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National Building Museum Presents Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces

Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces will open at the National Building Museum on March 16, 2013, and run through January 20, 2014.

GuastavinoGuastavino tile dome at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History, Washington DC, architects Hornblower and Marshall (1909)

The Guastavino family’s soaring tile vaults grace many of the nation’s most iconic structures including Grand Central Terminal, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Boston Public Library, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Nebraska State Capitol. Yet the name, the accomplishments, and the architectural legacy of this single family of first-generation Spanish immigrants are virtually unknown.

Not only did the Guastavinos and their company help build many great American public spaces between 1881 and 1962, they also revolutionized American architectural design and construction. Their patented vaulting techniques made it possible for architects to create the breathtakingly beautiful spaces that represent the nation’s highest ideals and aspirations.

Palaces for the People sheds lights on the story of Rafael Guastavino Sr. (1842–1908), arguably the most influential architectural craftsman working in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century America. An established master builder in Barcelona, Guastavino immigrated to New York with his young son, Rafael Jr. (1872–1950), in 1881. His patented tiling system—based on a centuries-old Spanish building method—enabled the construction of self-supporting arches that were simultaneously lightweight, virtually indestructible, fireproof, and attractive. The construction system interlocked and layered thin clay tiles and quick-setting mortar in highly decorative patterns. Compared to stone or brick vaults which required additional time and materials, Guastavino’s tile vaults were exceptionally economical and highly versatile. Within a few short years, Guastavino’s signature vaulting technique had transformed the American architectural landscape.

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