Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Master of Fireproof Modernism

Michael Freeman
Rafael Guastavino’s tile vaulting for the now-closed City Hall subway station, inaugurated in 1904

If all politics is local, then much architectural history is also a neighborhood matter. Thus I harbor an abiding personal fondness for the ingenious structural creations of the Spanish émigré master builder Rafael Guastavino (1842–1908). Time and again in old New York buildings, it’s a delight to lift up your eyes and unexpectedly find Guastavino’s distinctive herringbone terracotta tile patterns overhead.

Many of those locales are straightforwardly utilitarian, such as Bridgemarket, a supermarket inside the Manhattan base of the Queensboro Bridge. I’ve enjoyed countless lunches at the Guastavino-vaulted Oyster Bar, in Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem’s Grand Central Terminal of 1910–1913. (Not least among that restaurant’s pleasures is overhearing crystal-clear snatches of conversation projected across the noisy space through an uncanny whispering-gallery effect.)

And one of my favorite Gotham architectural pleasures is to stand at the front window of the downtown number 6 subway between the Canal Street and Brooklyn Bridge–City Hall stops to catch a fugitive glimpse of a phantom Guastavino masterpiece. His gorgeously tiled IRT City Hall station, inaugurated in 1904 as the southern terminus of Manhattan’s first underground mass transit line, has been closed to the public since 1945, but remains eerily well-preserved, testimony to the material’s exceptional durability.

Most memorably to me, though, is having been married beneath the majestic ninety-one-foot-high Guastavino dome of I.N. Phelps Stokes’s St. Paul’s Chapel of 1904–1907 at Columbia University. A crucial Guastavino connection occurred in that same space in 1961, when the art historian George R. Collins (my wife Rosemarie Haag Bletter’s dissertation adviser), had an epiphany that changed how architecture scholars understand a crucial chapter in the history of modern design.

Michael Freeman
Guastavino’s vaulted stair at St. Paul’s Chapel, Columbia University

During a memorial service in the campus church, Collins was suddenly struck by how closely its exposed terracotta tile vaulting resembled the work of Antoni Gaudí, the maverick Catalan architectural genius on whom he was the leading authority. In fact, Gaudí, who was a decade younger, had gone to the same Barcelona technical college as Guastavino, and it appears that Guastavino perfected the industrialized crafting of strong, thin, curving surfaces that Gaudí would take to such memorable extremes in his unconventional biomorphic architecture.

Not only did Collins thereby establish a link between Guastavino and Gaudí, but when the Guastavino family business folded in 1962 and its records were about to be discarded, he secured them for his school’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, an invaluable act of cultural salvage. The Guastavino office’s meticulous working drawings allow a full understanding of a structural methodology that would otherwise be lost to us today. In fact, many large architectural firms for whom the Guastavinos worked would confidently leave portions of their own blueprints blank but labeled “Guastavino here” to indicate that vaults would be skillfully filled in by their trusted collaborator.

This long overlooked inventor and his New York-and-Boston-based firm are now the subject of Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile, a fascinating exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York curated by G. Martin Moeller Jr. of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. and the MIT engineering professor John Ochsendorf, author of the lucidly written and beautifully illustrated Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile. The MCNY’s compact display, which occupies a single large gallery, includes drawings, photographs, plans, tile fragments, and an illuminating video that explains the Guastavinos’ proprietary masonry techniques. 

Avery Library
Guastavino vaulting at the YMCA swimming pool, Jersey City, 1923

In New York City alone, there are no fewer than two hundred fifty examples of Guastavino’s quintessential contribution—the lightweight, low-tech, long-span vaulting technique that systematized and modernized a late-medieval masonry tradition based on terracotta tiles. Guastavino introduced his refinement of that age-old building method (which originated in Islamic practices brought to Spain by Moorish invaders) just when iron and masonry were giving way to steel and concrete as the favored structural materials of the industrialized world. 

Born in Valencia, where the technology he expanded upon was devised in the late fourteenth century, Guastavino scored a youthful triumph with his Batlló textile factory of 1871 in Barcelona. (The large and prosperous Batlló family commissioned a number of other noteworthy buildings in that booming manufacturing city, including Gaudí’s most celebrated residence, his dragon-like Casa Batlló of 1904–1906.)

Guastavino’s proposed scheme for “Improving the Healthfulness of Industrial Towns” won an honorable mention at the 1876 Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia, which encouraged him to immigrate to the US five years later. He arrived in New York with a $40,000 nest egg, lost it in a Manhattan tenement construction speculation, then recovered when in 1885 he filed the first three of his firm’s two dozen patents (a third of which were for acoustical improvements to make tiled interiors less noisy). Two major selling points were that Guastavino construction was sanitary (impervious to damp and rot, plus easy to clean) and, most importantly, fireproof, a widespread public safety concern in the aftermath of several catastrophic nineteenth-century urban conflagrations.

Avery Library
Guastavino tile vault under construction, City Hall subway station, New York City, 1903

The centerpiece of Palaces for the People is a marvelously instructive nine-by-twelve-foot mockup of a Guastavino vault, which demonstrates how his thin, grooved, slightly curved terracotta tiles are layered to form a continuous curved surface with more tensile strength than a single thicker stratum. The model is cut away to reveal the lowest layer set with fast-drying plaster. This allows a space to be spanned without the full scaffolding needed for conventional brick or stone vaulting, which supports itself only after the central keystone is inserted into the apex of an arch. 

Guastavino’s system was quicker and cheaper than traditional masonry methods because it significantly reduced labor time and preparatory materials. His favored mortar—which included Portland cement (an early-nineteenth-century invention, mixing limestone and clay)—added further strength to vaults that were sometimes a mere two inches thick. 

His first big American success was his work on McKim, Mead & White’s Boston Public Library of 1887–1895. In a tour de force of design variation, he came up with different ceiling patterns for each room in the large structure, a veritable three-dimensional catalog for his product’s versatility. Significantly, he left the handsome structural tile work fully exposed rather than covering it with plaster, an attitude that anticipated the Modernist practice of celebrating functional elements by letting them show. 

Avery Library
Rafael Guastavino, 1880

Over the next several decades, commissions flooded in and the business (taken over by Rafael Jr. following his father’s death) prospered. After World War I, the company enjoyed a final efflorescence with showpieces including Bertram Goodhue’s Art Deco Nebraska State Capitol of 1922–1932 in Lincoln (the largest Guastavino job, with 900,000 tiles).

The firm weathered the Great Depression, yet could not withstand the rise of the corporate-phase International Style in the 1950s, with its drab conformity to rectilinear steel-frame construction. The affordable hand craftsmanship that Guastavino artisans (many of them immigrants) excelled at became as quaint and obsolete as silent movies. Were it not for George Collins’s serendipitous observations and insightful scholarship—and now the work of a young generation of enthusiasts—these glorious achievements might still be forgotten.


“Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile” is on view at the Museum of the City of New York through September 2014.

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