In the 1920s and ’30s, architect Rosario Candela designed many sophisticated apartment buildings in New York that are still some of the most desirable addresses in the city. Opening May 17, “Elegance in the Sky: The Architecture of Rosario Candela” at the Museum of the City of New York is the first exhibition devoted to the masterful designer. Organized by Donald Albrecht, the museum’s curator of Architecture and Design, and designed by Peter Pennoyer Architects, this exhibition is more than a celebration of Candela’s iconic work—it shows how he shaped luxurious city living in ways that still resonate today.
Born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1890, Candela immigrated to New York in 1909 with just $20 in his pocket and hardly any knowledge of English. Nevertheless, he graduated from the Columbia University School of Architecture in 1915. Candela established his own practice in 1920 and his first major commission was the Clayton, an apartment building at Broadway and 92nd Street, in 1922. Real-estate developers who were also Italian-born gave Candela more important commissions, and by the late 1920s, he was the architect of choice for luxury apartments, employing 50 draftsmen.
At a time when wealthy city dwellers were giving up their large private houses and moving into apartment buildings, Candela’s apartments offered the gracious proportions, high ceilings, large windows, working fireplaces, opulent detailing—and maids’ quarters—that upscale buyers demanded. Candela designed many of the finest apartment buildings in the city, including such storied addresses as 834 and 1040 Fifth Avenue; 740, 770, and 778 Park Avenue; and 1 Sutton Place South.
With the stock market crash in 1929 and the Great Depression that followed, work largely dried up. Candela then turned his problem-solving skills to cryptography, the science of creating codes so that they can’t be read or intercepted by an outsider, and went on to write two books on the subject and teach a class at Hunter College. He died largely unacknowledged in 1953. But over the succeeding decades, thanks to a growing interest in architectural preservation and the advocacy of champions like architecture critic Paul Goldberger, Candela’s reputation has been revived, and his apartments are now considered the gold standard.
“The work of Rosario Candela is remarkable for two reasons,” observes architect Peter Pennoyer. “The first is that he was a master puzzle solver. He could create a variety of plans—single floor, duplex, triplex—in one building and make each seem unique. You feel like each room is perfect, which is exceptionally difficult because you have to fit in things like the kitchen and bathrooms and the elevator,” says Pennoyer. “Secondly, he created an inner architecture, making the external walls thicker, so there are no bumps from pipes, beams, or columns. Windows are perfectly spaced and symmetrically arranged, so there is enough room for curtains, there is an appropriate panel for art.”
Additionally, Pennoyer notes, because of zoning laws, Candela was required to create rooftop setbacks. “The buildings get small as they get to the top, resulting in wonderful terraces, which all seem to be in the right place. And it creates these romantic tower-like temples hovering over the city, proving that you should always look up in New York.”
“Candela’s signature is most clearly felt in his careful arrangement of rooms that flow in a logical way separating the family quarters from places of entertainment. His interior planning is always distinguished,” says Robert A. M. Stern, founder and senior partner of Robert A. M. Stern Architects and former dean of the Yale School of Architecture, who notes that Candela sometimes collaborated on buildings with other architects. For the romantic rooftop skyline of his 15 Central Park West, Stern looked for inspiration to Candela’s 1040 Fifth Avenue, with its rooftop loggia and asymmetrical handling of the chimney. The arched entrance of the main lobby at Candela’s 770 Park Avenue and the water towers at 770 and 778 Park, which form cupolas, are echoed at The Chatham, Stern’s East 65th Street building. “Inside and out, the detailing of Candela’s interiors and the façade expressions were really, really good,” says Stern.
“A great lesson to be learned from Candela are his peerless floor plans for apartments,” adds Paul Whalen, a partner at Robert A. M. Stern Architects. “We’ve looked particularly close at those for 740 Park Avenue which have remarkable consistently proportioned rooms. Floor plans that are designed correctly result in an apartment that is very easy to use and convenient but also supplies a noble setting for everyday life. The way that your guests move from your living to your dining room and the library afterwards feels out of the ordinary and dignified. We are fascinated by finding those Candela proportions.”
For a decorator, designing such a space is a pleasure, notes interior designer Bunny Williams, who has worked in many Candela buildings. “They’re easy to furnish because you have such great-shaped, balanced rooms,” she says. “You have a freedom because they are so lovely. There are no awkward moments.” Williams observes that the way people live today has changed so that a housekeeper’s wing is no longer de rigueur—yet Candela’s spaces retain their appeal. “I’m working on a Candela apartment now and we are knocking out two maid’s rooms to create an eat-in kitchen, but the public spaces are perfect as they are,” she says.
Virtually all of Candela’s 75 apartment buildings still stand, many now protected with New York City Landmark status. “You know you’ve arrived when you get into a Candela building,” observes curator Albrecht. “When you enter an apartment, there is a harmonious flow, a graceful movement,” says Elizabeth Stribling, chairman of Stribling & Associates. “As the head of a real-estate firm, I can say that people feel that when they walk in. Some clients may not know the name Rosario Candela, but they recognize the quality when they get there. You don’t have to sell it because the real thing is in front of you.”
As New York continues to grow and change, it’s comforting to know that some things remain the same, like the handsome, solid, serene designs of Rosario Candela. In offering a comprehensive exploration of the designs that helped shape an elegant era in the city’s history, the exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York honors the lasting contributions of a self-made visionary.
“Elegance in the Sky: The Architecture of Rosario Candela” is on view from May 17 through October 28 at Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue, New York City.
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