In a 1985 essay for Esquire, Tom Wolfe identified the forty-two “Good Buildings” in New York—pre-war apartment buildings known more for their residents’ “decorous demeanor, dignified behavior, business and social connections, and sheer wealth” than for any architectural merit. The list includes twelve buildings by Rosario Candela (1890–1953), a name that to this day represents the apogee of architectural prestige in New York.

The Candela name is a fixture of Upper East Side broker-babble (tellingly, none of Wolfe’s “Good Buildings” are found on Manhattan’s West Side), but the man himself remains nebulous. This paucity of biographical detail is not rectified by “Elegance in the Sky: The Architecture of Rosario Candela,” now on view at the Museum of the City of New York. But the show’s many other merits more than make up for that.

The son of a Sicilian plasterer, Candela must have benefitted from his father’s artisan knowledge. Most of the great American architects of Candela’s age were gentlemen, but in Europe there was a long tradition of architects descending directly from tradesmen. Robert Mylne was the son of a master mason and John Nash was born to a millwright. Candela arrived in America in 1909. Despite later claims that he had been educated at the Institute of Fine Arts in Palermo, immigration records show that he was a laborer. He enrolled in the Columbia University School of Architecture, proceeded into the office of a fellow Italian builder called Gaetano Allejo, and struck out on his own in 1920.

His first East Side commission came in 1922 with 1105 Park Avenue, a neo-Georgian tower with a chunkily rusticated limestone base (not reproduced in this exhibition). While competent, the structure lacks what might be termed the “Candela Look”—its red bricks, small windows, and stocky quoins give it solidity at the expense of sleekness.

Apartment entrance at 770 Park Avenue in 1930. Photo: Wurts Bros.

This is gracious, thoughtful design that has the virtue of all good architecture: it looks a lot easier than it is.

But to focus on Candela’s exteriors is perhaps to overlook the architect’s primary talent in designing layouts. The show’s numerous reproductions of Candela floor plans offer a dual service—revealing the master’s hand and showing the scale on which New York’s most frightfully grand residents lived (and still do).

What’s apparent in the plan presented for a seven-bedroom duplex at 720 Park Avenue, built in 1928, is the clean logic Candela employed—no easy feat in apartments of this size. The elevator leads directly to the foyer, which serves as the point around which the rest of the apartment pivots. The servants’ hall leads to both the maids’ rooms and the kitchen, which itself attaches directly to the pantry and dining room. The dining room sits in the corner to maximize views and connects to the library, which circulates back to the foyer, leading on the other side to an oversized living room with eighteen feet of terrace frontage. This is gracious, thoughtful design that has the virtue of all good architecture: it looks a lot easier than it is.

The Jesse Isidor Strauss Library at 720 Park Avenue in 1934. Photo: Samuel H. Gottscho.

The exhibition itself is highly attractive, designed ingeniously by Peter Pennoyer Architects to appear as a Candela room—luxuriously wallpapered and with a playful frieze. The curator Donald Albrecht is especially good at teasing out the collaboration between Candela and Dorothy Draper, the pioneering interior designer. It includes entertaining marketing materials that served to promote these speculative buildings as well as a short video exploring 960 Fifth Avenue, a 1927 collaboration between Candela and the renowned firm of Warren & Wetmore. The exhibition and video serve as a worthy introduction to the work of this remarkable designer.

Just as Candela was reaching the height of his productivity, the crash of 1929 caused his business to slow considerably—in 1929 he had twenty-six commissions on his rolls, while in 1930 he had two—though he continued to work until his death in the 1950s. During these lean years, Candela’s interests shifted to cryptography, and his skills proved useful to his adopted country during the Second World War, when he served in the oss. Cryptography might seem a strange pastime for an architect, but what are buildings except giant puzzles? Candela knew just how to situate a terrace, just where to position a corridor. Even before he turned formally to his new vocation, he was solving puzzles on Park Avenue.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 1, on page 36
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