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Two Words That Will Change the Way You See New York

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Two Words That Will Change the Way You See New York

Rafael Guastavino.

If you’ve ever been to New York City, to almost any neighborhood, there is a very high likelihood that you have seen this man’s work. But unless you’re an architect or student of history, there’s little chance you’ve heard his name until now. So how can someone whose work is ubiquitous, who helped shape the look of the city, be virtually unknown?

The short, and unfortunate, answer is this: Only architects have their name permanently inscribed on a project. Builders and craftsmen like Raphael Guastavino, Sr. are merely footnotes.

Guastavino emigrated from Barcelona, Spain to New York City in 1881. A contemporary of Antoni Gaudi, he brought three things with him to the New World: his patented thin tile vaulting system, considerable building experience and his son, Rafael Jr., who would help him realize, then carry on, his American dream.

Architecture was a relatively young profession when Guastavino moved to America. Back home in Spain, Master Builders were the stars of the show, as they had been for thousands of years, possessing a broad range of respected skills to bring simple and complex buildings to life. In the New World, architects were in charge.

He and his Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company mostly subcontracted to a multitude of architectural firms, including the formidable McKim, Mead and White and Carrere and Hastings. Guastavino’s strength? Using his Catalan thin tile vaulting system, he could build soaring arches and domes that were lightweight yet load-bearing and fireproof, could be installed in a matter of weeks instead of years, and were classically beautiful and endlessly flexible in design, even in their simplest form.

Over a 73 year period, about two hundred Guastavino projects sprung up in and around New York City. Hundreds of others were built across the U.S., leaving a lasting architectural imprint on Boston, Washington DC, Chicago and other cities. But by the mid 1950’s, classic was out and modern was in, as architects peddled an unadorned, blockish and forward-looking vision of environments suitable for the “modern man.” The Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company closed its doors on July 12th, 1962.

Searching for Guastavino tile in New York is a kind of “Where’s Waldo?” for adults, minus the striped sweater and hat. Once you know what to look for, and begin to recognize the tile patterns and colours, you’ll see it everywhere. The vaulting and tile work is a brilliant mix of the masculine and feminine, strength and beauty perfectly aligned. The palette is often muted (cream, white, sand) but jewel-toned and pastel glazes are part of some of the more memorable projects.

Guastavino Tile
Sample Color Palette

Guastavino projects range from simple to lofty and take many forms: mausoleums and cemeteries, boat houses, public schools, private residences, clubs, utility companies, stock exchanges, corporate headquarters, churches, universities, banks, theatres, arches, libraries and subway stations.

Penn Station (demolished), Cathedral of St. John the Divine, The Cloisters (Fort Triton Park), NYU, Columbia and Cornell campuses, Ellis Island, the Frick Museum, Grand Central Terminal Oyster Bar, the Knickerbocker Hotel, the Lord & Taylor Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (demolished), Mount Sinai Hospital, NYC’s Municipal Building, the New York Stock Exchange, Prospect Park boathouse and the Queensboro Bridge Market are a few of Guastavino’s New York City projects.

Here is an (unforgettable) sample of his work:

Guastavino Tile
Ellis Island Registry Hall


Guastavino Tile
The entrance to the City Hall subway station


Guastavino Tile
Queensboro Bridge Market


The Boathouse, Prospect Park, Brooklyn
The Boathouse, Prospect Park, Brooklyn


Guastavino Tile
The Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station


For a complete listing of known Guastavino tile projects click here. Professor John Oschendorf of MIT is the current authority on Guastavino tile. Click here to purchase his excellent book Palaces for the People.

But all you really need to do to discover the wonders of Guastavino tile is to step outside your hotel and take a good long look around.

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