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N.Y. Exhibit Spotlights Rafael Guastavino's Tile Design

“Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile,” will be on display at The Museum of the City of New York through Sept. 7.

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TALE OF THE TILES: Rafael Guastavino was a Spanish-born architect and builder who came to the U.S. in 1881 and created a Tile Arch System he patented. It used interlocking terracotta tiles and mortar for strong arches and vaults which were elegant and relatively lightweight. Almost all of Guastavino’s American work was done on projects which were designed by other architects, so only recently has he begun to receive the acclaim he deserves. His characteristically curvaceous and sinuous designs, with their signature lattice-like details, can be found in 250 buildings in New York, including Grand Central Terminal, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the Ellis Island Registry Room and Grand Central’s Oyster Bar. Now the Museum of the City of New York is launching “Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile,” which will be there through Sept. 7.

The show features a variety of tiles, a newly built Guastavino-style arch, and many photographs, among them a huge, colorful one of the old City Hall subway station, which has remarkably elaborate details. “A lot of people were skeptical about going underground,” says G. Martin Moeller, Jr., who was the guest curator for the exhibition, adding that the grand decor was reassuring. He calls it “a cathedral of transportation,” noting that, though the station began to be bypassed in the Forties when the size of train cars changed, it still exists in all its richly tiled splendor.

John Ochsendorf, an M.I.T. professor who was project director for the show, said, “Guastavino did over 1,000 projects, and none of them has ever experienced a serious structural failure. We’ve lost some due to deliberate destruction. There was a terrible fire at the Oyster Bar in the 1990s, a very intense fire in a confined space, and there was still no damage to the arches, which were extensively tested.” Among the Guastavino-detailed structures elsewhere in the country are the State Capitol Building in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Detroit’s Central Station — now, unfortunately, one of that city’s derelict spaces.

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