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Share Your Story Submission: Félix Candela in Chicago

Gallery 400 is reaching out to the public to collect stories about Félix Candela's time in Chicago during the duration of Félix Candela Concrete Shells: An Engineered Architecture for México and Chicago. To share your experience with Candela, find more information here. Below is a submission from a friend of Candela who assisted with the renovation of his home on Jackson Blvd. 


I am honored to be able to share the experiences I had with Felix and Dorothy Candela. When Bruno Ast told me of your exhibit and asked me to contribute I realized that, in my recollection, I was with them more than anyone at that time and we had a mutual respect for each other.

In writing this account it is difficult not to make this about myself; however, these are stories of that time, with them in Chicago. I would also like to say that I miss them very much and regret not having spent more time with them before I left Chicago. The first thing I can say about Felix is that I considered him my buddy. Dorothy, of course, was my supervisor and ruled the house. Both of them were such pleasant, gracious people. I guess they took me under their wing, so to speak. I was only about twenty-six years old then.

I was living in Miami when the economy declined in 1973 and most construction stopped there. I decided to go back to school and earn my fourth year college degree in architecture from Rhode Island School of Design. My girlfriend at that time arranged for me to interview with Bruno Ast for acceptance into the University of Illinois at Circle Campus. I then drove up to Chicago in December of 1974 and shortly thereafter interviewed with Bruno Ast and as my adviser he placed me into two classes, calculus and high-rise design with John Macsai.

As I told Bruno of my work experience—in carpentry, some cabinetry and all—he suggested that I work with the Candelas as they were renovating and restoring some buildings on Jackson Boulevard. I met with Dorothy and Felix most likely in January of 1975 and started working on one of their rental properties with other architecture students from UIC. This was fortunate for me because I now had a job just arriving to Chicago. I had more construction experience than the other students and continued to work with Felix and Dorothy restoring their residence on Jackson Blvd. I followed Dorothy’s vision for their residence and proceeded to replicate crown and baseboard moldings where there was about six inches missing due to walls that were put up to increase housing during the WWII. I do remember making door-jambs, chiseling out for hinges, and hanging doors using original hardware or at least period hardware.

Back then I recollect that when some old buildings were being torn down one could salvage materials. I am not sure of all the work I did on Candela’s residence because I continued to do restoration in Chicago and by constantly learning ended up doing any trade to complete a project, except for HVAC.

Felix and Dorothy did move into the Jackson Blvd. residence once I completed their marble kitchen countertop and we got the under-mount sink installed. I may have also built the kitchen cabinets.

The 7/8” thick marble slabs for the counter top were propped up outside the back door. I cut lengths, shaped sink hole with curved corners for under mount sink, and drilled and filed holes for faucets on counter top pieces using a masonry blade in a circular saw, regular masonry bits, and wood half round files. While I was working on the marble Dorothy came out the back door complaining of a toothache. I tried to console her.

We didn’t have the tools that are available today. Or at least I didn’t have diamond blades or bits. I was still using handsaws, brace and bit, yankee screwdriver, hand planes, and chisels. And the mitre box was the old wooden hand made one that my father taught me how to make.

The plumbing and heating pipes were also being replaced and I worked with the older gentleman plumber. He taught me how to measure, cut, thread and install pipe. I remember him telling Dorothy some jokes. Dorothy was a pretty woman and easy to get along with.

When I first started on one of Candela’s rental units I made a Formica counter top abutting a curved wall mounted sink. I felt proud when Felix complimented me on the detail I used at those curves. He respected the work I was doing on their Jackson Blvd. home and other rental property, with Dorothy’s supervision.

Having stayed with my girlfriend initially when I arrived from Miami, I then moved into one of Felix and Dorothy’s houses on Jackson Blvd. during the middle of John Macsai’s course sometime around the summer of 1975. The house was diagonally across the street from Candela’s residence. My room was the original living room on the first floor with a small bathroom across the front hallway, tub and all. The room was large enough to easily accommodate a bed, refrigerator, kitchen table, chair and drafting table. While I was attending UIC then, studying high-rise design I remained working for the Candelas.

I recall sitting outside on the front steps and looking up at the Sears Tower. Felix told me that in strong winds the tower could sway up to about ten feet at the top.

Felix was teaching Stadium Design at UICC and invited me to visit the class while he was teaching. I went with him and saw some drawings and models in progress and we discussed a method of anchoring a suspension cable by separating strands of cable and pouring a conical shaped metal around the strands. This metal is then anchored into the concrete base. He also pointed out different aspects to consider in designing a stadium.

At their other home, in the lakeshore condo, Felix and Dorothy showed me plans they were drawing for an airport in Saudi Arabia. If I recall correctly, the maintenance area for aircraft was below the runway.

I was invited to a party Felix and Dorothy held at their lakeshore condo. The Head of the Architecture Dept. at UICC Richard Whitaker whom I previously met, also attended and he sat down at a small table with my girlfriend Barbara and myself. And he said, “Do you know how many people would give their right arm to be here tonight?” There were some prominent guests attending, including Bruno Ast and his wife Gunduz Dagdelen.

As people left the party, and not overstaying our welcome, Dorothy and Felix sat on their couch in the living room and my girlfriend and I sat around the coffee table with them. Felix opened a door in the table, pulled out a bottle of Anisette and offered me a shot. He said it was made in a little town in Mexico. He knew I liked Anisette and it was excellent.

