Guastavino Vaulting

Written on: June 22, 2011 | 7 Comments

I have been fortunate to work in four institutions where the Guastavino family played a role in the construction of my buildings—first at MIT, then my library at Duke, one of my branches of the New York Public Library, and now the National Archives.  Rafael Guastavino immigrated to the United States from Spain in the late nineteenth century and founded a company which would provide building contractors, structural designers, acoustical consultants, interior designers, and master masons for hundreds of buildings throughout the country.  The Registry Hall at Ellis Island; the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina; Grand Central Terminal in New York City; Washington National Cathedral;  and Grace Cathedral in San Francisco are all examples of Guastavino genius.

Guastavino tile vaulting at the National Archives building in Washington, DC.

Last week I had an opportunity to welcome John Ochsendorf, a Civil Engineering faculty member from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his first visit to the National Archives.  Unlike my tours with other visitors, John and I went up into the spaces around and above the rotunda, up onto the roof, and down into the garage.  Also, unlike other tours, we were not looking at documents, we were looking at walls and ceilings and tiles and vaults!  John is the author of Guastavino Vaulting:  The Art of Structural Tile (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010).


John Ochsendorf and David Ferriero tour the dome of the Rotunda at the National Archives.  We learned from John that the dome is not Guastavino’s work.

Wander around and see if you work in or near a Guastavino building.  If you find one that John doesn’t already know about, lunch is on him!


David Ferriero and John Ochsendorf on the roof of the National Archives in Washington, DC.

7 Responses to “Guastavino Vaulting”

  1. Theresa A. Tobin said:

    So,is the Great Dome, visible in Barker Library and the smaller one in Building 7 at MIT a Guastavino ceiling? Terrific photo on the roof!


    (June 23, 2011 at 1:01 pm)

  2. AOTUS said:

    No. W1 at 305 Memorial Drive. Originally built as the Riverbank Court Hotel.


    (June 23, 2011 at 3:02 pm)

  3. Maarja Krusten said:

    Enjoyed the post. I’ve studied Washington architecture at the micro and macro level in the workplace and outside it. Nice rooftop pic. I see you were sensible; you didn’t do what I did back in the 1970s. Use a fixed ladder to the air conditioning unit in Vault 2, WNRC, to climb on top of the 14th row of shelving and crawl along the top of the that range of shelving to pull the FRC box needed for a Special Access search. I was a good archivist but a bad archives technician! I just didn’t like those rickety ladders we had at Suitland back in the day.


    (June 23, 2011 at 4:01 pm)

  4. Christopher Zarr said:

    Pretty soon there will be another building with Guastavino’s craftsmanship in the National Archives family—the National Archives at New York City! We are moving to the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House at One Bowling Green in 2012.

    Guastavino’s technique at the Custom House is evident in the great Rotunda dome, the grand staircases, and timbrel arches of the driveways. The great Rotunda dome was probably the largest he had constructed at that time–135 feet by 85 feet and weighing some 140 tons!

    Perhaps when we move there, we can show you and John around!

    For more information about the US Custom House and Guastavino’s work, visit http://www.oldnycustomhouse.gov/ and
    http://www.oldnycustomhouse.gov/history/artists_art/gustavino.asp


    (June 23, 2011 at 4:42 pm)

  5. AOTUS said:

    You’re right! Promise to drag John to New York to explore.


    (June 23, 2011 at 5:22 pm)

  6. Joan McCann said:

    Of course you know Guastavino’s on East 59th Street, NYC, under the entrance to the 59th Street Bridge. It was a wonderful restaurant, now a catering hall – wonderful architecture!


    (June 23, 2011 at 5:32 pm)

  7. AOTUS said:

    Good to hear from you, Joan. Discovered another series of arches in NYC when I was there last weekend. If you head straight down Vesey, past the World Trade Center site and head toward the temporary access to the Winter Garden, you pass under a series of Guastavino vaults. He’s everywhere!


    (June 24, 2011 at 8:26 am)