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Rosario Candela and the invention of high-rise luxury

His designs were grounded in the confident wealth of Jazz Age New York

Elizabeth Arden’s penthouse terrace at 834 Fifth Avenue, looking south, 1933.
Photo by Samuel H. Gottscho/Museum of the City of New York, gift of Gottscho-Schleisner

When you’ve made it in New York City, how do you make sure the world knows it? There is only so much desirable Manhattan ground to build on, and mansions are a lot of work. The rest of the city is pressing not only uptown but up into the sky, and you’ve spent a fortune not to live in anyone else’s shadow. So up you must go, as well. But into what?

In today’s New York, it can seem as though the super-wealthy are blindingly literal, choosing simply to go higher and higher to make their success feel palpable. The shiny towers spiking up along the southern fringes of Central Park are the manifestation of this chilly vision, multimillion-dollar apartments designed, as New York Magazine’s architecture critic Justin Davidson once described it, for “people who think of the city as their private snow globe,” for the lonely oligarch prowling in his sky-high box like a less community-minded Iron Man.

Yet for a previous generation of urban titans, who in the 1920s abandoned their mansions for luxury high-rises, superiority alone wasn’t the draw. As a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York illustrates, the origins of high-rise, prewar luxury lie with the thoughtful, elegant designs of the relatively unsung architect Rosario Candela.

A talented Sicilian immigrant, Candela understood that no matter how high off the ground it rose, an apartment was more than a status symbol or a gilded cage, and ought to feel and function like a home. His designs, explored in photographs, floorplans, and digital video renderings, are warm and solid, grounded in the confident wealth of Jazz Age New York (however misplaced that confidence turned out to be), but with flourishes—urns and terraces and decorative friezes—that evoke a half-remembered fantasy of Italy.

According to curator Donald Albrecht, Candela’s style blends “poetry and pragmatism.” He transformed the restrictions and rules of New York architecture—water towers on the roof, and setbacks on the high floors to avoid overshadowing the ground—into charms. The water towers are hidden in red brick cupolas, and the terraces look, if you squint, like the uneven stepped vista of an Italian hill town. Architect Peter Pennoyer, whose firm designed the exhibition, points out that streetscape and skyline were equally important to Candela: the way the building looked up close and from far away, what it meant to those inside and to those down on the ground, gazing up, forming a vision of ambition nesting in those terraces in the sky.

770 Park Avenue apartment entrance, 1930.
Photo by Wurts Bros/Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Bros. Collection, gift of Richard Wurts

Rosario Candela was born in Sicily in 1890, the son of a plasterer, and emigrated in 1909 to join his father in the construction business. He managed to gain entry to Columbia University’s School of Architecture, graduating in 1915 with an appropriate legend already in place, of a young man so talented he had to put a velvet rope around his desk to keep the other students from copying his work. Whatever the truth behind that useful story, Candela went straight from Columbia to work with a fellow Sicilian architect, Gaetan Ajello, and within five years had established himself on his own.

New York’s first luxury apartments were built in the 1880s, attempts to offer an alternative to row houses for those who were rich but newly so, lacking a pedigree in the form of inherited brick and limestone. They were still a form of speculation on the part of developers who didn’t know for sure if there was money to be made by building into the sky. The most famous of these early ventures, the Dakota, was a gamble by Edward Clark, the head of the Singer sewing machine company, and ran at a loss for many years. Other developments from this era also struggled for profitability.

Perhaps, as Andrew Alpern, the author of a detailed study of Rosario Candela’s work, notes, these early attempts at high-rise luxury simply weren’t very good: awkward efforts to squeeze the expected shapes of a freestanding home into the tight regulations of a high-rise. Or perhaps they were ahead of their time.

A serious investment took luxury apartment living from speculation to aspiration—in the form of a lavish McKim, Mead & White building at 998 Fifth Avenue. Completed in 1911, this marble-clad palazzo, with just 15 apartments, is credited with convincing the truly wealthy that apartment living was not a compromise but an improvement on the opulent single-family home. With thick fireproof walls and wood-burning stoves, as well as separate elevators and stairwells for the staff, storage in the basement, and elegant communal dining rooms, 998 Fifth set the pattern for how New Yorkers could combine status, style, and convenience.