As I spent time with Dorothy and Felix they would share some stories. Felix told me he knew Albert Bush Brown, the president of RISD when I attended. I remember a structures book I studied at RISD with Felix Candela’s name in it. When I left Chicago in 1980 I went back to Rhode Island. One day at Leo’s restaurant in Providence, a RISD hangout, I sat at a small table with an older bearded gentleman. He said his name was Ansel Adams. As we talked I told him of my work with the Candela’s and he said,” I know Felix”. Felix said he knew Picasso and Franco, then president of Spain. Felix told me he grew up with Franco and that they both lived in the same complex in Madrid and would go skiing together. Dorothy said that in that complex there was a keeper who had the keys to your house and he would let you in. Felix also asked me if I might like to work on a mosaic piece with Marc Chagall.

Felix invited me to a lecture by Buckminster Fuller at UICC and introduced me to him afterwards. Dorothy told me about the time Felix arranged for the president of Mexico to meet Mayor J. Daley. She said the president’s bodyguards were wearing bandoleers, with bullets and all.

I also met Mayor Joseph Daly on Jackson Blvd. when he came to visit the restoration of residences by individuals on the block. Mayor Daley came to Steven and Elaine Peyton’s house and when he came down the front steps I shook hands with him. He then proceeded, with a small group of us, to walk down the block toward Ashland Blvd. to see the historic houses that were being restored.

Instrumental in having the 1500 block of Jackson Blvd. designated a historic landmark in 1976, was Philip Krone, who along with William Lavicka, the Candelas, Joe and Rita Pucci, the Peytons and others became “urban pioneers.” These are some of the people I met and worked with on some of their residences. Candela’s house was being completed around the fall of 1975. After that I worked on one of Bruno Ast’s projects on W. Oakdale where I met an architecture student of UICC, Robert Suennen. After completing that project we partnered and went back to the 1500 block of Jackson Blvd. to work on other residences. So, most of the time I spent with the Candelas working on their residence was from January to September of 1975. There have been other visits with them later as I remember lastly doing some work for Philip and Joan Krone on Jackson Blvd.

I recall spending some time with Helmut Jahn. He was living on the block at the time. We rode on his BMW bike for a while and he took me to CF Murphy Associates to show me his workplace and asked me if I wanted to make architectural models with him. I had just finished tediously drawing a thousand balusters on balconies of two forty-story towers for my high-rise design class and was enjoying the more physical work I was doing with the Candelas, Ast and others.

As work on the house progressed Felix would spend more time there after teaching his class, and get involved with various projects. Some days when Felix was stripping the paint off windows in the basement, I would come down to get something and we’d hang out for a while smoking a cigarette, we always bummed from each other. For a while I switched to Benson and Hedges that we both enjoyed.

So this one day, again down in the basement, Felix says, “Franco wrote me a letter and asked me if I wanted to be president of Spain.” Franco at that time was ill. Then Felix said, “What do I know about politics?” And I said, “I think you’re right, Felix.” He shrugged his shoulders and walked away not to dwell on it any longer. I know he wanted to share that letter with me though.

Felix and I were sitting in his breakfast nook looking at the neighbor’s deck and he said, “Doesn’t it look like an engineer designed it?” I nodded, understanding what he meant. We didn’t discuss a lot relating to architecture or his work. Maybe that is why we got along so well. I was never in awe or hounded him with questions. Respect.

He did tell me about a dome shaped structure they built in Mexico that was formed by a mound of dirt. Concrete with re-bar was then poured over the mound and after curing the dirt was then excavated out from under.

Another day we were again sitting at the small table in the kitchen eating and Dorothy was standing at the counter preparing some food. Felix balled up a wrapper and tossed it into a small trash can in the corner. Dorothy scolded him and we chuckled like a couple of kids getting in trouble. I think he got it in.

I did get in trouble with Dorothy breaking a piece of mirror in their long table while trying to move it. It was brought over from their lakeside condo.

I remember driving Dorothy, in their green Peugeot wagon, to Marshall Fields to go shopping. I dropped her off out front, parked the car, and met her inside. When we left I would get the car and pick her up. I had a Fiat at the time and they said they used to have one.

One hot summer day Dorothy saw me eating some cake snacks and told me not to eat that. She then offered me a head of lettuce. When I looked at her, perhaps a little puzzled, she said, “Bite into it.” I did and it was amazingly refreshing. The water content in the lettuce flooded my mouth.

I recall going with Dorothy to Maxwell Street and looking at stained glass and other items we could possibly use on their house. The area there was a dirt lot with planks to walk on to stay out of the mud. I wandered off a little and remember standing alone for a while in front of John Lee Hooker and a drummer performing.

It is strange that I didn’t take many pictures during this time. The only thing I have is a 45 degree triangle with Candela etched in it. It must have gotten in with mine one day when Dorothy was helping me fill in some lines on one of my drawings. I have used that triangle over the years with fond memories. I guess it was Dorothy who told me about Felix’s first wife. That she was not that pleasant a woman and Felix threw himself into his work.

I met Dorothy’s daughter, Jane, when she came to visit in Chicago. I wish I had known Felix and Dorothy moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, to be near Jane when they did because I was living in Greensboro, NC, at the time and could have easily visited them.

These moments I recall are not necessarily architectural in nature, but I hope it gives some insight into these two beautiful people and the beginning of the historic 1500 block of Jackson Blvd.

I am glad I got involved in restoration and not just renovation. I went on to restore other residences in Chicago and carried that knowledge and mindset to later work around the country. Some of those projects in Chicago were with Bruno Ast, including his residence on North Sedgwick.

Douglas J Palmer, February 2018