Celebrating the Life and Work of Guastavino at Recent Cultural Screenings, Discussions


I have dedicated a major portion of my career to studying the life and work of Rafael Guastavino. Recently I was honored to play a part of two screenings of El Architecto De Nueva York, the award-winning documentary in which I appeared with Kent Diebolt and John Ochsendorf as well as our Spanish colleagues Camilla Miletto, Arturo Zaragosa and Fernando Vegas. In the film we guided viewers through iconic examples of his work in New York City such as Grand Central Terminal, the Guastavino Oyster Bar, Ellis Island and more.  This documentary won a Gold Dolphin at the 2016 Cannes Festival and a New York Festival World’s Best TV & Films section Biographies. The director was Eva Vizcarra.

On October 23, I moderated a round table following the documentary screening at the Instituto Cervantes NYC (http://nyork.cervantes.es/FichasCultura/Ficha116680_27_1.htm)

The participants of the round table were:

  • Jaume Soler, an acoustician with more than 20 years of experience designing theaters and concert halls around the world. He studied telecommunications engineering at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia and he is currently an associate principal at the engineering firm Arup. Jaume’s first contact with the work of Rafael Guastavino was in a small town near Barcelona, while studying the acoustics of La Massa theatre in Vilassar de Dalt about 18 years ago. However, it was not until he moved to New York, in 2001, that he grasped the breadth and impact of Guastavino’s work. Jaume has worked and conducted acoustical surveys of several Guastavino projects since then.
  • Miguel Quismondo received his degree in architecture from the Polytechnic School in Madrid and developed his career in the United Sates. Over the past decade Miguel has worked for Olnick Spanu on the design, construction and management of Casa Mia, the Olnick Spanu Art Program, and the Magazzino Italian Art. He holds Master’s degrees in Real Estate Development from Columbia University and Construction Management from NYU. Miguel’s work has been issued in la Biennale di Venezia, Architectural Record, A+U, Casabella, ABC, El País and El Mundo among other publications.

We discussed the following topics:

  1. We usually talk about Guastavino as an individual but in fact there were two: Rafael Guastavino Moreno & Rafael Guastavino Expósito (RGM and RGE). Who were these two men and what is a Guastavino vault? Referred to as “Palaces for the People”, Guastavino vaults involve a technique known as timbrel vaulting: utilizing layers of interlocking small, flat tiles, plaster, and mortar.  This technique has been described as inexpensive, fireproof, light, fast to build, having almost infinite aesthetic possibilities, and was installed by the Guastavinos in more than 1000 buildings in 11 countries.
  1. Keys of their success: both Guastavinos used in their own way traditional architecture as an inspiration for innovation. One example is the technical progress that RGE introduced in acoustics along with Wallace Clement Sabine. Jaume explained to the group why RGE’s contribution was so important in this field:
  • The two materials used in Guastavino vaults (Rundorf and Akustolit) significantly impacted fields such as theatric and other performing arts.
  • “Whispering gallery” sound effects were not designed intentionally but are an artifact of architectural design.
  1. William Jordy was the first to include the Guastavinos in a History of Architecture publication in 1972. This is unfair for two men that are considered two of the most important architects/constructors. Considering their amazing contribution in different fields they are not as known as they should be. Surprisingly, we still don’t study the Guastavinos and their innovations in architectural and engineering academic curricula.
  1. RGM often compared music to architecture, saying that both need not only the creator or the artist but equal importantly the craftmanship of the hands of who is actually building or playing the music. That kind of craftsmanship today would be difficult and expensive.
  1. Each one of us chose a favorite Guastavino building and explained the election. Mine was the demolished Penn Station. Based on my research and historic photos, that building is one of my favorite for many reasons. As the architect, educator and critic Vincent Scully compared the demolished Penn Station to the current one:

One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat. 

