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Swellboy on… the Dakota building

Tales from the Swellboy family archive: riding a Harley around a Berlin apartment

Swellboy on… the Dakota building

Image: Brijesh Patel

February 17 2011
Nick Foulkes

I read with interest that one of the residents of the Dakota building is suing the board that runs this famous New York block of flats for racism – after serving on said board himself for a number of years as president. Apparently this disgruntled former president has launched his lawsuit after being denied the right to buy a next-door apartment to house his growing family. The legal action would appear to be vengeance-led; then again, having lived in the building for 20 years and served as president of the co-op board, he has only just discovered that some of the other residents are prejudiced. To be honest I have tended to find the idea of appearing before a board of inquiry to convince a bunch of strangers that you are worthy of the privilege of paying good money to live among them as distinctly unappealing. Nevertheless America, which prides itself on its sense of openness, freedom and democracy, seems to like it.

Anyway, be that as it may, this incident rekindled my fascination for this building and its cavernous flats, a fascination that came out of watching Rosemary’s Baby, which was filmed here. For years the Dakota was an anomaly spurned by New York’s smart crowd who lived in palatial mansions such as the Rhinelander that is now a cathedral in the cult of Ralph Lauren. At the time it was built, in the 1880s, the Dakota stood in splendid isolation from the rest of Manhattan, and Edward Clark, the speculator behind the luxurious building, was told, “You may attract a few purse-proud nabobs from the world of trade. You are building for them, sir. But not for the gentry.”

I have always been fascinated by big blocks of flats and I remember hearing that it was possible to drive a horse and carriage into Norman Shaw’s monumental block of flats in London, Albert Hall Mansions. Indeed it seems that a useful rule of thumb for any apartment purchaser in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was vehicular access. My grandfather, a wonderful and singularly well-dressed man, once told me that while he was growing up in Berlin in the 1920s a friend of his was given a motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson (I don’t recall the exact model), one Christmas. But, seeing as Berlin got a bit chilly around Christmas, the friend amused himself by taking my grandfather for motorbike rides around his parents’ sprawling flat. I would dearly love to see the consternation that driving an early 20th-century Harley Davidson into an apartment in the Dakota would cause. They could hardly object on grounds of blind nationalist prejudice, as Harley-Davidson is after all a great American automotive brand.