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How One Family Dominated Fin-de-Siècle NYC Architecture

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Two of the most important people in the history of New York City's built environment weren't politicians, magnates, or architects. They were two members of a family of builders from Spain. Their surname? Guastavino. It may not ring a bell, but pretty much every New Yorker has seen the work of Rafael Guastavino, Sr. (1842-1908), and his son Rafael Guastavino, Jr. (1872-1950). Their ascent to acclaim typifies the American dream, and it's one that still has missing pieces—but more on that later.

Rafael Sr. was born in Spain and studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1881, he and his eight-year-old son immigrated to the United States, where the two would revolutionize American architecture. They brought with them a vaulted tile ceiling technique whose foundation can be found in a tradition the Moors brought with them to Spain from Africa. But the Guastavinos took it further. Spaces massive and intimate could be draped in intricate tile ceilings. Rafael Sr. made their signature tiles fireproof, while Rafael Jr. would develop ones with better acoustics. Together, they amassed 24 patents and created some of Gotham's most stunning spaces. According to the Museum of the City of New York, which is hosting an ongoing exhibition on them called "Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile," there are 300 Guastavino-annointed spaces in the five boroughs alone, and over 1,000 of them across the country.

"These are works of art that are actually functional as well. So, in the same way that the Brooklyn Bridge is recognized as a great work of art, Guastavino vaults are also works of art," exhibit co-curator John Oschendorf, who is head of the Guastavino Research Project at MIT (which is a thing), told me. "They're functional. They're load-bearing. But they're also beautiful to behold and generations of Americans have loved these spaces without necessarily knowing that one family was behind all of them."

"I would argue that the Guastavino method was sort of the proto-modern construction method for large spaces. We think of modern technology, modern architecture, we tend to think of concrete and steel. But here through this ancient technique of thin tile vaults, they were creating structures in which the structure and the finish were one, where it was sort of the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk—the total work of art," exhibit co-curator Martin Moeller, Jr. of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., told me. "It's almost difficult to walk through New York and not come across a Guastavino vault, in one of the most important spaces that you might pass on a typical walk through the city."

Some of the Guastavinos' major sites, pictured in the galleries above and below, include the late Pennsylvania Station, Riverside Church, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (with its unique staircases and awe-inspiring dome), areas of Grand Central Terminal including the Oyster Bar, and the inside of the Washington Square Park arch (which, unfortunately, you'll probably never get to visit). Guastavino tiles also line the stunning old City Hall subway station, which you can only see during New York Transit Museum-sponsored tours. (The next ones are May 31 and June 22; they're sold out, but you could try riding the 6 train on those days for a glimpse.)

But there are several other cool, lesser-known spaces that feature Guastavino vaulted tile. Presented in no particular order, here are 11 that New Yorkers can (and should) check out.

↑ 1) Bronx Zoo Elephant House (1908)
2300 Southern Boulevard, The Bronx
While the building's design resembles the royal menageries of the European aristocracy, this was built for the people. The dome is actually two domes in one.

2) Manhattan Municipal Building (1914)
1 Centre Street, Manhattan
The building was constructed to accommodate a centralized city government after the consolidation of the five boroughs. You don't even have to go inside to see the Guastavino ceilings at the plaza level.

3) Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church (1911)
213 West 82nd Street, Manhattan
The patterns of the tile, the precision of the geometry, and the stylized protruding mortar joints could only have been created by applying the final layer of tile from beneath, after defining the form of the vault with the initial structural layers of tile.

4) Food Emporium and Guastavino's event space (1909)
401 East 59th Street, Manhattan
If you live on the East Side, there's a good chance you've shopped there and never even noticed the ceiling. The space was originally constructed when architect Henry Hornbostel called on the Guastavino Company to design a vaulted arcade below the Queensboro Bridge to serve as a public market. It continues to serve that purpose today.

5) Ellis Island Registry Room, Ellis Island (1917)
The registry room opened in 1900, but when German agents sabotaged a munitions facility on Black Tom Island (which is no longer an island—read more here), the explosion destroyed the roof. So, Guastavino was selected to reconstruct it in 1917, replacing it with the beauty that remains to this day.

6) Bernard S. Levy Residences (1885-1886)
121-131 and 118-134 West 78th Street, Manhattan
What's really interesting about this project is there are no signature tiles to be found. In fact, none are visible. What we see is an early structure designed in its entirety by Rafael Guastavino, Sr. It is his oldest surviving work in the U.S.

7) St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University (1905-1906)
1160 Amsterdam Avenue, Manhattan
Like Guastavino Sr., the building's architect—I.N. Phelps Stokes—also studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

8) Prospect Park, Brooklyn (1895-1935)
The Guastavinos worked on several structures in Prospect Park—the entrance shelters at Grand Army Plaza, the croquet shelter, the boathouse, the Willink Entrance Comfort Station, the tennis shelter, and the menagerie.

9) Temple Emanu-El (1916)
840 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan
Generally regarded as the world's largest synagogue, the space is simply amazing. It's also an example of the Guastavino expertise in not just visual design but also acoustics.

10) Gould Memorial Library and Hall of Fame for Great Americans, Bronx Community College (1897-1913)
2155 University Avenue, The Bronx
The space actually used to be part of New York University. It is one of the many collaborations between the Guastavinos and the legendary New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White.

11) Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House (1904)
1 Bowling Green, Manhattan
The building was originally the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House and marks another meeting of architectural masters. While Guastavino did the rotunda, the building itself was designed by Cass Gilbert.

How, pray tell, can you can become a Guastafarian (as John Oschendorf calls fans of Guastavino)? The company was working on up to 100 buildings at a time by 1910, and there aren't records for all of them. So people keep discovering Guastavino spaces. Some are behind drop ceilings. Some are, like Martin Moeller said, "hidden in plain sight."

What can you do? Keep your eyes peeled and look up. If you see a space you think might be a Guastavino, check the "Palaces for the People" database, and see if it's listed. If not, submit it, along with a photo.

The exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York runs through September 7, and features a brand-new tile ceiling built in the Guastavino style, plus, you can virtually walk through many of their buildings. Though now that the weather's improving, armed with your new knowledge, follow it up with some in-person visits.

Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.

Columbia University

, Manhattan, NY 10027 (212) 854-1754 Visit Website

Museum of the City of New York

1220 5th Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10029 (212) 534-1672 Visit Website