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Remembering the Father-Son Virtuosos of New York's Historic Arches and Vaults

The Guastavinos helped design thousands of buildings around the U.S., but nowhere is their work as prominent as in New York City.

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Tile vaulting on display inside the unused City Hall Subway Station (built in 1904). (Michael Freeman/Museum of the City of New York.)

Even a New York architecture fanatic could be forgiven for not knowing the father-son duo behind so many of the city's buildings.

Rafael Guastavino Moreno and his youngest son, Rafael III, helped build more than 300 structures in New York City (over 1,000 nationally) during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Guastavino calling card? Gorgeous tiled arches and vaults synonymous with the interiors of places like the abandoned City Hall subway station, Grand Central's Oyster Bar, and the original Penn Station.

The senior Guastavino, who moved to the U.S. from Spain with his son in 1881, invented the Guastavino tile, which is made of terra cotta and less than an inch thick. Set in herringbone-pattern courses and placed over quick-drying cement, each tile is cantilevered over the open space that allows the tiles to form along a roof's curved lines.

The father-son duo were awarded 24 patents while running their Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company together.

Admired by their contemporaries but never quite cultural stars in the way firms like McKim, Mead, and White were, much of their New York portfolio exists in anonymity.

Perhaps the best example, as the New York Times'  David Dunlap points out, are their hardly visible tile vaults at the 34th Street-Penn Station subway stop, peripheral remains from McKim, Mead, and White's demolished Penn Station.

An interactive element of the exhibit designed by Studio Indefinit enables visitors to control a screen’s vantage point of Guastavino works around the city using a touch-pad controller. Video courtesy Studio Indefinit/Vimeo

There is still however, an awareness of the two men to this day in New York. Part of the marketplace they helped design underneath the Queensboro bridge is now a catering and event space named after them. More importantly, their company records were saved in the 1960s and now belong to the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University. 

Many of those documents are a part of Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile ,” an exhibit currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York.

Originally shown last year at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., the exhibit has been adapted for a New York audience with archival and interactive content focused on the Guastavinos' local work. The results give viewers a sense of not only how stunning their work appears today, but just how innovative their signature vaults and arches were when they were new:

Section, vaults over crypt, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC (1899). Sketch 
courtesy of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.
Construction of Guastavino vaults over crypt, Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, 1900. 
Courtesy of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.
Completed tile vault with Guastavino Sr. (second from left), NYC, 1897.  Photograph courtesy of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.
Guastavino tile domes, Pennsylvania Station, 1910 (left) and 1911 (right). Photographs courtesy 
Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University
A load test on a Guastavino helicoidal tile stair, First Church of Christ Scientist 1900. Photograph 
Courtesy of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University.
Vaults at the Bronx Zoo (built in 1908). Photograph © Michael Freeman, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
Oyster Bar at Grand Central (built in 1912). Photograph © Michael Freeman, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
A Guastavino tile. Photograph © Michael Freeman, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

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 7, 2014.

 

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