Elegance in the Sky: The Architecture of Rosario Candela at the Museum of the City of New York

On Thursday, May 17, 2018, the Museum of the City of New York will open Elegance in the Sky: The Architecture of Rosario Candela, an exhibition exploring the legacy of renowned architect Rosario Candela, who played a major role in transforming and shaping luxury living of 20th century Manhattan with the design of the distinctive “prewar” apartment buildings that define the cityscapes of streets like Park and Fifth Avenues and Sutton Place. Candela’s elegant yet understated high-rises, such as 960 Fifth Avenue740 Park Avenue, and One Sutton Place South featured set-back terraces and neo-Georgian and Art Deco ornament that created the look of New York urbanism between the World Wars. The exhibition is designed by Peter Pennoyer Architects. Graphic design is by Tsang Seymour.

Elegance in the Sky tells the remarkable story of how Rosario Candela, an immigrant architect, made a permanent name for himself by becoming an influential force in transforming the way the wealthiest in New York City lived. Through photographs, ephemera, graphics, domestic furnishings, and digital animation, the exhibition displays how Candela and his colleagues inspired some of the most prominent New Yorkers to move from their private homes to “luxury mansions in the sky,” thus changing the landscape of the city. Much of our vision of “prewar” elegance is based on Candela’s architectural reimaginations that have become status symbols for the city with a long-lasting economic impact and history.

Rosario Candela, an immigrant from Italy, came of age professionally in an era when the city’s 19th century mansions and townhouses were being torn down and their residents adapting to apartment living. Working within a community of fellow architects, real estate developers, builders, and interior designers, Candela met that demand by creating residential buildings that mixed single-story, duplex, and triplex units, all with spacious and graceful plans. Some apartments even offered private, multi-story “maisonettes” at street level. Promoted with alluring marketing schemes, these structures established new standards of chic urban living for some of New York’s wealthiest citizens. Even today, almost a century after they were built, Candela’s buildings rank among the most prized in the city, and the phrase “designed by Rosario Candela” remains a real estate magnet.

Born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1890 (where his father was a plasterer), Rosario Candela immigrated to the United States around 1910. Although he had only a rudimentary grasp of English, he graduated from Columbia University with a degree in architecture in 1915. He set up his own practice by 1920 and was soon receiving commissions from developers, many of them Italian immigrants like himself, with whom he realized some of his most famous designs.

Working primarily in Manhattan, Candela designed or co-designed about 75 apartment buildings, hitting his peak both in quality and quantity at the height of the Jazz Age in the late 1920s. The stock market crash of 1929, however, derailed Candela’s architectural career. He soon turned his attention to a new endeavor – cryptography. He is credited with developing an unbreakable encryption method, wrote two books on the subject, and, starting in 1941, taught a course on cryptanalytics at Hunter College.

Elegance in the Sky focuses on three districts that Candela helped transform: Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, and Sutton Place. The exhibition showcases both vintage and more contemporary photographs highlighting the exteriors and interiors of Candela buildings. There is a digital animation of 960 Fifth Avenue, which demonstrates the stunning range of interior designs often hidden by the similarities between the exteriors of his buildings.

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