Exhibition to Span Guastavinos' Vaulted Career


Photograph: Rafael Guastavino on his unfinished tiled vault, Boston Public Library, 1889.
Photograph: Main Dining Room, Oyster Bar, Grand Central Terminal, c. 1913.
Photograph: Stairwell, St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia, 1904.
Photograph: Arcade, Municipal Building, New York City, c. 1914.


Grand Central Terminal, Carnegie Hall, Ellis Island, the U.S. Supreme Court building, the Boston Public Library. Some of the most famous public spaces in America exist because an ambitious immigrant architect brought an ancient art to New York more than a century ago.

Columbia next month will celebrate the work of Rafael Guastavino, whose unique Catalan vaults and domes of beautiful, laminated tiles grace more than 1,000 structures across the country built by the leading architects of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Beginning May 1, Columbia's Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery will present an exhibition of the Guastavino craft in drawings, photographs, company documents and architectural fragments. The Guastavinos' work--with its great spans of curving, expressive spaces--continues to amaze architects and builders.

Between his arrival in New York from Spain in 1881 until 1962 when the firm closed, Guastavino and his son, Rafael, and their successors installed their 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, bridge approaches, overpasses and tunnels.

Nearly 400 works were built in New York, more than in any other city. They include the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal and the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, where the largest Guastavino dome ever built crowns the crossing. Some, like Pennsylvania Station, lamentably are gone.

At the turn of the century, the Guastavinos were working with a list of architects that reads like a Who's Who of American building design: McKim, Mead and White, Richard Morris Hunt, Ralph Adams Cram, Cass Gilbert, Bertram Goodhue and others.

The Guastavinos patented vaulting techniques made it possible for these architects to create the bold, broad spaces that they would become famous for.

Relatively Unknown

Since he served as a contractor on these projects, the Guastavino name did not appear on the buildings, and the accomplishments of the firm remained relatively unknown to the public.

By 1891 the company had offices in New York, Boston, Providence, Milwaukee and Chicago.

In 1900 it opened a factory to manufacture tile in Woburn, Mass. Steel and concrete building methods gradually replaced Catalan vaulting, and the company closed 12 years after Rafael Guastavino Jr. died in 1950. His father had died in 1908.

The exhibition, titled "The Old World Builds the New: The Guastavino Company and the Technology of the Catalan Vault, 1885-1962," will illustrate the way the tiles were formed, layered and mortared and the underlying principles of their construction.

The tiles were lightweight, fireproof and able to withstand very heavy loads. The firm also developed other very successful building products, including acoustic tile.

More than 70 Guastavino projects will be represented, including the Queensboro Bridge, the Nebraska State Capitol and the U.S. Army War College in Washington, D.C.

A time line outlining the chronology of the firm and a map of Manhattan projects will be included in the exhibition.

The Municipal Arts Society in New York City has two walking tours on its May and June schedule.

All materials will be drawn from the Guastavino/Collins Archive in the Drawings and Archives Collection of Columbia's Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library.

The archive includes the bulk of the firm's files and papers, collected by the late Columbia art historian George R. Collins, to whom the exhibition will be dedicated.

Janet Parks, curator of drawings at Avery Library, and Alan G. Neumann, AIA, architect, are the curators of the exhibition.

Nearby Gems

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see examples of Guastavino works nearby, on the Columbia campus and in the Morningside Heights neighborhood: St. Paul's Chapel, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Riverside Church, Grant's Tomb and the Church of Notre Dame.

Other major buildings in New York include the Great Hall at Ellis Island, the Federal Reserve Bank, the U.S. Custom House, Holy Trinity Church, the Plaza and St. Regis hotels, Temple Emanu-El, the Frick Collection, Lenox Hill Hospital, Mt. Sinai Hospital, the Cloisters, St. Bartholomew's and St. Vincent Ferrer churches, the Bowery Savings Bank (now the Home Savings Bank) and the Municipal Building.

The exhibition is scheduled to travel to the Octagon, the Museum of the American Architectural Foundation, Washington, D.C.; the Heinz Architectural Center of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; and to sites in Spain.

The exhibition has been made possible in part by the Consulado General de España in New York.

The cataloging of the material in the Guastavino/Collins archive was undertaken with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the J. Paul Getty Trust.

"The Old World Builds the New: The Guastavino Company and the Technology of the Catalan Vault, 1885-1962" will be on view in the Wallach Gallery in Schermerhorn. Hours are Tues. through Sat. from 1:00 P.M. to 5:00 P.M.

Admission is free. Information: 854-7288.


Columbia University Record -- April 26, 1996 -- Vol. 21, No. 25