Gold Coast grandeur

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An exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York explores the legacy of Jazz Age architect Rosario Candela


  • Rosario Candela designed or co-designed dozens of buildings in New York City, among them 778 Park Avenue, with its pavilion-styled water tower. 778 Park (1931), on the northwest corner of 73rd Street, would be Candela's last building on the boulevard. Photo: Rob Stephenson, courtesy of the photographer

  • "740", one of the rare buildings in the city known only by a number: 740 Park Avenue at 71st Street, 1945. Photo: Wurts Bros. Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Bros. Collection. Gift of Richard Wurts.

  • Bread and butter: The facade of 425 Riverside Drive at 115th Street, 2018. Photo: Val Castronovo

  • Pre-war elegance: The main entrance at 425 Riverside Drive, 2018. Photo: Val Castronovo

  • Like giant hill towns in the sky: 770 and 778 Park Avenue, 2018. Photo: Rob Stephenson, courtesy of the photographer

  • On the East River: The porte-cochère at 1 Sutton Place South, July 7, 1927. Photo: Wurts Bros. Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Bros. Collection. Gift of Richard Wurts

  • A Room with a view: Elizabeth Arden's penthouse at 834 Fifth Avenue, looking north May 23, 1933. Photo: Samuel Gottscho. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Gottscho-Schleisner

1 Sutton Place South. 740 Park. 960 Fifth. 1 Gracie Square. These are just a few of the posh pre-war addresses in Manhattan that are part of Rosario Candela’s portfolio, most completed during a heady wave of luxury apartment-house construction in the 1920s before the Great Depression put the brakes on the spree.

The Sicilian-born architect rode the crest of the wave and designed or co-designed some 75 apartment buildings, most in Manhattan. The son of a plasterer who came to the U.S. around 1910 with $20 in his pocket, Candela (1890-1953) graduated from Columbia University with a degree in architecture and went on to become a Jazz Age starchitect, “the greatest apartment designer in America,” Michael Gross exuberantly writes in “740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building.”

As architecture critic Paul Goldberger has said: “There was a wonderful assurance and solidity to his buildings ... they don’t display any visible effort, in the greatest traditions of old money.”

He designed “the best Gold Coast buildings,” Gross enthuses, whose residents could glory in the cachet and the giddy sense that they had “made it” by snaring Candela digs. In the 1980s, he writes, “a ‘Candela apartment’ became a Greed Decade status symbol even more potent because of its rarity.”

Photos, mostly drawn from the Museum of the City of New York’s collection, wall text and a digital animation tell the story of a math genius who created an assemblage of apartments — simplexes, duplexes, triplexes and multi-story maisonettes — and arranged them inside his buildings like the pieces of a gigantic puzzle.

“I had been noticing a lot of real estate advertising about Rosario Candela buildings, and how they were being used as a marketing tool. I was just intrigued to learn more about him,” curator Donald Albrecht said about the origins of the show.

“He was not only a great architect, but there are many stories about the city here. There’s the immigrant story, and there’s the story of the social transformation at that time, with people moving out of private residences and into apartment buildings. And then there’s the story of his being a cryptographer.”

Candela, a man of many talents, pursued cryptography after the Depression put a damper on his building commissions. He created an unbreakable encryption method and advised an American intelligence unit on secret codes during World War II.

The exhibit here, on view through October 28, is small and primarily showcases his best buildings on the best avenues — the exclusive precincts of the East Side on Park and Fifth Avenues and along the East River on Sutton Place.

“We decided to focus on the essence of Candela and not try to be encyclopedic,” the curator said. “We chose three neighborhoods that tell the social transformation of the city story as well as the architecture story.” Candela, of course, designed many good “bread-and-butter” buildings on the West Side, he said, including his first apartment house in 1922, The Clayton, on the northeast corner of Broadway and 92nd Street.

The crew-cut architect was a savvy networker and eagerly worked the Italian-American builder community to get his start. He collaborated with developers Anthony Campagna and the Paterno family — and with architects like Arthur Loomis Harmon and Mott Schmidt and interior designers like Dorothy Draper and Sister Parish — to create luxe buildings with spacious accommodations and gracious amenities (e.g., communal dining rooms and lounges on the ground floor of 960 Fifth and an indoor tennis court at 1 Sutton Place South).

“There was a common neo-classical style at the time, and they could collaborate more easily [than now],” Albrecht said, adding, “It seemed like when he collaborated he mainly did the plans. On 740 Park, he collaborated with Arthur Loomis Harmon. The thinking is that Harmon did the exterior detailing, and Rosario Candela probably did the plans.”

Indeed, as the late architecture writer Christopher Gray notes in “The New York Apartment Houses of Rosario Candela and James Carpenter,” Candela’s interiors were the selling point: the ample fireplaces at 775 Park, the size of the linen rooms at 834 Fifth, the steam provided to clean garbage pails at 778 Park.

His prodigious talent let loose after a new zoning law in 1916 allowed apartments to rise in height if they included setbacks — literal steps back from the street as a building rises above a certain level to allow light to filter through and hit the pavement.

For Candela, especially at the end of his career, the law led to a wild profusion of setback terraces and ornamental flourishes that pierced the sky. Look up at 778 Park (1931; northwest corner of 73rd Street), the last of 10 apartment houses he designed along the wealthy corridor, and see setback aeries mixing with a neo-classically-clad pavilion that camouflages a water tank.

Across the street, on the southwest corner of 73rd, rises 770 Park (1930), a companion piece. The tops of the buildings, fantastical responses to the requirements of the setback law, play off one another and look, Albrecht said, “almost like giant hill towns in the sky.”

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