It would be impossible to dream the dreams we have of New York without the apartment buildings of Rosario Candela. They are the architecture by which we know the great residential neighborhoods of the Upper East Side and Sutton Place; the crown jewels of Park and Fifth Avenues.
His legacy and his somewhat mysterious genius as a designer are examined in a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York designed by Peter Pennoyer and curated by Donald Albrecht.
Candela’s work can best be understood by looking at his buildings in two parts: first inside, then out. As with all great architects, he dealt in logic, and using this metric he was the most gifted apartment-house planner there has ever been, with organizational powers to create room arrangements that expressed themselves in a parallel life as an amateur cryptographer (he later wrote two books and taught a course about cryptography during World War II).
But Candela was also one of the great romantic givers of form to New York. This sensuous trait is expressed externally by the sensitive detail of his buildings at street level, something the MCNY show takes trouble to document, but more dramatically by their massing into terraced setbacks in the higher stories, usually above the 11th or 12th floor. The series of buildings representing Candela’s best-known work are where he developed, in the late 1920s, the now familiar (but then totally innovative) New York residential form: the terraced setback crowned with a penthouse water tower.
740 Park Avenue at 71st Street, 1945.
770 Park Avenue apartment entrance, October 26, 1930.
The towers of 770 and 778 Park and 834 and 1040 Fifth Avenue are – in contrast to the rigorous internal planning – dreamlike. Think of the famous sequence in Follow the Fleet where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance on a penthouse terrace in front of an illuminated, lanternlike tower, a set directly inspired by Candela’s Park Avenue skyline. These buildings gave rise to a mythical idea of living well in New York City, defining the image and character of the Upper East Side as much as do the great stone office skyscrapers of Wall Street, or Emery Roth’s sheer towers on Central Park West.
These buildings gave rise to a mythical idea of living well in New York City.
But who was he? Candela the man, a Sicilian immigrant who graduated from Columbia Architecture School in 1915, is something of an enigma. The story is still in circulation that he thought highly enough of his talents at that time to erect a velvet rope around his desk to prevent fellow students from copying. What is true is by the early 1920s he was taken up by a group of Sicilian-born real-estate developers who recognized in their countryman a man for the moment – an architect of remarkable capabilities to carry out what amounted to the total reinvention of Fifth and Park Avenues. The transformation of those streets – which in less than ten years, from 1920 to 1929, went from boulevards lined with mansions to the apartment-house thoroughfares we know today, is in large measure the work of Rosario Candela.
Planner, innovative form-giver, urbanist. The first mention of Rosario Candela in an analytic vein was by Paul Goldberger in his 1979 book, The City Observed, in which he described the towers of 770 and 778 Park Avenue as “great gateways to Central Park.” Andrew Alpern’s co-monograph on the architect of 2001 (which I helped research and wrote the foreword) provided a catalogue raisonné of Candela’s body of work of about 75 buildings, and Michael Gross’s genre-busting 740 Park Avenue: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building delivered the riveting social history (it’s really a biography of an apartment building). But the great Candela book everyone really wants has not yet been written. Perhaps this exhibition will be a step on that path. The most interesting feature of the MCNY show that breaks new ground in explaining the ingenuity of his architecture is a digital film dissecting the sectional diversity of 960 Fifth Avenue, showing the dovetailed apartments with wildly different ceiling heights which make this, in my opinion, his most interesting building.
The last decade has seen a wave of luxury apartment design in the form of glass curtain walls, sky needles, and neotraditional masonry-clad buildings in a style mimicking that of their distinguished ancestors. Are any of them the equal of Candela’s great works of the 1920s? New York is a small town and I don’t want to step on any toes; besides representing different opinions on how to live in New York, these new buildings are nearly all condominiums anyway, in contrast to Candela’s co-ops. But the market thinks clearly and offers less subjective data, and if we seek an example of the enduring power of Candela’s work besides its beauty, look at its value: In five distinct eras in the history of the city, spanning the date of construction to the present day (the years 1927, 1968, 1982, 2000, and 2015), the price records for a New York co-op apartment were all set in buildings by Rosario Candela.*
“Elegance in the Sky: The Architecture of Rosario Candela” opens at the Museum of the City of New York on Thursday, May 17, and remains on view through Sunday, October 28. Peter Pennoyer, Paul Goldberger, and Elizabeth Stribling will be giving a talk on Candela at the museum on Thursday, June 7.
*These are the Satterwhite apartment at 960 Fifth Avenue on the 10th and part of the 11th floors ($450,000 in 1927); Ailsa Mellon Bruce’s apartment, again at 960 Fifth Avenue, on the 12th floor ($750,000 in 1968); the sale by bombshell divorcée Gregg Dodge to John DeLorean of 9/10A at 834 Fifth Avenue ($2 million in 1982); the Steinberg (formerly John D. Rockefeller Jr.) apartment at 740 Park Avenue 15/16A ($30 million in 2000); and 11/12A, again at 834 Fifth Avenue, which passed from Woody Johnson to surprise buyer Len Blavatnik ($77.5 million in 2015).