Note: Correction appended.
Rosario Candela came to America at the age of 19, knowing just a few words
of English. But within a decade, the Italian immigrant was designing some of
the most luxurious buildings Park Avenue had ever seen.
His quick rise from immigrant to famed architect left a permanent imprint on the city’s skyline — so much so that today, two of his buildings are again in the limelight.
The former Stanhope Hotel at 995 Fifth Avenue, which Candela designed in 1926, was recently renovated by Extell Development Company. The Candela name is one of the selling points at the building, where prices start at $10.5 million. Meanwhile, Vornado Realty Trust is in the process of rehabbing a building that Candela designed in 1929 at 771 Madison Avenue and 66th Street. The conversion of that now-landmarked building is expected to be finished early next year.
The buildings are two of roughly 50 that Candela, who died in 1953 at age 63, designed in New York in the late 1920s. Many of those commissions came from fellow Italian immigrants who had already made it in the real estate world here.
Still, while Candela’s career was prolific, it was not all smooth sailing. According to the New York Times, the stock market crash of 1929, and the Depression that followed, meant that only 12 of the 27 planned projects he
had in the pipeline at the time of the slump
Learning the velvet ropes
Candela, the son of a plasterer, was born in Palermo, Italy, in 1890. In 1910, he moved to the United States and was admitted into Columbia University’s School of Architecture.
In the book “740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building,” author Michael Gross said that when Candela, who designed 740 Park, was at Columbia, he “was already so sure of his talents that he placed a velvet rope around his drafting table to keep other students from copying his work.”
Gross called 960 Fifth Avenue, another Candela building, “the first of a Babe Ruthian string of home runs for Candela.”
That building went up in 1927, and over the next three years, Candela received more than 30 commissions in New York, largely on the Upper East Side, and seven with Park Avenue addresses.
Candela knew that small, exclusive buildings attracted high-class buyers. So, when designing 960 Fifth Avenue — which faces Fifth Avenue and goes far down 77th Street — he used façades to create the illusion of two separate buildings.
On 77th Street, the building had a projecting cornice. On Fifth Avenue, instead of a cornice, he designed a profusion of ornamentation with urns, balustrades and swags.
“At first, people thought [the ornamentation] was overkill, wasteful of money. Then he put it in, and everybody liked it,” said Andrew Alpern, author of “New York Apartment Houses of Rosario Candela and James Carpenter.”
Candela even decorated the wooden water tank and made it tall enough to be seen, rather than hiding the unsightly necessity as most buildings did.
“What was an oddball thing [about 960 Fifth Avenue] was that some windows seemed to be much taller, and the floor lines didn’t seem to align all the time,” Alpern said. “He treated the inside of this building [like] a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.”
Candela used his skills to interlock apartments, dovetailing units in which the public spaces, such as the living room and dining room, had higher ceilings than the private spaces, such as the bedrooms.
Beating the odds
Candela’s rise through New York City’s architectural community was not all easy. The Italian-born designer faced the prejudice that many immigrants did at the time.
“Immigrant Italians, like immigrant Jews, were very much separated from the WASP establishment everywhere, but especially in real estate,” Alpern said.
If it weren’t for fellow Italian immigrants like Gaetano Ajello and Anthony Campagna, the city may have never seen a Candela building. Candela worked as a draftsman for Ajello before striking out on his own around 1920.
“They came from the same place, but they had equally grandiose egos, which may have had an impact on why Candela decided to go off on his own,” Alpern said.
The first building Candela is believed to have designed on his own is the Clayton, an apartment building on 92nd Street and Broadway, which he did in 1922. It was commissioned by Campagna, who used Candela’s designs in several other buildings in the city.
In 1926, Italian developer Michael Paterno gave Candela a commission for 775 Park Avenue. According to a 1988 New York Times article, the building’s apartments “had a minimum of two closets per bedroom, fireplaces in almost every library, a wine cellar opening off the dining room, and 650-square-foot living rooms.”
Creating his blueprint
Candela’s early vision was of a cleaner, more luxurious apartment design than had previously existed in New York.
In the early 1900s, walls were thin, and mechanical wiring and pipes were exposed. Candela was one of a few architects to start making exterior walls thicker, to hide those elements inside.
Candela also started positioning buildings’ radiators lower to the ground, which allowed him to create taller windows, giving the illusion that an apartment’s ceilings were higher.
Even in a building’s more minor details, he tried to ramp up the luxury. For example, at 770 Park Avenue, built in 1931, there were front elevators for residents and a back elevator for service personnel, as there were in most buildings of the time.
But according to Alpern, Candela put his own twist on that model by adding a middle elevator for the residents’ staff. The goal was to ensure that residents and their staff would not mix in communal spaces — a controversial concept now.
Alpern noted, however, that it was Candela’s floorplans that singled him out among the architects of his day. Candela, he said, saw apartments in three parts: reception spaces, private spaces and servant spaces.
He made reception spaces accessible to bathrooms without having to go through a private space, like a bedroom. Servant spaces, like kitchens and pantries, were in between the reception and private spaces so that they would have access to both.
Candela also ensured that anyone entering the apartment had a view of a window or fireplace when walking into the apartment.
He also changed up the typical allotment of space that most apartment buildings employed at that time. While existing buildings followed a standard model that dictated a large dining room, smaller bedrooms and an even smaller library, Candela evened out the sizes of the rooms to give residents more options. If, for example, a resident wanted to turn his apartment’s library into a bedroom, it would be big enough to do so.
Alpern said that another architect, James Carpenter, was designing homes with the same three-part plan before Candela came on to the architecture scene, but that Candela’s apartments were more imaginative.
Candela was able to take his layout and adapt it to different sizes and styles of homes. In fact, the principles of Candela’s layouts for luxury Park Avenue apartments were first worked out in more modest buildings such as a 1924 walkup he designed in the Bronx neighborhood known as Marble Hill.
Leaving a legacy
Although Candela ended his architecture career with an impressive résumé, he began studying cryptology during the Depression to offset the slowdown, and ended up writing two books on the subject while simultaneously designing a few apartment buildings and theaters in the city.
“I would say that his contribution [was that] he got really big commissions to do the kind of things that perhaps architects would have done if they had the opportunity. He’s a successful label,” said real estate historian Christopher Gray, author of the popular “Streetscapes” column in the New York Times.
Gray went on to pose the question: Was Candela a superior designer or a superior businessman? While there were similar styles being created by other talented architects like James Carpenter and Emory Roth, it was Candela who received the most commissions, and his name remains a symbol of exclusive Upper East Side living to this day, Gray said.
Maintaining Candela’s signature features was important to Nancy Ruddy, president of architectural firm Cetra/Ruddy, when converting 771 Madison Avenue.
“The very gracious prewar flow of the rooms is what people think of in Rosario Candela buildings. That was the most important thing for us to keep,” Ruddy said.
Ruddy, who noted that many Candela floorplans have been altered during other conversions, also said preserving the limestone detailing on the building’s façade was key in maintaining his style.
While today’s developers have converted a number of Candela’s buildings, the reincarnations are commanding high prices.
At the Stanhope, where sales got off to a sluggish start, the rooms have been opened up to raise ceilings that had been previously dropped to conceal the installation of air conditioning.
And, the transformation of the luxury hotel that Candela designed into a luxury condo building seems to be paying off now.
Last month, the New York Times reported that the 7,000-square-foot penthouse there just sold to Claude Becker Wasserstein, who is separated from high-profile investment banker Bruce Wasserstein. While the final sales price was not disclosed, the apartment was listed at $47.5 million.