Sitting Down with Neighbor Anthony Bellov in Candela Corners
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If you missed Anthony Bellov's "Candela Corners" talk for the West 102nd-103rd Streets Block Association last week, fret no more. The recording will be posted here tomorrow for your viewing pleasure. Blog subscribers will have to click on the title of the blog to view the embedded video online.
In the meantime, I caught up with Anthony, a former Block Association board member and longtime neighbor. We share a fondness for the corner at W. 102nd Street and West End Avenue where most every pre-war era collides in an explosion of styles and housing variations. I've written before about the early buildings like the Townsend House and my personal favorite, the St. Andoche.
Now it's time to pay some mind to the great Sicilian American architect Rosario Candela who left a mark on the way New Yorkers live by way of the incredible number of residential buildings he designed in the 1920s and 1930s. The Upper East Side boasts a fair number of them, but Candela Corners belong to us, Bloomingdalers. With fine examples of his work at 800, 820, 865, 875, 878, and 915 West End and more south of here, you can't hold a candle to us!
You'll enjoy the intimacy of Anthony's talk as he infiltrated almost every Candela on West End to bring alive the architectural features that Candela was known for and that make living in one of his buildings a classic New York experience.
So keep your eye out tomorrow for the blog post with the video. And, now, as a little hors d'oeuvre, read on for my sit-down with Anthony.
Q&A with Anthony Bellov
Caitlin: How long have you lived in the neighborhood?
Anthony: I moved into 865 West End immediately after graduating from Pratt Institute School of Architecture in 1979. I really wanted to try "the City thing" for a while and Bloomingdale reminded me so much of my native Park Slope I felt right at home. Over 40 years later... I'm still here.
Caitlin: Ha! With echoes of Elaine Stritch. So how long did it take you to get involved in the Block Association?
Anthony: Not long! Lil Oliver, an 865 neighbor and Sy Oliver's wife and head of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), invited me to produce a show for one of the Block Parties - titled "On the Streets Where You Live" given in the early 1980's. I used my students - along with the many other things I do, I've taught singing since 1978, trained by my own teacher to do so - and I was immediately embraced by this wonderful community. It's terrific to feel so at home in supposedly uncaring, unfriendly Manhattan.
I've been active with the Block Association in many ways since then. I was a board member for seven years and spearheaded the efforts to stagger traffic lights on West End and have stop signs installed on the Riverside Drive service road. After stepping down I've continued being active; I deeply believe in community involvement. I've always believed that if I'm not part of the solution then I'm part of the problem.
I suggested to the board that we hold a Yard Sale in the spring to bookend the one 104th Street does each fall - I guess that was around 2004? I offered to manage the vendors in order to kick it off. I then served in that function for 13 years consecutively. In 1983 I thought it would be nice to do some holiday caroling and initially organized friends in my building to wander around singing. The Block Association offered to get involved and our Annual Solstice Caroling was born. Since then I've been happy to lead it each year, with the exception of three years when the weather was simply too brutal for us to hold it. This is our first pandemic - and virtual caroling - however. (Note: to join in the remote Caroling on December 21, you should write to firstname.lastname@example.org for details).
Caitlin: It's an impressive amount of leaning in. And now you've just given your Candela Corners talk for the BA. What sparked your interest in Rosario Candela?
Anthony: I first learned of him when I was studying architecture at Pratt institute in the 1970s. Paul Goldberger of the New York Times had "outed" him around then, and I recall my instructors praising his work. Years later I was thrilled to learn I had been living in a Candela building when Andrew Dolkart's report for the West End Avenue Historic District was published.
Caitlin: Yes, Dolkart is epic and that report is a Rosetta Stone for folks interested in our history. I know these research projects are really about the hunt. As an introvert, I've found that getting lost in a topic is one of life's great gifts, conjuring our forebears and imagining who came before. Could you describe a little about how you did your research and what resources were of most value to your story?
Anthony: Andra Moss of Landmark West! approached me with the idea to do a series of talks on the Upper West Side. Among the topics we explored, never realizing what a "hit" it was going to be, was one on Rosario Candela, since we were both fans and both disappointed at the exhibition the Museum of the City of New York had put together.
As soon as word got out that I was preparing a talk several people approached me, like Alan Sukoenig and other residents of 915 West End Avenue who had been avidly fighting their building's owners over the disfigurements in the name of "renovation" that were going on in that building. They put me in touch with the Candela family and Andrew Alpern, the author of "The New York Apartment Houses of Rosario Candela and James Carpenter," who were all happy to share info, support and advice.
Caitlin: That's exactly what I mean about the hunt: it's all about the journey. One thing you did so beautifully in your talk was give us that "you are there" feeling by shooting the interiors. So smart. How did you pull that off?
Anthony: Two local realtors, Leonard Gottlieb and Jesse Berger, arranged for me to gain access to several buildings I was especially interested in, and my singing teacher happened to live in Candela's first project - The Clayton, on 92nd and Broadway - so I had access to that building as well. Everyone was so helpful and committed to letting me into spaces so I could see firsthand what a Candela unit felt like and share it in my talk.
Caitlin: Did you coin “Candela Corners” for our stretch of West End?
Anthony: Yes. When I realized there was such an extraordinary density of Candela-related buildings centered around the intersection of 103rd and West End I jokingly coined it "Candela Corners" in passing one day and then realized how apt that nickname was, so I used it in my presentations. Now there's talk that we petition the City to rename that intersection "Candela Corners" permanently - which I find very exciting.
Caitlin: What is it like to live in a Candela apartment and what features have been preserved in yours?
