Palaces for the People

Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces

March 16, 2013–January 20, 2014

St. Paul’s Chapel, vaulted staircase with tiled banister and risers. Photo by Michael Freeman.
Baker Hall at Carnegie Mellon University. Photo by Michael Freeman.

The Guastavino family’s soaring tile vaults grace many of the nation’s most iconic structures including Grand Central Terminal, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Boston Public Library, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Nebraska State Capitol. Yet the name, the accomplishments, and the architectural legacy of this single family of first-generation Spanish immigrants are virtually unknown. Not only did the Guastavinos help build many great American public spaces between 1881 and 1962, they also revolutionized American architectural design and construction. Their patented vaulting techniques made it possible for the greatest architects of the day to create the breathtakingly beautiful spaces that represent the nation’s highest ideals and aspirations.

Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces sheds light on the story of Rafael Guastavino Sr. (1842–1908), arguably the most influential architectural craftsman working in late-19th and early-20th-century America. An established master builder in Barcelona, Guastavino immigrated to New York with his young son, Rafael Jr. (1872–1950), in 1881. His patented tiling system—based on a centuries-old Spanish building method—enabled the construction of self-supporting arches that were simultaneously lightweight but strong, fireproof, and attractive. The construction system interlocked and layered thin clay tiles and quick-setting mortar in highly decorative patterns. Compared to stone or brick vaults which required additional time and materials, Guastavino’s tile vaults were exceptionally economical and highly flexible. Within a few short years, Guastavino’s signature vaulting technique had transformed the American architectural landscape.

This exhibition features specially-commissioned, large-scale color photography by Michael Freeman; original Guastavino Company drawings, patents, and advertisements; 3D-printed scale models; immersive videos; a full-scale tiled vault built by masons from the International Masonry Institute; and construction demonstrations. Construction was filmed using stop-motion photography so it could be integrated into the exhibition.

The project is organized by 2008 MacArthur Fellow John Ochsendorf, an associate professor at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Architecture and the author of Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010).


Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces is organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with contributions from the Boston Public Library. The national tour of the exhibition is made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor, and support from the Institute Ramon Llull, Farragut Fund for Catalan Culture in the U.S., International Masonry Institute, and International Union of Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers.

National Endowment for the Humanities logo

The presentation in Washington is made possible by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP; STUDIOS Architecture; Government of Catalonia; International Masonry Institute; International Union of Bricklayers & Allied Craftworkers; DAVIS Construction; Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Wolf Greenberg; Spain Arts & Culture; and ZGF Architects LLP. Special thanks to Olga Mayoral Gabaldon and Maria Romero Pons, who provided translations for the exhibition texts.