From the archive: Graydon Carter's apartment in the Dakota (1996)

Christopher Simon Sykes

Walking into Graydon and Cynthia Carter's apartment in New York's Dakota Building, you are immediately assailed by clutter. If you don't trip over the boots in the tiny lobby, then the bicycle will surely get you - or the hockey sticks, or the tennis rackets, or the fishing-rods. Look up, and you see antlers all round the walls. No shrine to Minimalism, this, no temple of antiques, but a family home, country-house style, overflowing with four children and the spoils of years of hunting through flea markets all over the world.

It was not always so. 'Strangely enough,' says Canadian-born Graydon, who is the editor of Vanity Fair magazine, 'we both come from families who lived very sparely. When I first came to New York, I just had a car and a tennis racket and a few clothes. I packed very light; when I first moved apartments the city, I was able to do so in the back of a cab. I started to buy things when I got my first pay cheque.'

After working on Time magazine and Life magazine, Carter founded Spy, and then edited The New York Observer before being recruited by Condé Nast in 1992. His new status also brought a move to one of the city's most sought-after addresses, the extraordinary Dakota Building, a massive Gothic mansion block on Central Park West which was designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was the first luxury apartment building in an area which then consisted mainly of goat and pig farms, and its sheer magnificence attracted people away from Fifth Avenue, to the as-yet undeveloped territories of the west. Everything about the Dakota was oversized. It had ninety-eight apartments, walls three feet thick, cast-iron stair cases, a ballroom, an immense dining-room, a laundry, a bakery, elevators powered by water pressure, and enough electrical power to drive most of the rest of Manhattan. The owner of the build ing, the heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, lived on the sixth floor, but most of the new tenants, as yet unused to living high up, snapped up the apartments on the lower floors, which have largely survived untouched until now.

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It is one of these, on the ground floor, that houses the Carter family. "This is one of the original apartments in the building and it has changed very little, Graydon says. "Our old place on West End Avenue was similar, in that it had high ceilings, so when we first saw this one it felt just right. In fact, the way we've done it is almost identical to our last apartment.' Each room abounds with furniture and bric-à-brac, gathered together from the couple's respective families and from markets and the occasional antiques shop. The living-room, for example, which is approached through a splendid pair of sliding mahogany double doors, has a fine Aubusson carpet and an eighteenth-century French bureau, but what dominate here, as in every room in the apartment, are the not-so-grand bits and pieces, the results of careful collecting: a series of Spy cartoons from the original Vanity Fair; the drawings done by Mark Boxer for the covers of the paperback edition of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time; some monochrome prints of Paris showing its development over eight centuries; framed old American postcards; and a beautiful model of a sailing-boat. In the adjoining library the floor is piled high with books, and there are French leather club chairs bought in a Paris flea market, and an entire run of bound volumes of Punch from 1841 to 1939, paid for with the fees Graydon received for writing for the magazine.

There are antique toys everywhere: electric trains, Corgi cars, boats, and giant planes which hang from the ceiling, working scale models bought two summers ago from a former engineer at Pratt and Whitney. 'When I was a kid, remembers Graydon, ‘my room looked just like this, and its fun for our kids too. The children, Ash, Spike, Max and Bronwen, have wonderful rooms, with triple-decker bunks for the boys; Cynthia Carter describes them as 'apartments within apartments'. The presence of the children is everywhere. The library floor is strewn with board games and the kitchen doubles as a schoolroom, its beautiful, eighteenth-century French cherry-wood dining table serving as a desk for homework. The walls and furniture bear witness to the fact that in this apartment, knocks and breakages are taken in good part. "Everything in this place has chips on it,' says Graydon, so it doesn't really matter. I spend a lot of time mending things. I can fix most things - I'm serious - so when things get broken here nobody has a heart attack.'

As the editor of a major magazine, Graydon Carter has to be on call even when he's at home, which makes his study one of the most important rooms in the apartment. It has more the feel of a den than an office. 'We made this out of what was just a ratty little cupboard, he says. 'It's really the first writing room I've ever had.' The walls are papered with maps from around the world, a vintage Dakota C47 divebombs the desk, and framed Vanity Fair memorabilia are including large numbers of menus from lunches and dinners thrown for visiting celebrities. Some of these are held in the apartment. 'Every three weeks or so we will have a dinner for thirty or forty people. We empty out the library and put three tables for eight in there and, if we need them, two more tables in the front hall. The Royalton does the catering.'

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The kitchen, which is where the family normally eats, was redesigned when the Carters moved in. With the help of Basil Walter, architect of the boys' bunk beds, the Carters turned it back from an ultra-modern room into something that is more in keeping with the building, making use of the original glass-fronted cupboards, an eighteenth-century round dining table, copies of French chairs, which were made in Manhattan by Howard Kaplan, and, as a work table, the first piece of furniture that Graydon ever bought, an old printer's bench from Pennsylvania.

Though the Carters' love-affair with their apartment is self-evident, they are equally enamoured of the building as a whole. "This is just such a fabulous place to live says Graydon. 'It's extremely comfortable. There is a huge staff. Everything is delivered direct. For the kids, it's a secure place, and they have such fun here. At Hallowe'en the courtyard is lined with pumpkins kids and prowl around, trick-or-treating Boris Karloff's old place. At Christmas we have carol singers and a big, gorgeous tree. In summer, when the fountain is working, you open the windows in the kitchen and all you hear is trickling water.

But I think my favourite time is the winter when, a lot of weekends, we never get out of our pyjamas. You can order in anything locally - world-class Chinese food, all the newspapers, and videos too. Often the whole family never leaves the apartment. Those really are the best weekends of all.'