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Guastavino Architecture and New York City
New York City is brimming with stunning architecture, new and old. But did you know there is a fascinating story behind the famous Oyster Bar at Grand Central, the Ellis Island registry room, and over 200 other buildings? These sites and others are unique in that they feature Guastavino tiles – an intricate tile vault system with a distinctive pattern and remarkable because it is not only beautiful but lightweight, low-maintenance, fireproof and able to support heavy loads.
Rafael Guastavino, a Spanish immigrant, created an ingenious engineering marvel that no one has since been able to replicate!
A few key places to see the tiles and some Fun Facts:
A major tourist attraction in New York City is the Brooklyn Bridge, but make sure you take the 4/5/6 metro to BrooklynBridge/CityHall and exit via Chambers Street, from which you can walk right over to the bridge. If you get off the metro at Chambers Street you will come up right under the Municipal Building and see the impressive vaults and open-air arcade of Guastavino tiles. The columns you see in this arcade hold the weight of the building in an elegant and beautiful way.
Another popular tourist destination is Ellis Island, and did you know the ceiling in the Registry Room (also known as the Great Hall) is the work of Gaustavino. Originally the ceiling was actually plaster, brick, and limestone until it was destroyed in 1916. Guastavino and his Company built the replacement ceiling. Guastavino’s work was affordable, quick to build, didn’t need additional structures, and has the added bonus of being fireproof (it really is a shame no one has replicated his artistry and engineering!). –Fun Fact – When Ellis Island was being restored and refurbished starting in 1984, only 17 of the 30,000 some tiles needed replacing!
Grand Central and the famous Oyster Bar are truly ideal for viewing Guastavino’s vaults and tiles. – Fun Fact – The Oyster Bar suffered a fire in 1997 but due to the engineering of Guastavino’s vaults, load tests, and fire tests, the vaults remained uncompromised and the restaurant opened less than three months after the fire.
Visit the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the West Side of Manhattan to see more Guastavino work. – Fun Facts – The dome of St. John the Divine is one of the largest masonry domes in the world, just behind the Pantheon, the Duomo in Florence, and St. Peter’s in Rome! The St. John Cathedral dome is just a mere 4.5 inches thick at the top, self-supporting with the concentric circles of tiles, and only took 15 weeks to construct; thus another engineering marvel. Make sure to see the identical spiral staircases on each side of the altar.
Location: 1047 Amsterdam Avenue between 112 and 113 streets.
Take the 1 metro to Cathedral Parkway.
Open daily 9-5.
Take a look at the above photos and take note; you will then see this pattern all over New York City. Unexpected places will reveal this engineering wonder. A few of those unexpected places are: side entrances to Lord & Taylor (just look up before going up the stairs), the Food Emporium under the Queensboro Bridge, Carnegie Hall entrance ceilings, Columbia University’s St. Paul’s Chapel and Earl Hall and Teachers College Library passage to courtyard, the Boathouse in Prospect Park, to name a few.
So make sure to keep your eyes open, and point out the “Guastavino tiles” that date back to the 1885 to your friends, impress them with your architectural knowledge!
The Museum of the City of New York held an exhibition on Guastavino in 2014; you can read about it here: http://www.mcny.org/exhibition/palaces-for-the-people-guastavino
Beyond New York City
Rafael Guastavino actually contributed to many locations throughout the United States. You can see his famous arches and tiles at the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, North Carolina. The tiles can also be seen in the Boston Public Library, the U.S. Supreme Court Building in DC along with the National Museum of Natural History, the dome of St. Francis Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia, and Union Station in Pittsburgh. Plus see the distinctive tiles that decorate the Nebraska State Capitol.