Palaces for the People: Where to See the Timeless Tiled Works of Guastavino in NYC

June 7, 2014

In New York, many of the grand Beaux-Arts masterpieces — Grand Central Terminal, the Queensboro Bridge, the City Hall subway station, Columbia University, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine — have one striking element in common: Guastavino tiles. Spanish architect and builder Rafael Guastavino and his son Rafael Jr. brought with them to New York at the end of the 19th century a Mediterranean design technique from the 14th century for thin-tile structural vaulting. The expertly engineered and architecturally beautiful vaults were lightweight, fireproof, load-bearing, cost-efficient, and able to span large interior areas.

Today there are over 250 Guastavino works in New York City alone, not to mention the 1,000 throughout the U.S. The Museum of the City of New York’s current exhibition, Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile, explores Guastavinos’s spaces in New York and showcases “never-before-seen objects, artifacts, photographs, and documents.” We couldn’t help doing a little Guastavino exploration ourselves, and have put together some of our favorite tiled sites that you can actually visit.

Grand Central Terminal, Oyster Bar & Taxi Stand

Address: Park Avenue at 42nd Street
Architect: Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stern
Year Built: 1912

grand central oyster bar

Perhaps the most widely known Guastavino site, Grand Central Terminal has a superb collection of glazed vaults at its taxi stand and Oyster Bar. Most commonly the Guastavinos’ creations are in a herringbone pattern. The actual tile construction is composed of several layers of thin tiles bound with mortar. Each layer is offset from its adjacent counterpart to distribute forces evenly, which also creates the famous interlocking pattern.

In Grand Central’s world-famous Oyster Bar, the tiled vaults are the centerpiece of the restaurant. The ribs of the arches are lit, creating a whimsical design that honors the historic architecture. Outside of the Oyster Bar you’ll find one of the most amazing outcomes of the acoustic properties of recessed vaults — the Whispering Gallery. When two people stand in opposite diagonal corners of the vault bases and whisper into the tile they can hear each other clear as day. Just try to walk through Grand Central now without giving this a shot (trust us, it works!).

City Hall Subway Station

Address: Broadway at Park Place
Architect: Heins & La Farge
Year Built: 1904

gustavino city hall nyc subway station

Originally the southern terminus of the city’s first subway line (the IRT) and designed to be its crowning jewel, the City Hall subway station is today a hidden gem among New York history buffs. The station’s ceilings are covered in polychromatic Guastavino vaults that follow the arced trajectory of the platform and are beautifully intercepted by skylights of cut amethyst glass. The station was closed in 1945 when the IRT’s longer subway cars could no longer fit in the curved station, but today you can still catch a glimpse on a 6 train when it turns around after the Brooklyn Bridge stop. The Transit Museum also provides occasional tours for its members.

Queensboro Bridge and Bridgemarket (now the Food Emporium and Guastavino’s)

Address: 405-409 East 59th Street, at 1st Avenue
Architect: Palmer & Hornbostel
Year Built: 1909-14

Queensboro Bridge and Bridgemarket by gustavino

You may have heard our famed tiler’s name before thanks to Gaustavino’s, the event space under the Queensboro Bridge that is named for the men who created the gorgeous vaults for which the venue is lauded. The nearly 5,000-square-foot Guastavino-tiled arcade underneath the bridge was originally a year-round produce marketplace, earning it the name Bridgemarket. The market closed during the depression and was then used as a storage garage until the Department of Transportation took over the space. In 1973 the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the bridge and the space beneath it a landmark, and in 1999 it underwent an extensive renovation and was reopened as an event space and grocery store. If you go to this Food Emporium today, you can sit up on the second floor, just feet away from the vaults!

Bronx Zoo Elephant House

Address: 2300 Southern Boulevard, the Bronx
Architect: Heins & La Farge
Year Built: 1908

Elephant House of the Bronx Zoo
Image courtesy of the AIANY

Exemplifying the diversity of the type of projects Guastavino took on, the Bronx Zoo Elephant House is the centerpiece of the zoo’s highly ornamented, Beaux-Arts pavillions designed by Heins & La Farge. The Elephant House stands out with its tall, colorful double dome (the largest polychrome dome in the country at the time) that is flanked by three bays on either side.  Guastavino took on another challenge with this exquisite dome, and devised a system whereby the upper dome is supported by a shallower dome below. The latter is the visible tiled ceiling, which is punctuated by 12 skylights. Those are certainly some lucky elephants!