Then on November 9, I introduced the screening at the Observatorio del Instituto Cervantes en Harvard University (Link to the event: https://college.harvard.edu/documentary-screening-and-discussion-rafael-guastavino-el-arquitecto-de-nueva-york)

I let the audience know that they were about to see the only documentary ever filmed about the Guastavinos, two Spanish architects/constructors responsible for designing and building iconic spaces in more than 1000 buildings in the world. Of these, there are around 156 Guastavino buildings in Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

I also read the words of Professor George Collins, from Columbia University, who rescued the incomplete but extensive archives of the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company from destruction:


After the screening I answered some questions and analyzed the following topics:

  1. Keys for their success:
    • RGM registered the patent of what he called “cohesive construction” as a fireproof system. The timbrel vault was inspired in the traditional Spanish construction system of the bóveda tabicada o catalana. He used traditional architecture as an inspiration for innovation.In total, the Guastavino’s held 24 US Patents.
    • Inexpensive: no form, fast to build. The main dome of Saint John the Divine (the largest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere) was built in just 3 months.
    • Almost infinite aesthetic possibilities. Fusion of industry, art and craft. They were beautiful.
  1. Legacy, anonymity, demolitions:
    • Collins registered a total of 1113 structures
    • USA: 1066 / Canada: 21 / Cuba, Holland, India, Mexico, Panama, Spain, Trinidad, UK: 26.  In New York City: 363; in Massachusetts : 156.
    • Their peak year of production was 1909 with 39 buildings in construction.
    • In Manhattan approximately 12% have been completely demolished. During the early 1960’s the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s consulting engineers did not fully understand the structural behavior of the Guastavino vaults in wings E and H, so they decided to demolish them and replace them with a steel beam girder system.
  1. Decline of Guastavino Vaulting
    • New aesthetic styles started to reject curvilinear surfaces in favor of the flat planes. Post-war changes in construction technology also began focusing on more industrial or manufactured, rather than hand-made approaches.
    • Rise of engineering: the company used to serve both as a structural engineer and constructor, but new codes forced the company to work under other structural engineers, many who didn’t understand the system and forced the company to over-build the structures.
    • Rise of reinforced concrete and thin shells: in 1913 German engineers built a concrete dome spanning 200’ (61 m) which, for the first time in 2000 years surpassed the Pantheon. In 1934 the Hayden planetarium in NYC was built with a concrete dome spanning 81’ (24m) and 3 inches thick (7.5cm). The American Concrete Institute promoted concrete as less expensive. In 1954 MIT organized an event on concrete shells and the Guastavino Company sent a representative to find out the price per square foot: $3. At that moment, due to rising labor cost, a Guastavino vault was $7 sqft.
    • RGE sold the company in 1950 and died in 1962. The last project is Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, GA, 1961
  1. Something to think about: How is it possible that the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company could supervise so many ongoing construction sites simultaneously?

Lastly, I read a quote by John Ochsendorf:

The way that the Guastavino Company built with the hands as much as the head, blurring boundaries between craft and tradition and modern technology, is something that both designers and builders can learn from.

Here I am after the Harvard screening showing a timeline we developed that follows the projects and main events in the Guastavinos’ lives.


A short version of the film (56 minutes), in Spanish, can be seen in: http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/imprescindibles/imprescindibles-arquitecto-nueva-york-rafael-guastavino/3571098/

For more on our experience with Guastavino consulting, go here.

You may also be interested in viewing this map of many of the the Guastavino buildings.


Guastavino documentary “El Architecto de Nueva York” wins Cannes Corporate Media & TV Award


Title screen shot from “El Architecto de Nueva York”

The biographical documentary, El Architecto de Nueva York,  was honored with a Golden Dolphin Award at the Cannes Corporate Media & TV Awards on October 13, 2016. Directed by Eva Vizcarra and produced by RTVE/Endora Producciones, the film won in the category of History and Civilization.

The accomplished life of Rafael Guastavino, an architect born in Valencia, Spain is the focus of this documentary.  He emmigrated to the USA from Spain in 1881 and proceeded to design and build some of the most recognizable architectural gems of Manhattan – yet his name is still largely unrecognized.  This award-winning film is a celebration of his life and brings long overdue awareness and enlightenment about his contributions to the architecture in cities worldwide.

The Vertical Access Connection

Kent Diebolt and Berta de Miguel guide viewers through Grand Central Station. Screen shot from “El Architecto de Nueva York”.

Kent Diebolt, and Berta de Miguel of Vertical Access are studied in the history of Rafael Guastavino – his vault construction techniques and his many architectural structures throughout the United States. Both appear in the film guiding viewers through iconic examples of his work in New York City such as Grand Central Terminal, the Guastavino Oyster Bar, Ellis Island and more.  In 2013, Kent and Berta organized a hands-on tile vaulting construction workshop at the Association for Preservation Technology (APT) Annual Conference.

Rafael Guastavino movie, “El arquitecto de Nueva York” premiered in Valencia, Spain

On March 1, 2016, Kent Diebolt, founding partner of Vertical Access, and Berta de Miguel, Metropolitan New York branch office manager traveled to Valencia to join 500 people at the world premier of the documentary film, “El arquitecto de Nueva York”.

