Rafael Guastavino

Each year, thousands of tourists visit New York City and its historic structures such as Grand Central Terminal, Carnegie Hall, and the Great Hall on Ellis Island. Most tourists are not aware that the man responsible for these famous buildings was Rafael Guastavino (1842-1908), a Spanish immigrant who integrated centuries-old construction techniques into modern architecture. Guastavino left his personal stamp on the city. His work—with its great spans of curving, expressive spaces—combines grace with sturdy, enduring construction.

Adapted Ancient Building Technique

Rafael Guastavino was born in Valencia, Spain, in 1842. He was trained as an architect in Barcelona, graduating in 1872 from the Escuela de Arquitectura. Before emigrating to the United States, Guastavino established himself as a successful architect in Barcelona.

In Spain, Guastavino designed and built homes and factories for wealthy industrialists in the region of Catalin. He revived an ancient form of tile and mortar building that had been used for centuries. This technique, called the boveda catalana, or Catalan vault, featured long flat tiles placed in layers held together by a mixture of Portland cement and cow bay sand. The technique was also known as "timbrel" vaulting, a term that suggested the membrane of a timbrel, an old percussion instrument similar to a tambourine.

Guastavino would adapt the ancient technique into a method called "cohesive construction," which involved placing layers of thin, interlocking terra cotta tiles in layers of mortar to create curved horizontal surfaces including floors, stairs, roofs, and ceilings which were usually shaped like vaults or domes. Though the tiles were light, their placement enabled them to withstand a great deal of weight, resulting in self-supporting arches. The strength of the vaults and arches came from a curved geometry held in a state of monolithic cohesion. The sturdiness of Guastavino's structures has often been compared to the natural strength of eggshells. The style was both visually striking and practical: Not only were the structures strong, they were fireproof. These curved surfaces became his personal trademark, and Guastavino would employ this method when he emigrated to the United States in 1881.


Started Business in America

Guastavino wanted to emigrate to America after architectural plans he submitted to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition earned him a medal of merit in 1876. He believed he could acquire better building materials and more job opportunities there. Five years after his award, he brought his son, Rafael Guastavino, Jr., with him to the United States. His son was nine at the time and would later go into business with his father.

In America, Guastavino worked as a builder and contractor. At first, he had trouble finding work. His techniques were not well understood in America. However, given time, he was able to establish his reputation. In 1885, he secured the first of his many patents on his vaulting system of construction.

In 1889, he founded the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company. Promoting the vaulting technique called the "Guastavino Tile Arch System," a refinement of the fireproof construction system he first used in Spain, Guastavino advanced his reputation, and his services were soon much in demand in New York. His fire-resistant construction method was a major selling point, given the great fire that had ravaged Chicago in 1871.


Became Accomplished Architect

Today, his structuring method is a visual characteristic in many of New York City's landmark buildings. However, much of Guastavino's work during this early period involved residential architecture, including row houses on the city's Upper West Side that remained standing into the 21st century. With his techniques, Guastavino could design homes with a distinctive feature: large openings could be spanned without using timber or iron beams. Guastavino also incorporated Moorish details into these homes, including brownstone, terra cotta, and articulated brickwork. The fact that the buildings still exist are a testament to Guastavino's workmanship. He was so conscientious about quality that his company manufactured its own tiles.

Guastavino developed a reputation as an accomplished architect, and he worked with some of the best architects in the United States, including Stanford White, Richard Morris Hunt, Ralph Adams Cram, and Cass Gilbert. Guastavino greatly influenced these colleagues. They borrowed elements of his style and technique to create their own world-famous works. The same year that he formed his company, Guastavino collaborated with architects White, Charles Follen McKim, and William Rutherford Mead on the Boston Public Library, one of his best-known projects.

Guastavino's business was essentially a construction and contracting firm. He, and later his son, installed the trademark masonry floors, ceilings, vaults, domes, stairs and acoustic products in churches, museums, railroad stations, state capitols, libraries, concert halls, government and university buildings, private homes, and highway structures. In all, his firm created nearly 400 structures in New York City. By 1891 the company had offices in New York, Boston, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Providence, Rhode Island.

The company also developed successful building products, including acoustic tile. With Wallace C. Sabine, Guastavino created Rumford tiles designed to reduce echoes inside large ecclesiastical edifices. The tiles can be found in several famous churches, including St. Bartholomew and St. Thomas in New York City and the Duke University Chapel in Durham, North Carolina. In 1900, the firm opened a tile manufacturing factory in Woburn, Massachusetts.


