About The Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company

The Guastavino Fireproof Company founded by the Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino Moreno, imported to the United States the vernacular Spanish technique of Timbrel Vaulting. He patented the system adapting the ancient technique to the demanding technical challenges of the time. Within a few decades, the family firm helped design and construct many of America’s most famous monuments.

Timbrel Vault

Timbrel vaulting is a construction technique that has been utilized in Spain for, at least, six centuries. Also known as Catalan vaulting or tile vaulting, this is a type of structural vault made of one or more layers of plain, flat tiles measuring approximately 12” x 6” x 1” thick. Traditionally the first layer was usually set up with plaster or fast-setting natural cements, and does not employ centering or forms that are left in place. The origin of this construction technique is not certain, however, there are a similar techniques from Roman times in which the constructors used plain brick vaults as permanent form work in big Roman concrete vaulted constructions such as The Terms of Caracalla in Rome.

Rafael Guastavino Moreno & Rafael Guastavino Expósito

Rafael Guastavino Moreno (1842-1908) was a Spanish master builder born in Valencia. His father’s family had a strong architecture tradition; his great grandfather was Juan José Nadal (1690-1763), an important architect who built the Church of Saint Jaume in Villarreal, Castellón along with another twenty two great churches.

Rafael grew up in Valencia, a city famous at that time and today for its domed skyline. He moved to Barcelona in 1859 to study building construction and design. During the next twenty years he built a number of residences and industrial buildings that would be the inspiration for future modernist architects such as Gaudi and Doménech i Montaner. Vaulted and domed ceilings as well as vaulted stairs were all present in his early designs. Laudable examples of this period are La Fábrica Batlló (1869- 1875) in Barcelona and El Teatre de la Massa (1881) in Vilassar de Dalt.

Rafael G.M emigrated to the United States in 1881. The last three decades of the nineteenth century were called the Gilded Age due to the expansion and development of the American nation, undoubtedly, this is one of the reasons why Rafael G.M. made the decision to leave Spain. He took with him his eight year-old son Rafael Guastavino Expósito (1872-1950).

The Great Chicago fire of 1871, and the ensuing adoption of early zoning and fire codes, drove an interest in fire-resistant construction technologies. As a result, Rafael G.M., as expert in timbrel vaulting system, began a campaign to demonstrate and convince architects and engineers of the capabilities of the system as less expensive and more fire resistant than the structural steel. After some years of hard work, he funded The Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company in 1889. His son, Rafael G. E., joined the company at a very early age.

Over the course of seventy years the Company worked on more than one thousand buildings, in ten countries. They installed vaulted and domed ceilings in more than two hundred buildings in New York City alone, including the main entrance to Carnegie Hall, all of the gothic vaulting at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the registry hall at Ellis Island, and  the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. A history of architecture in the United States cannot be completely understood without an awareness of the impact of the Guastavino Company.

Materials

Cohesive construction required three main construction materials: plaster, tile and mortar. The tile manufactured at that time in the United States was thicker and smaller than the ideal tile for Cohesive Construction. In addition, Rafael G.M had problems acquiring the quantities of brick that he needed for his building projects. Quality and quantity where not adequate for the company’s purposes so the decision was made to open his own tile factory in Woburn, Massachusetts in the early 1890’s. One of their standard sizes was the 15 x 30 x 2.54 cm but they worked with many different sizes and shapes depending on the project and position of the bricks in the vaults.

With regard to the mortars used, particularly for the soffit layer, there remain a number of uncertainties. The quality and easy access to Portland cement is one of the reasons why Rafael G.M. chose the United States. In general terms, he used plaster of Paris or a quick setting kind of natural cement mortar for the first layer or soffit, and a high strength mortar for the next layers and possibly a third type for the decorative layer and exposed joints. It is known that he used Portland cement but it is unclear whether he used additives or different proportions depending on the size of the vault and the position of the layer.

Evolution: from traditional timbrel vault to the dome of Saint John the Divine.

The earliest known example of thin vaulting in Spain is the gothic vaults that cover small areas of the Convento de Santo Domingo (XIV century) in Valencia (Fig. 3). These are groin vaults that have stone ribs above which the space is closed by timbrel vault. The geometry (around 16 m2) and the technique is simple. It is evident that the mason did not master the art; the tiles are set arbitrarily and the joints are not homogeneous, which is reasonable because the vaults were meant to be plastered or rendered as was typical at the time not only in this convent but in Spain; Catalan vaults were typically rendered after built with lime mortar or plaster as the completed interior finish.

