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

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

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.

 

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo-illustration of several big-box retail stores.
    Equity

    After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown

    Big-box retailers nationwide are slashing their property taxes through a legal loophole known as "dark store theory." For the towns that rely on that revenue, this could be a disaster.

  2. Equity

    Housing Can’t Be Both Affordable and a Good Investment

    The two pillars of American housing policy are fundamentally at odds.

  3. A photo of protesters carrying anti-Amazon posters during a rally and press conference in NYC.
    Amazon HQ2

    Amazon’s HQ2 Decision Was Always About Transit

    In the end, New York’s MTA and D.C.’s Metro were the only transportation networks capable of handling such an influx of new residents. But both cities will have some work to do.

  4. A man wears a mask with the likeness of French president Emmanuel Macron as people take part in the nationwide "Yellow Vest" demonstrations, a symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher fuel prices, in Haulchin, France.
    Equity

    Why Drivers Are Leading a Protest Movement Across France

    The rapidly developing “Yellow Vest” movement took over streets and highways to oppose rising gas and diesel taxes. It might also be a proxy for frustrations about rising costs and falling living standards.

  5. Rendering of a 65-story glass skyscraper in Quebec City seen at night.
    Design

    The Skyscraper Dividing Quebec City

    Le Phare would stand 65-stories high in Sainte-Foy, an old, low-lying suburb of the historic city.