Lunch on the beach with friends, family and colleagues in Valencia, the day of the Premier. Right to left: María Alcalá, Fernando Vegas, Camilla Mileto, Kent Diebolt, Arturo Zaragozá, Gabriel Pardo, Berta de Miguel

Lunch on the beach with friends, family and colleagues in Valencia, the day of the Premier.
Right to left: María Alcalá, Fernando Vegas, Camilla Mileto, Kent Diebolt, Arturo Zaragozá, Gabriel Pardo, Berta de Miguel

A celebration of the lives and careers of the Rafael Guastavinos – father and son – the film, produced by Endora Productions and produced and directed by Eva Vizcarra, aims to get the public to know and admire this largely unknown architect.

The documentary explores the life and professional achievements of Rafael Guastavino Senior through masterfully designed special effects and 3D recreations, images and testimonials by different persons professionally or personally involved with the architect. Kent and Berta are two of those professionals that participated in the film, sharing their passion and knowledge of the Guastavino legacy.

Right to left: Berta de Miguel, Eva Vizcarra, Kent Diebolt

Right to left: Berta de Miguel, Eva Vizcarra, Kent Diebolt

Filmed in the United States and Spain, El arquitecto de Nueva York is a very well documented, written and executed film, intended to allow the general public in both countries to humanly and professionally know one of the most important figures in the history of architecture of the United States. Eva Vizcarra builds such depth of respect and passion for Rafael Guastavino’s achievements and humanity, that the viewer feels like a friend of his at the end of the 90 minute documentary film. A one-hour version of the film will be broadcast by the public Spanish television TVE2 on April 15th 2016, and a longer version will be projected in cinemas across Spain after that date. The release date for the English version in the United States remains unknown, but we will keep you posted.







Watch the film’s trailer here.


Learn more about Rafael Guastavino

The Valencian Architect and Constructor Who Built (Quite a Bit of) New York

How One Family Built America’s Public Palaces

Recuperando a Guastavino: el qrquitecto de Nueva York’ fue valenciano (y es un desconocideo)

APT 2013 NYC – The Guastavino Vault Workshop

During the recent Association for Preservation Technology (APT) conference — APT NYC 2013 Preserving the Metropolis — Kent Diebolt, Kevin Dalton and Berta de Miguel, from Vertical Access, organized a Hands-on Construction of “Guastavino” Thin Tile Vaults workshop. Other faculty fellows worked in conjunction with VA members: Benjamín Ibarra, Assistant Professor of Architecure UT Austin, Mallory Taub, an Energy Specialist at Arup in San Francisco, David López López, Architect and PhD candidate in the Block Research Group at ETH Zurich, Switzerland and Marta Domènech Rodríguez, PhD candidate in the Architectural Design Department at Technical University of Catalonia (UPC), Spain. The team was assisted by Ken and David Follet, from Precon Logstrat, LLC, “consultants with tools”.vault-dwgs

The workshop consisted of building two small tiled vaults: a groin vault and a barrel vault with lunettes. The vaults, of approximately 6×6 feet were built with tiles measuring 7 3/8″ x 3 3/4″ x 5/8″ donated by Boston Valley Terracotta.

The venue for the event was the atelier of Ottavino Stone Corporation, kindly donated by that same corporation, which is celebrating their centennial this year. Additional funding came from the National Center for Preservation Training and Technology through APTI and Vertical Access LLC. We cannot thank our sponsors enough for their support!

The attendees were an interesting group of 21 people from different nationalities and backgrounds such as architects, material specialists, engineers, architectural conservators, preservationists and project managers from companies and organizations such as VanNostrad Architects, UNESCO, Consigli Construction, Superstructures, Built Environment Evolution, Washington National Cathedral, Williamsburg Preservation Tec, Murray Engineering, Alternativist/Urban Earth, Evergreene Architectural Arts, Old Structures Engineering, Bennett Preservation Engineering, Atkinson-Noland & Associates, FGMDA Fournier Gersovitz Moss Drolet & Associates, Goldsmith Borgal & Company Architects, Heritage Building Conservator, Robert Silman Associates, Building Conservation Associates and and Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates.

The workshop lasted two full days. During the fist day, the forms for the arches were set in place, plumbed and fixed. Next, the tiles of the arches were set with plaster of Paris for the first layer, and mortar cement on the second and third layers. Once the arches were completed, the webs of the vaults started to close the vaults from the arches to the center.