The combination of structural utility with aesthetic consideration is one of the main distinguishing concepts that Rafael G.M. introduces in his vaults in the United States. Distinguished from traditional constriction in Spain, in the United States, his design solutions allows them to be seen. A good example is the Boston Public Library (1889), his first large commission and a turning point in the evolution of the Guastavino Company. In this structure he uses seven different tile patterns with excellent results offering the building as a showcase for his capabilities.

Following this successful project, and after opening the Woburn tile factory, he not only plays with patterns but also with colors and textures. He introduced the glazed tile and colors in infinite combinations.

In structural terms Rafael G.M. improves its technical skills designing increasingly larger vaults and domes, far exceeding the dimension achieved in Spain. The main dome of Saint John the Divine in New York, finished in 1909, has a diameter of thirty meters and is located at forty meters from the floor. He achieved such master pieces by adding brick layers, refining the structural design and introducing steel elements.

Another technical improvement that the Company introduced modified the acoustic proprieties of vaults and spaces, by studying and conscientious use of the tiles’ physical proprieties (density, porosity, reflection…). Many of these developments were made in collaboration with the pioneering acoustician Wallace Sabine.

Guastavino vaults today

The Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company ultimately closed its doors in 1963. Fortunately, Professor George Collins, from Columbia University, rescued the incomplete but extensive archives of the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company from a dumpster as the Woburn office was being cleaned out. These are now available to researchers at the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company/George Collins Archive within Avery Library at Columbia University in New York.

Commercial advertisement on the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company.
Timbrel vaults at el Convento de Santo Domingo in Valencia.

Resources

  • Graphics produced for this research analyzing the professor Collins lists: Graphics
  • Link to the collection The Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company/George Collins at Avery library at Columbia University in New York: Avery library archive
  • Link to the timeline sited in Vertical Access LLC website that shows the projects and main events in the Guastavinos lives classified by categories (the file has to be downloaded in order to visualize it): Guastavino timeline
  • Link to the website The Guastavino Project by the MIT. During the last years, this wonderful website, directed by Professor John A. Ochsendorf, has been developed. It contains valuable information about the Guastavino Co. as well as a map that shows some projects, focusing on Boston. It is really interesting the link that redirects to twenty three patents that Rafael Guastavino Moreno & Son registered. It also includes links to texts, bibliography, events, etc.: MIT Guastavino.net
    Patents

About the Website

The Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company collaborated in hundreds of buildings around the world. Its legacy is so vast, that is almost immeasurable. The aim of this website is that all the information gathered on Guastavino heritage locations becomes accessible to the public and that anyone can contribute by adding more information. Only by joining efforts through a global tool such as www.guastavinomap.org, will it be possible to achieve a compete catalog of the company's projects.

In 2009 Vertical Access teamed through the Polytechnic University of Valencia with a Spanish architect, Vicente Galbañ, in order to document as many Guastavino vaults as possible. In 2011, Berta de Miguel moved to New York and continued the documentation of Guastavino vaults. After three years of investigation, Vicente and Berta had collected thousands of graphic and written documents. In 2012, they decided to organize the data through a website, today's www.guastavinomap.org

Main Collaborators

Foundation + Coordination of www.guastavinomap.org: Berta de Miguel lives in New York City. Berta's professional background includes nine years of architectural preservation in Cuba, Belgium, Spain and the United States. She has been the restoration site project manager on more than twenty landmarks, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site Catedral de Teruel (12th century). Berta has investigated Guastavino vaults including St. Thomas Church and The Municipal building in New York. During the APTi 2013 Conference she organized along with Kent Diebolt the workshop: Hands-on Construction of "Guastavino" Thin Tile Vaults, where traditional Catalan vaults were built.

Vicente Galbañ is a Spanish architect who lives and works in New York City, for Gilsanz Murray Steficek LLP. He started the investigation in 2009, which database made possible this website.

Gabriel Pardo is a preservation engineer at Old Structures Engineering, a leading consultancy in structural engineering for historic and old buildings based in New York City. Gabriel, as well as Guastavino Sr., was born and raised in Valencia, Spain. Since a child he has been captivated by the thin tile vaults from the eastern of Spain. Since he started studding Guastavino, Gabriel was fascinated not only by the amazing aesthetics but by the level of technology of these structures; and from that day he became a "Guastavinian"

Map development and website

Map and website development and design by Asa Diebolt, a Minneapolis-based freelance graphic designer working on a variety of print and web projects.