The Use of the Tile Arch System in the Architecture of the Merrimack Valley
In 2008, I was tasked with preparing a nomination for Lowell’s St. George Greek Orthodox Church, formerly Grace Universalist Church, to the National Register of Historic Places. It was during my research into the history of the building that I first encountered the name that would lead me to explore buildings across the Merrimack Valley, from the basements of government buildings to college campuses.
Around the turn of the 20th century, at the peak of the popularity of Beaux-Arts style architecture in America, the name Guastavino was linked with the premier American architects of the time. But who was Guastavino? As it turns out, it was not a single person, but a father-and-son team whose last name earned a place of honor on the architectural plans of monumental works found not only in New York, Boston and the Merrimack Valley, but across the country.
Born and raised in Spain, Rafael Guastavino y Moreno was a well-known designer and builder who brought the ancient art of Catalan stone vaulting to America. Guastavino and his son, Rafael Jr., sailed into New York in March of 1881. After struggling to gain a commission as an architect, the elder Guastavino began advertising himself as a building contractor specializing in fireproof vault construction.
Due to fires that decimated Chicago and parts of Boston during the 1870s, buildings nationwide were being renovated and constructed using fireproof materials, such as steel and masonry. Guastavino developed a way to span large areas without added weight or cost by using a system of terra cotta tiles layered with portland cement.
These vaults were structurally sound, but also pleasing to the eye, making Rafael Guastavino’s vaults and domes a beautiful addition to any building. By 1885, Guastavino had patented his Tile Arch System, and after being contracted to install his vaulting in the Boston Public Library in 1889, he opened the R. Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company. His son took over the company after his father’s death in 1908.
Though Guastavino tiling is found from George Washington Vanderbilt’s Biltmore estate in Asheville, N.C., to the registry hall at Ellis Island, the Beaux-Arts style of architecture eventually began to wane in favor of the modern International Style. The Guastavino Company closed its doors in 1960, a victim of changed architectural trends.
By the mid-20th century, the name Guastavino was all but forgotten, along with the demand for large, classically-inspired buildings.
Beautiful examples of Guastavino tiling can be found in the Merrimack Valley. Many are found in Lowell, whose economic peak in the late 19th century coincided with the rise in popularity of the Guastavino company. One outstanding example is the dome of the former Grace Universalist Church (1895-1896) located on Princeton Boulevard in Lowell. Now known as St. George Greek Orthodox Church, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in March 2011.
Rafael Jr., at just 22-years-old, designed and supervised the construction of its dome, completing the work in less than eight weeks. At the time of construction it was one of the thinnest domes ever built, with just three courses of tile at its crown. The dome spans 70 feet over the circular auditorium, making it the largest existing masonry dome in Massachusetts.
A much smaller example of a Guastavino dome can be found on the Costello Chapel in St. Patrick Cemetery in Lowell.
On the North Campus of UMass Lowell, the triple-arched entrance portico of Southwick Hall (1897) features decorative tiling done in a herringbone pattern. Structural vaulting can be found in the fireproof vaults of both the Lowell City Hall (1893) and Lowell’s Pollard Memorial Library (1893).
The work of the R. Guastavino Company lives on thanks to the work of students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Program in Building Technology who created the website, Guastavino.net. Overseen by associate professor John Ochsendorf, they have met their goal of documenting and preserving Guastavino work in the Boston area.