Lorre White celebrates ‘Guastavinos’ of America’s Public Palaces!


Guastavino RThe Guastavino family’s soaring tile vaults grace many of the nation’s most iconic structures including Grand Central Terminal, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Boston Public Library, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Nebraska State Capitol.

Yet the name, the accomplishments, and the architectural legacy of this single family of first-generation Spanish immigrants are virtually unknown. Not only did the Guastavinos help build many great American public spaces between 1881 and 1962, they also revolutionized American architectural design and construction.

Their patented vaulting techniques made it possible for the greatest architects of the day to create the breathtakingly beautiful spaces that represent the nation’s highest ideals and aspirations. Grand Central Terminal opened to the public on February 2, 1913, more than two years after Pennsylvania Station opened.


The ceiling is magnificent, worth the visit it itself! In the 1980s and early 1990s, some 80 years of pollution (from the vehicle exhaust to tobacco smoke) were scrubbed down, revealing to a new generation Paul Cesar Helleu’s beautiful astronomical ceiling.

Why is the train station called Grand Central?

At the time it was built, the two biggest train corporations servicing New York City were in cutthroat competition with each other. The New York Central Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad were blatantly trying to outdo each other on everything from amenities on board to the sheer numbers of routes to the number of miles of rail crisscrossing the country (at least east of the Mississippi).

One of the things the two companies attempted to outdo each other with was the grandeur of their main train stations in New York City. The Pennsylvania Railroad was working on their Pennsylvania Station near 34th Street and the New York Central was feverishly attempting to keep up.

A name like “Grand Central” evoked power, status and great size. During the height of the railroad age, these railroad corporations had the money and wherewithal to invest heavily in their infrastructure this way.

Michael Freeman/National Buildling Museum

A D.C. museum and MIT professor John Ochsendorf want you to spend some time looking up — to see soaring, vaulted tile ceilings built by a father-son team who came to this country from Spain in the late 1800s and left their mark on some of America’s most important public spaces.

Exhibition Website

Palaces For the People

These ceilings grace landmarks that include state capitols, Grand Central Terminal and Carnegie Hall — as well as some more ordinary buildings. One of them is Engine Number 3, a small brick firehouse not far from the Capitol Building — where yes, they still slide down one of those shiny brass poles.

It’s one of the oldest fire stations in the District of Columbia.

Built in 1916, the firehouse has bright red doors, gleaming trucks and a narrow, gently arched ceiling over the entryway. The underside of the arch is lined with white tiles arranged in a ziggy-zaggy herringbone pattern.

Firefighter Andre Burns is less than impressed. But that little entryway ceiling has some distinctive touches — the tiles, the pattern — that are being noticed with no little respect at the nearby National Building Museum.


A closeup of the bar in New York City’s Vanderbilt Hotel shows the intricate detail of the Guastavino Company’s elegant ceiling work.

Michael Freeman/National Building Museum

Recreating A Guastavino Vault

There, ‘The Exhibition Palaces For the People’: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces is an impressive display. Photographs, diagrams, drawings and scale models show the beauty and breadth of the work work of the Guastavino family — some one thousand vaults and domes and ceilings in 40 states.

One of the most gorgeous examples of Guastavino skill was for the very first subway line in New York City. MIT’s Ochsendorf, who curated the Building Museum exhibit, says the City Hall Station featured chandeliers and skylights and green, tan and cream-colored tile work in intricate patterns.

“The Mona Lisa of subway stations,” someone once observed.

City Hall subway station in New York City

“It was called an underground cathedral when it opened in 1904,” Ochsendorf says. “The public was afraid to go underground at that time, and so these vaults and this beautiful, decorative, colorful ceiling really helped people feel comfortable in a grand space below the city.”

The City Hall subway station hasn’t been used for 60 years. But Ochsendorf says the vaulting is in good condition — and color photographs make you itch to go underground to see for yourself. The elaborately tiled City Hall subway station in New York City — still extant but now closed to the public, alas — used the Guastavino touch to convince wary city dwellers to head underground for a train trip.

smithsonian-freemanA Guastavino ceiling in the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

What Rafael and Rafael Guastavino did — yes, dad and son had the same first name — was to take Old World building techniques they’d learned in Barcelona and update them for the New World. They were like master masons transported here from the Gothic era, men who knew how to build the correct shapes to make their spaces stand up and stay incredibly durable, strong and long-lasting.

Their techniques and their talents were used by leading architects of their day.

“Names like Cass Gilbert and Charles McKim, Richard Morris Hunt — they would design the building, their name was on the building, but on their plans and drawings they would write ‘Guastavino here,'” Ochsendorf says. “And the Guastavino Company would come in. They would really do the detailed design of these vaults, and the architects trusted them — because they were masters — to do what was best.”

Ochsendorf, who teaches architecture and engineering at MIT, says at the peak of its success, the Guastavino Company had offices in 12 cities across the country.

“In 1910 alone, I’ve learned in my research, they were building 100 buildings at once, up and down the East Coast,” Oschsendorf says. “Major domes in Philadelphia and New York and Washington and Pittsburgh — it’s almost unfathomable today that a construction company would be working on a hundred buildings at once.”


The Guastavino touch also extened to palaces of a more private sort. Pictured here is the entrance hall of the famous Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

Clearly the time was ripe. And their timing was impeccable. America was in a building boom. Fires were gutting cities made of wood. When the time came to rebuild, nobody built it better than the Guastavinos.

One gallery at the National Building Museum reveals the precision and craftsmanship of their work. It’s a cross-section reproduction of the fireproof vaulted ceiling they did in 1889 at the Boston Public Library. It was their first major public building.

Thin, thin ceramic tiles, set in cement mortar and layered — five layers, one on top of another like an exotic cake. With no support from below for the soaring ceiling, architect Charles McKim was worried. Would the vault hold? He had the Guastavinos pile more than 500 pounds per square foot on top of their tiled arch to test its strength.

“They would load bricks on top of it and see how much it could support,” Oschsendorf says. “It held something like 12,000 pounds.”

gaustavino1_7415Think You’ve Seen A Guastavino Vault?

Take a picture and add it to NPR’s Flickr pool. We’ll ask MIT’s John Ochsendorf to have a look.

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Public Spaces, Private Spaces … Forgotten Spaces?

The Guastavinos designed stunning private spaces, too, for Rockefellers, Astors and Vanderbilts. Ochsendorf is still on the prowl for undiscovered Guastavinos.

He’s inviting everyone to join the hunt — to look for artistically placed thin, colored tile, arranged in vaults, and to let him know what they find. Published Art Bookshop

He thinks the work should be better known.

“People walk into a building and they say, ‘Ah — the windows are Tiffany,'” Ochsendorf says. “We want to get to the point where they say, ‘The windows are Tiffany, and the ceilings are Guastavino.’ So we’re — we’re getting there.”

On a little drive around D.C., we pass one of the Federal City’s icons.

“There’s an underground driveway, and there’s an arch,” Ochsendorf points out. “And behind that stone arch is a Guastavino vault. At the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court!

“Honestly,” he says excitedly, “it’s always a discovery.”

All it takes is a tilt of the head.

Thanks to Lorre White, The Luxury Guru for this ‘head’s up‘ !!!


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