How One Family Dominated Fin-de-Siècle NYC Architecture

By Curbed Staff
April 15, 2014, Curbed

Two of the most important people in the history of New York City’s built environment weren’t politicians, magnates, or architects. They were two members of a family of builders from Spain. Their surname? Guastavino. It may not ring a bell, but pretty much every New Yorker has seen the work of Rafael Guastavino, Sr. (1842-1908), and his son Rafael Guastavino, Jr. (1872-1950). Their ascent to acclaim typifies the American dream, and it’s one that still has missing pieces—but more on that later.

Rafael Sr. was born in Spain and studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1881, he and his eight-year-old son immigrated to the United States, where the two would revolutionize American architecture. They brought with them a vaulted tile ceiling technique whose foundation can be found in a tradition the Moors brought with them to Spain from Africa. But the Guastavinos took it further. Spaces massive and intimate could be draped in intricate tile ceilings. Rafael Sr. made their signature tiles fireproof, while Rafael Jr. would develop ones with better acoustics. Together, they amassed 24 patents and created some of Gotham’s most stunning spaces. According to the Museum of the City of New York, which is hosting an ongoing exhibition on them called “Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile,” there are 300 Guastavino-annointed spaces in the five boroughs alone, and over 1,000 of them across the country.  More…

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