Anthony: As fate would have it, 865 is one of the worst-kept buildings on West End Avenue. And so, my unit is more intact than those in many other Candela buildings because so few improvements have been made. Apart from the kitchen (which was thankfully updated prior to my moving in - new sink, new stove, that sort of thing) and some other minor changes, Rosario would have no trouble recognizing his original choices in details. The fact that I've been in the unit for so many years has contributed to its "preservation" as well. I've kept the "remuddler" at bay all these years.
Long before I knew I was living in a Candela unit, friends and visitors would comment regularly on how my apartment didn't feel like an apartment, but rather, it felt like a home. The layout is gracious, and it's easy to live in the unit and feel comfortable. And I love the wonderful single-paneled doors, the oversize crystal doorknobs, the high ceilings, the gorgeous oak parquet flooring and the gracious moldings throughout - elegant without being fussy.
Although it was an "accident" that I moved into a Candela unit, one could argue it wasn't. Of all the apartments I saw when apartment-hunting, the one I chose simply stood out from all the rest. It was that "Candela magic" I guess.
Caitlin: Yes, maybe it was destiny or maybe as Louis Pasteur said "Chance favored the prepared mind." As you know, I’ve also been a lover of Bloomingdale history having researched 855 WEA which preceded 865 by roughly 30 years. I have a soft spot for the intersection of W. 102nd Street and West End because so many different eras are represented just at this crossroad. I know you are a Candela groupie, but what’s your second favorite building at or near this intersection?
Anthony: LOL! You're assuming a Candela building is my FIRST favorite building! I can't really rate them numerically but I, too, am enamored of the 102/WEA intersection. Just to name a FEW of my local faves:
I love the Ralph Townsend House (link above) at 302 W. 102nd because of its charm, its antiquity (built in 1884, it's the oldest house in the vicinity) and its unique history of having been built first on West End and later lifted and moved around the corner to 102nd as you recount in your talk and blog post - to make room for your beloved 855! I'm very fond of the Dewey at 850 West End because of the truly unique carved details on the building - take a look at the supports under the bay windows - one has a bird being stalked by two cats, and another has two monkeys fighting over a pineapple - not to mention the portrait of Admiral Dewey on one of the buildings cartouches.
858 WEA is outstanding as well - that wonderful tower serving as an exclamation point on the corner of 102nd and West End (I hear tell there's a Mary Pickford/Douglas Fairbanks connection to this building) and across the street those wonderfully ornate window surrounds on the 102nd St side of 860 WEA... and as I walk home from the 103 St subway station I always delight in the fanciful carvings in the row of brownstones, one of which was Humphrey Bogart's birthplace.
So, honestly, I can't pick a "favorite" building - I simply revel in the richness of the architecture on our blocks. It lifts my spirits and elevates me above the everyday stresses of life.
Caitlin: I completely concur. I also love 858. It reminds my partner of the building near City College on Convent Avenue that was a main character in the film "The Royal Tenenbaums". And how funny it would be to have a Mary Pickford connection directly across from 855. In 1915, Pickford made the film version of "Fanchon the Cricket." It was Maggie Mitchell's stage presence in the play decades earlier that made her wealthy and enabled her to build 855 in 1895. So it would be ironical to trace them to living quarters directly opposite one another...if only for an afternoon delight in Pickford/Fairbanks case. We'll have to dig on that to see if Pickford and Mitchell crossed paths on West End.
Of the Candelas on WEA, which is your favorite?
Anthony: THAT is a REALLY TOUGH question - but I think I would have to pick 875, on "Candela Corner" per se. That lobby simply can't be beat - and the apartments are laid out really well, in Candela's mature style - so I suppose, if wrestled to the mat, that would be my fave. But honestly, I love 'em ALL!
Caitlin: I can hear all my friends in that coop swooning with pride. It is a fabulous lobby which you can't quite tell from the little entry.
What is Candela’s biggest legacy to the city and to New York living?
Anthony: Rosario Candela showed us that a skilled architect, with the proper training and perspective, could create spaces that are gracious, easy to live in, and that contribute to a positive experience while living in a large, multi-unit building in a dense urban environment in a building which could still be economical to build. He laid out his rooms in the way people live best. I'm sorry to say his was an approach that ended with the collapse of the economy in the 1930s. When development resumed after WWII it was largely "pack 'em in as tight as you can, give 'em as little as possible, and charge 'em through the nose." I feel truly fortunate that I lucked into a Candela apartment.
Caitlin: What’s your next research project?
Anthony: I actually don't have anything in the pipeline right now. I just completed a series of three documentary-style videos for the Merchant's House Museum - on its architecture, and its furniture and lighting collections - that have left me exhausted. But you're not the first person to ask me this. It has crossed my mind that Candela's mentor, Gaetan Ajello, might be a really interesting project, and I've become very aware of just how important the Paterno Brothers were for the development of the Upper West Side, Bloomingdale and Morningside Heights. Potentially there are really interesting stories there. But I have not committed to anything at the moment.
Caitlin: What’s the best and worst kept secret about Bloomingdale?
Anthony: I'm sort of sorry to say the formerly best kept secret about Bloomingdale is now the worst kept secret: that is what a GREAT part of Manhattan this is to live in. It used to be "you live all the way up THERE?!" which has now changed to "Oh wow - you live up THERE?! It's really NICE up there!" I'm afraid our secret's out....
Caitlin: Yeah, I used to get that all the time. As the song in "Hamilton" goes: "You don't know til you know..." So to loop back, I guess Maggie Mitchell was ahead of the game when she sunk her flag here and built our first 'high-rise' -- The St. Andoche -- at 855 West End. It was only a matter of time before Candela and other architects of the "grande dames" of West End caught on with the subway opening things up.
Thanks for sharing all this with me. I hope readers will tune in tomorrow for the video of your talk.