On Exhibit: Vaulting Ambition

April 17, 2014

Look up! As you walk through some of New York’s best-loved public spaces, you’ll see the magnificent work of Spanish immigrant Rafael Guastavino, who, with his son Rafael Jr., figured out how to decorate the grand domes and arches of America’s leading Beaux-Arts architects.

More than 250 of their remarkable ceramic-tiled vaults still stand in landmark buildings all over New York City, including Grand Central Terminal and its Oyster Bar, Carnegie Hall and St. John the Divine. Columbia boasts at least three: in St. Paul’s Chapel, Kent Hall and Earl Hall. And yet the Guastavinos remain mostly unknown while the architects with whom they worked, such as McKim, Mead and White, went on to become famous.

The Guastavinos perfected a centuries-old design technique and created more than a thousand thin-tile structural vaults throughout the U.S. from the 1880s to the 1950s. Now the family’s contribution to American architecture is finally receiving the attention it deserves in Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile at the Museum of the City of New York.

Presented in partnership with Columbia’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, the exhibition showcases never-before-seen artifacts and drawings from the Guastavino Company’s archives at Avery. Also featured are contemporary photographs, a large-scale replica of a Guastavino vault and an interactive video installation that allows visitors to view high-definition details of Guastavino spaces.

“The family firm created some of the most inspiring public spaces in iconic American buildings,” said Carole Ann Fabian, director of Columbia’s Avery Library.

The exhibition will be on view until September 7.

—by Eve Glasberg