apartment house, one was really in a mansion. But it fooled no one (no New Yorkers, anyway), and this the Dakotans knew.
Dakotans today continue to be more than a little defensive about their address and the ambiguous status of the neighborhood. The evening crowds on the sidewalks of Columbus Avenue are brought forth as a plusâthere is a sense of safety, they say, in numbers, whereas one would feel frightened walking alone at night on a deserted East Side street. “At night,” they say, “the muggers and the burglars are all working on the East Side. No one would want to hurt us over here, because this is where the muggers
.” The neighboring side streets may be a little dingy but, loyal Dakotans insist that in this very fact they find a certain cozy charm.