Manhattan Real Estate History: The Dakota Meets the Developers

Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Connie Chung, Judy Garland, Boris Karloff, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, John Madden, Paul Simon, Sting… a ridiculous number of celebrities and artists have lived in the famous Dakota at 72nd and Central Park West. It has long been more or less the epicenter of much of what makes New York so famous.

There are a million stories about that building, none more famous or tragic than the murder of John Lennon there.

In 1979 Stephen Birmingham wrote an incredibly detailed book about the building, called Life at the Dakota, which tells of everything from ghosts, and squabbles over unsightly air-conditioning, to the influx of scary developers who wanted to tear the whole building down. These are the kinds of fights that are going on in places around New York as we speak. It’s amazing to think the mighty Dakota faced the same thing decades ago. Birmingham writes:

Therefore, considering the amound of hubris the building had generated among its tenants over the years, it was with considerable shock that on the afternoon of Friday, December 17, 1960–whild the rest of New York was going about its business of pre-Christmas shopping–the residents of the Dakota learned that their special status was about to come to an abrupt end and they might have to face life as ordinary mortals. That was when Mr. Ernest A. Gross, the one of the building’s most distinguished residents, an international lawyer and three-time delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, was sitting in his Wall Street office and a call came through from William J. Zeckendorf who, though he later fell from grace, was then the unquestioned czar of New York real estate and who, in the years since World Was II, has been busily reshaping the Manhattan skyline. "I want to introduce myself," said Zeckendorf to Gross. "I’m your new landlord." Ernest Gross froze. Though Mr. Zeckendorf’s phone call was by way of a greeting, it also conveyed in no uncertain terms a warning to Gross and his fellow Dakotans. Whenever William Zeckendorf acquired an old, unprofitable building like the Dakota on a choice piece of land, he razed it and erected in its place a shiny tower of steel and glass which was a modern model of efficiency and economy. "Building like the Dakota don’t make sense in New York anymore," said Mr. Zeckendorf.

The Dakota was eventually spared–the building’s powerful friends brokered a deal whereby it became a co-op.

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