How One Family Built America's Public Palaces The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., has a new exhibit about the soaring tile vaults built by a famous father-son team. The Guastavinos came to this country from Spain in the late 1800s, and left their mark on some of America's most important public spaces.
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How One Family Built America's Public Palaces

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How One Family Built America's Public Palaces

How One Family Built America's Public Palaces

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The National Building Museum, here in Washington, D.C., and a professor at MIT want you to spend some time looking up. They'd like you to see soaring vaulted tile ceilings built by a father-son team, who came to this country from Spain in the late 1800s, and left their mark on some of America's most important public spaces.


The ceilings appear in state capitols, grand central terminals, Carnegie Hall, as well as some very ordinary buildings. And thanks to that MIT professor, they're also honored at the Building Museum.

Here's NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg.


SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: At a small brick firehouse in Washington, Engine No. 3, not far from the Capitol Building, we request a special performance.


STAMBERG: They actually do slide down shiny poles here at one of the oldest fire stations in the District of Columbia. Built in 1916, it 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.

Did you ever notice this ceiling until now?

ANDRE BURNS: Nope, not until now.

STAMBERG: (unintelligible) firefighter?

BURNS: No, why would I look up there? No reason to. We might need to clean up there though.

STAMBERG: Firefighter Andre Burns is not impressed. And, well, but the little entryway ceiling has some distinctive touches - the tiles, the pattern that are being noticed big time at a nearby museum.


STAMBERG: The National Building Museum exhibition "Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America's Great Public Spaces" is a wow-inspiring display of tiling talent. Photographs, diagrams, drawings, scale models show the beauty and breadth of the work; some one thousand vaults and domes and ceilings in 40 states. One of the most gorgeous examples of Guastavino's skill was for the first subway line in New York City.

John Ochsendorf, of MIT, who curated the show says the City Hall Station had chandeliers and skylights, and green, tan and cream-colored tile work in intricate patterns. The Mona Lisa of subway stations, someone said.

JOHN OCHSENDORF: It was called an underground cathedral when it opened in 1904. 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.

STAMBERG: The City Hall subway station hasn't been in use for 60 years. But Ochsendorf says the vaulting is in good condition. Color photographs - you can see them at - make you itch to go underground, to see for yourself.

What Rafael and Rafael Guastavino did - yes, dad and son had the same first name - was to take old-world building techniques they had learned in Barcelona and up-date them for the New World.

OCHSENDORF: So really, the Guastavinos were like master masons, almost transported here from the Gothic era, who knew how to build the correct shapes to make them stand up, and they're incredibly durable and strong and long-lasting.

STAMBERG: Their techniques, their talents, were used by leading architects of their day.

OCHSENDORF: 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. And the Guastavino Company 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.

STAMBERG: Curator Ochsendorf - he's also professor of architecture and engineering at MIT - says at the peak of their success, the Guastavino Company had offices in 12 cities across the country.

OCHSENDORF: And in 1910 alone, I've learned in my research that they were building 100 buildings at once, up and down the East Coast. So major domes in Philadelphia and New York and Washington and Pittsburgh. So it's almost unfathomable today that a construction company would be working on a hundred buildings at once.

STAMBERG: Clearly the time was ripe and their timing impeccable. America was on 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.

OCHSENDORF: They would load bricks on top of it and see how much it could support.

STAMBERG: And how much did it end up supporting?

OCHSENDORF: It held something like 12,000 pounds.


STAMBERG: I guess it was going to be OK.

Stunning public spaces. Private ones, too, for Rockefellers, Astors, Vanderbilts. Curator John Ochsendorf is still on the prowl for undiscovered Guastavinos. He's inviting everyone to join the hunt to look for artistically placed thin, colored tile, arranged in vaults and tell him what they find. He thinks they're not well enough known.

OCHSENDORF: So when people walk into a building and they say, ah, the windows are Tiffany. We want to get to the point where they say, the windows are Tiffany, and the ceilings are Guastavino. So we're getting there.


OCHSENDORF: This is called Guastavino hunting.

STAMBERG: A little drive around D.C. and past one of the federal city's icons, John Ochsendorf gets excited.

OCHSENDORF: There's an underground driveway and there's an arch. And behind that stone arch is a Guastavino vault, as the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court. I mean, honestly, it's always a discovery.

STAMBERG: All it takes is a tilt of the head.

In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


INSKEEP: You can see some vaulted treasures, and join the hunt for more. We've set up a Flickr pool, where you can submit photos of sites you think they should be check out. It's at

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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