The first layer was set with plaster of Paris due to the rapid setting time (10-15 seconds approximately). During the second day, once the first layer was finished, the attendees, divided in two teams, started and finished the second layer, set up with mortar cement, which confers strength to the structure.

By the end of the second day, everybody took turns standing on the vaults. We all learned a lot from each other and gained an appreciation for the skill that it took to build these full-scale vaults. Finally, and most importantly, we all had a wonderful time.IMGP9925


> Watch a video news story about Rafael Guastavino that includes time-lapse footage from this workshop and interviews with Berta de Miguel and Kent Diebolt. The piece was produced by RTVE, a public broadcasting station from Spain.

A portion of our annual contribution to 1% for the Planet helped support this event. Read a short post about how VA got involved with One Percent Print.

The Cathedral: The Next 100, or 5000, Years

A structure planned to “stand with practically no visible sign of change for 5,000 years.”  That assessment, by Perry Borchers, was published in the Ohio State Engineer journal in 1940, soon after west façade of The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine was completed and just before the entire length of the Cathedral was consecrated in 1941.[1]  In fact, much of the planned Cathedral structure had not yet been completed at that point, including the two towers on the west side, the north and south transepts and the spire above the crossing.  However, eight days after the Cathedral was opened for the first time from the main portal on the west to the end of the apse on the east, and almost fifty years after construction of the Cathedral began in 1892, the United States entered World War II and work on the Cathedral came to a halt.  Construction resumed in the 1970s, and in the 1980s about fifty feet of height was added to the south tower.

The Cathedral, situated in Morningside Heights in Manhattan on land acquired by the Episcopal Diocese in 1887, was originally designed by George Lewis Heins and Christopher Grant LaFarge in 1888.  Construction of the apse began in 1892 and the large central dome, constructed by the Guastavino Company, was completed in 1909: the largest dome ever built by the firm.  After Heins died, Ralph Adams Cram was hired in 1911 to replace LaFarge as the architect of the Cathedral.  Construction of the nave, which Cram designed in a Gothic revival style, began in 1916 with the first finish stone on the south façade laid in 1925.  Cram also designed the west façade of the Cathedral with its flanking towers and the gothic ornamentation for the original apse.  The exterior cladding of the nave and towers is granite, with limestone used in the interior, the tracery of the stained glass windows at the nave and clerestory, and for trim and figurative carvings at the west facade.

Although the Cathedral is by anyone’s estimation a grand and magnificent structure, Borchers’ prediction that it remain unchanged for 5,000 years was a bit of hyperbole.  Like any building, even one constructed by the finest craftsmen of the day using durable materials and proven engineering systems, the Cathedral is subject to the same deleterious effects of water, fire and earth movement as any other building.  In fact, all of these forces have affected the structure significantly over the past 100 years.

A structure such as the Cathedral requires constant maintenance, upkeep and attention.  Currently the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is undertaking a study of the entire structure.  The design team is led by structural engineer Robert Silman Associates and includes Building Conservation Associates and Vertical Access.  As part of the study, the team has been performing hands-on investigations of the exterior masonry, interior wall surfaces and ceiling; and evaluation of the condition of the exterior and interior materials and structure.  The information gained from this study will be used to prioritize repair projects and plan for future work on the Cathedral, so that it may retain its magnificence for the next 100, or even 5,000, years.

[1] Perry Borchers, “The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York,” Ohio State Engineer, vol. 23, no. 6 (May, 1940, 8-10).

Under the Dome: Rafael Guastavino’s Life in North Carolina

Listen to Nan Graham’s commentary on WHQR.org about the life of architect Rafael Guastavino in North Carolina, and how he became an “accidental southerner” after constructing arches for the famous Bilmore Mansion.  He would spend the rest of his life living in the Smokey Mountains, during which time he designed the Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville – also his final resting place.

Inside dome of the Basilica of St. Lawrence, and final resting place of Raphael Guastavino (d.1908) in Asheville, North Carolina.