Cathedral of St. John the Divine

Address: 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, between 112th and 113th Streets
Architect: Heins & La Farge
Year Built: 1899-1940

Cathedral of St. John the Divine

After the success of the Elephant House, Guastavino again worked with Heins & La Farge at the Cathedral of St. John Divine, the largest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. The tiles are in several of the chapels, the crypt, and the spiral staircases on either side of the alter. The highlight of Guastavino’s work here, though, is the dome at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. During construction, a tall spire was planned to cover the cathedral’s crossing, but when time was running out and costs were running high, the trustees decided to implement a temporary covering — Guastavino Jr.’s tiled dome. At 162 feet high and 135 feet wide at its base, the dome took only 15 weeks to build, leaving the engineering community in awe. Large enough to fit the Statue of Liberty underneath it, the dome was meant to be removed when the transepts were constructed, but as of yet only half of the north transept has been built. And we’re not complaining, because we don’t want this stunning dome going anywhere.

Municipal Building

Address: One Centre Street, at Chambers Street
Architect: McKim, Mead & White
Year Built: 1911

Guastavino tiles at the Municipal Building NYC

Following the 1898 consolidation of the five boroughs, the 40-story, Beaux-Arts Municipal Building was constructed to house all of the city’s administrative offices. One of the largest government buildings in the world, it was also the first structure in New York to incorporate a subway station into its base, and William M. Kendall of McKim, Mead & White turned to Guastavino for this part of the design. The South Concourse’s open-air arcade, which leads to the subway entrance, has 11 columns throughout that support the 580-foot building above. Each of the six sides of the site are of a different dimension — a challenge to which Gaustavino rose.

According to MCNY, he “devised a series of elegant vaults to cover the space, adapting to its various shapes three basic forms: the barrel vault, used along the length of the colonnades; lunettes, curving between the columns; and groin vaults, to accommodate the diversely shaped polygons spanning the internal columns.”

Vanderbilt Tenements (now the Cherokee Apartments)

Address: 517 East 77th Street, between York Avenue and Cherokee Place
Architect: Henry Atterbury Smith
Year Built: 1910

gustavino in the cherokee apartments

Originally known as the Vanderbilt Tenements, this attractive full-block apartment complex was conceived as a home for families with a member suffering from Tuberculosis. Architect Henry Atterbury Smith had previously been a doctor at the Presbyterian Hospital where he oversaw the Tuberculosis clinic. He convinced Anne Harriman Vanderbilt to finance the project, and created a never-before-seen model tenement structure for low-income people. Sanitation was the driving force behind the design, hence the open-air stairways and large courtyards. The latter are entered through passageways from the street that showcase Guastavino barrel vaults, adding to Atterbury Smith’s belief that low-income housing should have just as much elegance as anywhere else.

Washington Square Arch, Interior Stairs & Vault

Address: Washington Square North at 5th Avenue
Architect: McKim, Mead & White
Year Built: 1910

washington square arch

Guastavino-tiled spiral staircases are extremely rare, and are some of the boldest of the tiled works.  It is thought that the Washington Square staircase may be the only such Guastavino work that comes off a central column rather than cantilevers from the surrounding walls.

inside washington square archThe inside of the arch is closed to the public, but some lucky individuals (including myself!) have had the rare opportunity to climb to the top. The tiles here are not the traditional cream color, but are a pattern of dark browns and Terra Cotta. This is just one example of a “secret” Guastavino work, and it’s certainly fitting that the triumphal arch incorporates the work of the triumphant Guastavinos!

In addition to the physical exhibition, the Museum of the City of New York has also launched a crowdsourcing platform where the public can help uncover yet-to-be-discovered Guastavino works throughout the city.  Know of a site? Add it here and be sure to tell us about your hidden treasure!

Museum of the City of New York
1220 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10029
Running now through September 7, 2014
Tickets can be purchased here.

Images via Wikimedia/Creative Commons and the Museum of the City of New York unless otherwise noted

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