The earliest luxury developments were built and run as private syndicates, in which an elite family chose everything from the builders to the neighbors, and the architect, drawn from the same social class as the owners, was there mostly to burnish the gloss of the enterprise rather than exert his own creative control. But as the market for upscale apartment living expanded, the opportunities for less socially sanctioned talent increased, and developers with vision began to capitalize on the growing demand by selling apartments off-plan, even before a building existed. The sky was barely the limit.

960 Fifth Avenue dining room, 1930.
Photo by Samuel H. Gottscho/Museum of the City of New York, gift of Gottscho-Schleisner

Rosario Candela worked for most of his career with a close-knit network of Italian immigrants, on projects financed either by the developer Anthony Campagna or the Paterno Brothers firm, with whom Candela built some 20 buildings. (Two of the Paterno sisters married Anthony Campagna and his brother.) Candela’s first building, the Clayton, on West 92nd Street, was a joint project with Campagna and Joseph Paterno, a 15-story building on land Campagna had purchased from the William Waldorf Astor estate—a symbolic, as well as literal, transfer of power from the old Gilded Age elite to the modern immigrant strivers of the 1920s.

Once the rich had been persuaded that apartment living was viable, a concerted effort by architects, developers, and real estate agents made a virtue of the necessity of building up. MCNY’s exhibition includes an array of brochures and advertisements showing exactly how the potential renters and investors were taught to feel about their new homes and themselves. In the advertisements, the buildings promise a blend of private and public space that repeatedly turns a drawback into a draw. No private backyard? Who needs it when Central Park is on your doorstep?

On Sutton Place, the rebranded strip of Avenue A on the East side of Manhattan between 57th and 60th streets, Douglas Elliman & Company promised vistas over the East River from every room, along with “acres of greenery” and a glimpse of the distant hills of Westchester and Connecticut. Making sure the buyers knew where they stood socially, advertisements touted the proximity of Candela buildings on the Upper East Side to the elite Chapin and Brearley schools.

In common with other developments in the city during the 1920s, like Fred F. French’s more middle-class Tudor City, the emphasis was on trying to convince successful people to build their lives in the city rather than the suburbs, showing them both what they would gain—a like-minded community, landscaped parks and gardens, an elegant address, a wealth of modern conveniences—and what they would avoid, namely the social discomfort of having to skip out on the theater or a dinner party to catch the last train from Grand Central Station.

Once New York’s elite had become accustomed to the conveniences of apartment living, they began to pursue better and better versions of what they had. The pace of architectural change in the 1920s would strike us as dizzying even today, as mansions rose and fell seemingly with the seasons. In the era before landmark preservation, Fifth Avenue exemplified the city’s rolling evolution as wealthy owners tore down barely finished homes to make way for apartment buildings. Banker C. Ledyard Blair’s neoclassical mansion opposite the Frick Collection, built in 1917, survived just 12 years before Anthony Campagna tore it down to make room for a Candela-designed replacement at 2 East 70th Street.

Further up Fifth Avenue, Candela continued to push the definition and scope of luxury living. At 990 Fifth, working with the more socially established firm Warren & Wetmore, he offered massive duplex and triplex apartments with four or more bedrooms, penthouse terraces, double-height ceilings, and grandiose entertaining spaces. In neighboring 960 Fifth, at the corner of East 77th Street, he created a complicated Jenga stack of 12 mansions, in which the most expensive apartment, a duplex with a 58-foot living room, sold for a record $450,000 (or about $6.5 million today).

960 Fifth Avenue lounge, 1929.
Photo by Samuel H. Gottscho/Museum of the City of New York, gift of Gottscho-Schleisner

Rosario Candela was resolutely a residential architect, never working on an office building and only rarely on commercial spaces, and for all the opulence of his sky-high mansions, he stuck to a few basic principles about how everyone, not just the super-wealthy, preferred to live. He believed it was essential to create a clear separation in an apartment between areas for living and sleeping (and, depending on the inhabitants’ class status, for servants.) Keeping these areas distinct allowed even an apartment in a larger building to retain the feel of a private home. His buildings also included much bigger communal lounges and dining rooms to allow residents to stretch and socialize beyond the confines of their private walls.