The Tile House by Rafael Guastavino Jr. and Hands-on Tile Vault Building Workshop

Tiled home built by Rafael Guastavino Jr., in Bay Shore, NY

An article in theNew York Times (7/24, by Penelope Green), tells the story of how NYC mayoral candidate George McDonald purchased and now lives in the unique Tile House in Bay Shore, NY.   Here’s a brief excerpt …

“The Tile House, its local nickname, is an eccentric, Moorish-looking brick folly on the south shore of Long Island, built by Rafael Guastavino Jr., the son of the architect Rafael Guastavino Sr., who developed the tile-vaulting system used in the Oyster Bar, the Whispering Gallery and in hundreds of other spaces, including Carnegie Hall and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Begun in 1912, when the younger Guastavino was working on Grand Central, the house is a riot of tile work: his own instantly recognizable herringbone arches, supplemented with European tiles he brought back from a honeymoon tour. When he died in 1950, he left the place to his daughter, Louise, who sold it eight years later (she died in 2004). By 2005, it was for sale, and on the Preservation League of New York State’s “Seven to Save” list. A couple from Florida who are in the business of buying and restoring old houses bought it then, saving it from a developer who wanted to tear it down. Their renovations included removing the decades-old trees that were growing in a garage.”

Learn how to build a Guastavino vault at the APT NYC 2013 Conference - Preserving the Metropolis

Learn how to build a Guastavino vault at the APT NYC 2013 Conference – Preserving the Metropolis

Learn about the Guastavino Method in a Two-Day Workshop / October 11, 12, 2013

APT NYC 2013 Conference  – Preserving the Metropolis

“American architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries would often leave empty spaces in their blueprints and simply write, ‘Guastavino here.’ They had faith that Rafael Guastavino would create elegant, highly functional spaces to grace their buildings. Guastavino — part architect, part engineer — was particularly famous for his beautifully crafted, structurally powerful, tiled arched vaults.” (An excerpt – read the full article from the Boston Globe.)

Participants will have the opportunity to construct a variety of simple “Guastavino” vaults. The morning of the first day will involve a demonstration of the construction, after which, teams of approximately six participants will have the opportunity to undertake “hands-on” construction of these vaults. Vaults will be constructed of single, double and triple wythes of tile, and may be load tested at a later date.

Sponsored in part by a grant from NCPTT Workshop.

Conference and Workshop Registration and More Info

Guastavino Vault Workshop at APT NYC 2013 Conference

clientuploads/2013_conference_art/P1080599.jpgSponsored in part by a grant from NCPTT Workshop.

Fri, Oct 11, 8:00 – 5:00
Sat, Oct 12, 8:00 – 4:00
Location: Ottavino Stone

“American architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries would often leave empty spaces in their blueprints and simply write, ‘Guastavino here.’ They had faith that Rafael Guastavino would create elegant, highly functional spaces to grace their buildings. Guastavino — part architect, part engineer — was particularly famous for his beautifully crafted, structurally powerful, tiled arched vaults.” (An excerpt – read the full article from the Boston Globe.)

Participants will have the opportunity to construct a variety of simple “Guastavino” vaults. The morning of the first day will involve a demonstration of the construction, after which, teams of approximately six participants will have the opportunity to undertake “hands-on” construction of these vaults. Vaults will be constructed of single, double and triple wythes of tile, and may be load tested at a later date.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Lay out and initiate a simple tile vault
  2. Mix mortars to appropriate consistency and quantities to install both soffit and structural tile wythes
  3. Set soffit and structural tile to progress through multiple-wythe construction
  4. Experience the sequence of construction, including the breaking of joints
  5. Strike and clean joints, particularly in the soffit layer of tile
  6. Develop an appreciation for the craftsmanship that has been lost since the construction of vaults in so many important buildings across the United States

For more details visit the APT NYC 2013 Conference Website

How one family built America’s public palaces

A Washington, D.C., museum wants you to spend some time looking up — to see soaring, vaulted tile ceilings built by a father-son team who left their mark on some of America’s most important public spaces.
These ceilings grace landmarks that include state capitols, Grand Central Terminal and Carnegie Hall — as well as some more ordinary buildings. One of them is Engine No. 3, a small brick firehouse not far from the U.S. Capitol — where, yes, they still slide down one of those shiny brass poles. It’s one of the oldest fire stations in the District of Columbia.
A closeup of the bar in New York City's Vanderbilt Hotel shows the intricate detail of the Guastavino Co.'s elegant ceiling work.

A closeup of the bar in New York City’s Vanderbilt Hotel shows the intricate detail of the Guastavino Co.’s elegant ceiling work.

Michael Freeman/National Building Museum

Built in 1916, the firehouse has bright red doors, gleaming trucks and a narrow, gently arched ceiling over the entryway. The underside of the arch is lined with white tiles arranged in a ziggy-zaggy herringbone pattern.

