The Boston Public Library’s (BPL) current exhibition, “Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces” tells the enthralling tale of Rafael Guastavino Sr. and the company he founded.
John Ochsendorf, PhD, a structural engineer and architectural historian from MIT, (above) describes the presentation as an opportunity to, “…celebrate the history of the Boston Public Library and also this little-known story of a Spanish architect/engineer who helped build the library.”
This fall, Penny had the opportunity to walk through the exhibit and interview Ochsendorf, author of Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile. He has worked with the BPL and the National Endowment for the Humanities to bring this exhibit to life.
Beneath a Guastavino vaulted ceiling in the McKim Building in Copley Square, you’ll find a multi-media exhibition that showcases four major themes of the Guastavino story. The displays are rich with stunning photography by Michael Freeman, original drawings, and cases filled with rare artifacts.
One of the most captivating parts of the exhibition is a half-scale replica of one of the room’s vaults with a cutaway center that exposes the genius of the system. This was constructed by MIT students and master masons. The model and its companion video demonstrate the technique used to build incredibly strong and stable arched vaults from one-inch thick tiles.
“They succeeded because they constantly innovated. They had 25 U.S. patents for different aspects of their construction system,” Ochsendorf explained. “The secret to the method was that by using a very fast-setting mortar, they could build these vaults over a room with no support from below.”
Rafael Guastavino stands on recently laid tile arch along Boylston Street, construction of the McKim Building
McKim Building as Guastavino Showcase
“The Boston Public Library is their earliest, really important project in the United States. And, from this project everything else becomes possible,” Ochsendorf said.
“In the spring of 1889 when the library was already under construction here in Copley Square, he [Guastavino] showed up on the scene quite late in the game and said, ‘I’ve got a revolutionary, fireproof system that’s ideal for your building!’ And, the fireproof was the selling point because there were major fires in the late nineteenth century in Chicago and Boston and other cities.”
The BPL was the first building where the tiles and patterns created by the company’s craftsmen were not plastered over but were exposed for the public to see and enjoy as a part of the design of the space.
“He’s got seven different kinds of vaulting throughout this building,” said Ochsendorf. “All the leading architects of the nineteenth century came and visited this building…” The McKim building became a showcase and demonstration project for Guastavino’s work. Over the next seven decades, the company would build more than 1000 buildings in 41 states.
Look Up and Join the Quest!
The team at MIT is still searching for examples of Guastavino ceilings and staircases. “We discover about one building a month. So, I’m always looking for people to submit possible buildings,” said Ochsendorf. “I’m certain there are vaulted staircases in Boston that I don’t know of yet.” You can email firstname.lastname@example.org with your leads on possible Guastavino vaults or staircases.
Palaces for the People is a collaboration between MIT and the BPL. Funding for the exhibition came from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
More information is available at www.palacesforthepeople.com.
The exhibition will continue through February 23rd. It will then move to Washington, DC’s National Building Museum.
Here's John's book on Amazon, Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile
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Words: Penny & Ed Cherubino
Photography: © 2012 Penny & Ed Cherubino
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