Candela’s concept soon spread beyond residential buildings: In the early years of her business, the exuberant decorator Dorothy Draper collaborated on several of these spaces, launching a career that would see her transform the lobbies and public spaces of major hotels, and with them, the very idea of what a hotel offered its guests—a backdrop to see and be seen, as well as a place of private relaxation and retreat.

In the late 1920s, Candela began to remake the upper reaches of Park Avenue into the ultimate in high-rise excess. At 720 Park, he created a building with a massive duplex apartment (including a 1,000-square-foot library) for Jesse Isidor Straus, a co-owner of Macy’s department store, who found the “exclusivity” of most other high-end buildings in New York to be a genteel euphemism for anti-Semitism. The New Yorker was unimpressed by the building, calling it “a disturbing pile” for the jumble of terraces and bay windows, setbacks and stick-outs, which make its upper floors distinctly uneven. Asymmetry is an odd quality in a skyscraper. It confuses the eye by blurring the organic with the geometric, inviting us to crane our necks, shift position, figure out if there’s an overall logic to the design that we’re missing. Solid symmetry looms over us, but asymmetry invites us to scale the heights, explore, to hop from terrace to terrace. It makes it look perilously easy to trip and fall.

And fall Candela did, though not because of his own design choices. Between March and October 1929, the architect filed plans for six of his most elaborate buildings—an extraordinary outpouring of energy and ambition, almost as though he sensed a storm on the horizon. He had 26 commissions that year. The Wall Street crash in October sent his business plunging to only two commissions in 1930 and just one the following year. Candela wasn’t the only architect affected: F. Scott Fitzgerald recalled later how the Empire State Building rose from the ruins of Manhattan in 1931, “lonely and inexplicable as the Sphinx,” an isolated testament to the shock and the suddenness with which the building boom had busted.

Jesse Isidor Strauss library at 720 Park Avenue, 1934.
Photo by Samuel H. Gottscho/Museum of the City of New York, gift of Gottscho-Schleisner.

In the wake of the crash, Candela turned his attention to more modest projects, building an Italianate house for his own family in Harrison, New York, and several other single-family homes in the suburbs. Real estate development began to pick up in the middle of the decade, a ghost of the 1920s frenzy, and in 1937 Candela designed a building to replace the Charles Lewis Tiffany mansion at 19 East 72nd Street, his most modernist—and modest—yet. A few commercial commissions came his way, including the Rialto Theater complex at 42nd and Broadway, buildings in Chicago and London, and consulting work on low-income housing projects in New York. A one-story retail building complex, designed by Candela in Art Deco style, rose on 53rd Street, before the outbreak of World War II decreed the end of nonessential construction in New York.

Candela’s interests took an unusual turn in the late 1930s and into the war, toward the writing and breaking of codes. The kind of spatial problem-solving so valuable in an architect translated surprisingly well to more abstract puzzles, and Candela wrote two books on cryptography and taught a class at Hunter College in cryptanalytics, the study of information systems. When the war came, he worked for the OSS—the forerunner of the CIA—and according to another family legend, most of his papers were later removed and destroyed by government agents.

In his own time, Rosario Candela wasn’t a name-brand architect—curator Donald Albrecht calls him an “unsung hero” of the New York cityscape. It’s only in recent years, as preservation and heritage have become bargaining chips in the real estate marketplace, that he has become synonymous with everything gracious and desirable in that designation “prewar,” which is really a euphemism, in Candela’s case, for pre-crash. It was not politics but economics that doomed him, not the official ban on new construction but the shuddering halt of new capital flowing through the developers’ hands into his.

Rosario Candela died in 1953, a year after his one-story corner development in Midtown was torn down and replaced by Lever House, the first glass skyscraper in New York City. It heralded the coming of a new era, a transition from stone to glass, and the arrival of a new definition of high-rise.

Elegance in the Sky: The Architecture of Rosario Candela runs at the Museum of the City of New York through October 28. The museum has also collaborated with Urban Archive on a walking tour of Candela’s Upper East Side buildings.

Joanna Scutts is a writer and curator, and the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It (Liveright, 2017).

Editor: Sara Polsky

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