Firefighter Andre Burns is less than impressed. But that little entryway ceiling has some distinctive touches — the tiles, the pattern — that are being noticed with no little respect at the nearby National Building Museum.

There, the exhibition Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces is an impressive display. Photographs, diagrams, drawings and scale models show the beauty and breadth of the work of the Guastavino family — some one-thousand vaults and domes and ceilings in 40 states.

One of the most gorgeous examples of Guastavino skill was for the very first subway line in New York City. MIT professor John Ochsendorf, who curated the Building Museum exhibit, says the City Hall Station featured chandeliers and skylights, and green, tan and cream-colored tile work in intricate patterns — “the Mona Lisa of subway stations,” someone once observed.

Think You’ve Seen A Guastavino Vault?

Take a picture and add it to NPR’s Flickr pool. We’ll ask MIT’s John Ochsendorf to have a look.

“It was called an underground cathedral when it opened in 1904,” Ochsendorf says. “The public was afraid to go underground at that time, and so these vaults and this beautiful, decorative, colorful ceiling really helped people feel comfortable in a grand space below the city.”
A Guastavino ceiling in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

A Guastavino ceiling in the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

The City Hall subway station hasn’t been used for 60 years. But Ochsendorf says the vaulting is in good condition — and color photographs make you itch to go underground to see for yourself.

Master Masons With An Eye For Beauty

What Rafael and Rafael Guastavino did — yes, dad and son had the same first name — was to take Old World building techniques they’d learned in Barcelona in the 1800s and update them for the New World. They were like master masons transported here from the Gothic era, men who knew how to build the correct shapes to make their spaces stand up and stay incredibly durable, strong and long-lasting.

Their techniques and their talents were used by leading architects of their day.

“Names like Cass Gilbert and Charles McKim, Richard Morris Hunt — they would design the building, their name was on the building, but on their plans and drawings they would write ‘Guastavino here,’ ” Ochsendorf says. “And the Guastavino Co. would come in. They would really do the detailed design of these vaults, and the architects trusted them — because they were masters — to do what was best.”

Ochsendorf, who teaches architecture and engineering at MIT, says at the peak of its success, the Guastavino Co. had offices in 12 cities across the country.

The Guastavino touch also extened to palaces of a more private sort. Pictured here is the entrance hall of the famous Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

The Guastavino touch also extened to palaces of a more private sort. Pictured here is the entrance hall of the famous Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

“In 1910 alone, I’ve learned in my research, they were building 100 buildings at once, up and down the East Coast,” Ochsendorf says. “Major domes in Philadelphia and New York and Washington and Pittsburgh — it’s almost unfathomable today that a construction company would be working on a hundred buildings at once.”

Clearly the time was ripe. And their timing was impeccable. America was in a building boom. Fires were gutting cities made of wood. When the time came to rebuild, nobody built it better than the Guastavinos.

One gallery at the National Building Museum reveals the precision and craftsmanship of their work. It’s a cross-section reproduction of the fireproof vaulted ceiling they did in 1889 at the Boston Public Library. It was their first major public building.

Thin, thin ceramic tiles, set in cement mortar and layered — five layers, one on top of another like an exotic cake. With no support from below for the soaring ceiling, architect Charles McKim was worried. Would the vault hold? He had the Guastavinos pile more than 500 pounds per square foot on top of their tiled arch to test its strength.

“They would load bricks on top of it and see how much it could support,” Ochsendorf says. “It held something like 12,000 pounds.”

Public Spaces, Private Spaces … Forgotten Spaces?

The Guastavinos designed stunning private spaces, too, for Rockefellers, Astors and Vanderbilts. Ochsendorf is still on the prowl for undiscovered Guastavinos. — to look for artistically placed thin, colored tile, arranged in vaults, and to let him know what they find. He thinks the work should be better known.

“People walk into a building and they say, ‘Ah — the windows are Tiffany,'” Ochsendorf says. “We want to get to the point where they say, ‘The windows are Tiffany, and the ceilings are Guastavino.’ So we’re — we’re getting there.”

On a little drive around D.C., we pass one of the Federal City’s icons.

“There’s an underground driveway, and there’s an arch,” Ochsendorf points out. “And behind that stone arch is a Guastavino vault — as the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

“Honestly,” he says excitedly, “it’s always a discovery.”

All it takes is a tilt of the head.