Moved to North Carolina

In the mid-1890s, Guastavino went to Asheville, North Carolina, to work on the Biltmore House, which would become a National Historic Landmark. He decided to stay in the area, buying land and building a house near Black Mountain. In 1905, working with another renowned architect, Richard Sharp Smith, he helped design and build the St. Lawrence Catholic Church, which would later be placed on the National Register Of Historic Places.

Guastavino decided to work on the church after he tried attending services one morning and was turned away because it was too crowded. He offered his services to help build a much larger and more splendid church. Construction began in 1905 but was unfinished when Guastavino died in 1908. His son finished the project. However, the church still presents a stunning example of his style and technique. Every horizontal surface is made of his trademark combination of tile and mortar, and it features an impressive, elliptical dome. Guastavino's crypt is located in the church. Reportedly, fellow architect Smith also contributed to the design. However, it is Guastavino's unique style that dominates. His signature vaults run throughout the interior, which also features three Catalan staircases. "It's really kind of his church," said William Flynn Wescott, a North Carolina preservationist who has organized several Guastavino exhibits. "[Guastavino] contributed not only tile and construction but major funds. And of course, he's buried there."

Guastavino's business continued for many years following his death. His son, who died in 1950, took over the business, and it continued operating under a number of successors. Eventually, steel and concrete building methods were deemed more practical than Catalan vaulting, and the firm went out of business in 1962. In an interview with the Mountain Xpress of Asheville, North Carolina, Westcott pointed out that while Guastavino's techniques produced great beauty, they could not compete with newer, cheaper building techniques. "It's a prettier system, but people weren't willing to pay additional dollars for his system," he said.


Left a Strong Legacy

Much of Guastavino's output can be found in the northeastern United States, including 360 works in New York, 100 in Boston, 30 in Pittsburgh, and 20 in Philadelphia. Examples of his work also can be found in ten other countries. His most famous accomplishments include vaults in Grand Central Station, Saint Patrick Cathedral, Saint John the Divine Cathedral, Mount Sinai Hospital, and City Hall Station. Buildings include Grant's Tomb, the Great Hall at Ellis Island, Carnegie Hall, and the chapel at West Point. Other famous projects in other parts of the country include the Nebraska State Capitol and the U.S. Army War College in Washington, D.C.

Guastavino's distinctive architectural stamp is also a strong presence in North Carolina. Along with the St. Lawrence church, the Biltmore House, and the Duke Chapel, famous sites include the Jefferson Standard Building in Greensboro, the Motley Memorial in Chapel Hill, and St. Mary's Catholic Church in Wilmington. But it is the St. Lawrence church that remains perhaps the best-known structure in that state.


Built Many New York Landmarks

A walking tour of New York's Upper West Side reveals many of Guastavino's fingerprints, including the tiles in the Holy Trinity Church, the vehicular entrance to the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West, and the porte-cochere at the Ansonia. Outside the Upper West Side, other Guastavino works include St. Paul's Chapel on the Columbia University campus, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Western Union Building on Hudson Street, the City Hall subway station, the Grand Central's Oyster Bar, the Church of Notre Dame, the Federal Reserve Bank, the U.S. Custom House, the Plaza and St. Regis hotels, Temple Emanu-El, Lenox Hill Hospital, the Cloisters, St. Bartholomew's and St. Vincent Ferrer churches, and the Municipal Building. Many of these structures are among the most famous and distinctive in the country. "The Guastavino system represents a unique architectural treatment that has given America some of its most monumental spaces," wrote Thomas Prudon in Progressive Architecture. "It deserves to be preserved and treated with care."

Guastavino Rediscovered

The visual elegance of Guastavino's work provided indelible impressions of New York City. However, until recent years, few knew who was responsible for these structures. Indeed, even when he was alive, Guastavino was not well known outside of the architectural field. Since he worked mainly as a contractor, his name did not appear on the buildings, and the public was largely unaware of the impact and significance of his work. "They are the best examples we have … of something that is at the same time structural, decorative and fireproof—an amazing combination of architectural and decorative elements in American architecture," said Wescott.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, renewed interest was generated by exhibitions that highlighted his achievements. "It's been a passion of mine to get him known," said Wescott. "He's just this incredible architect, engineer, contractor and ceramist. He is probably one of the best examples of a Renaissance man who never got any PR, and now it's time for his PR."


Columbia University Record, April 26, 1996.

Mountain Xpress, January 9, 2002.

Smithsonian Preservation Quarterly, Spring 1995.


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