Guastavino tile in St. Paul Church dome

Guastavino tiles, a famed, though now obsolete vaulting technique used in over 200 historical structures in the city, can give any New York City dweller or tourist a new appreciation for the artisanal origins found in architecture.

Like many of New York City’s cultural influencers, the family members who founded the eponymous Guastavino Company were immigrants. Rafael Guastavino, Sr. (1842-1908), born in Valencia, Spain, and trained as an architect with a Master Builder degree, brought his then nine year-old son Rafael Guastavino, Jr. (1872-1950), also Spanish-born, to the United States.

The “Tile Arch System” is one of 24 patents that the Guastavino father and son team devised over time while running the family business. The technique is used to create vaulted arches that consist of layered terra cotta tiles arranged in a zig-zag, most often, herringbone pattern and sealed with specialized cement. The structures that incorporate this architecture are also designed to be fireproof and incredibly stable.

Rafael Guastavino introduced a building staple, known to architects by name and recognized, at least by sight, to New Yorkers. Chances are that you have passed by, stood under or marveled at a historic archway or vaulted ceiling that embodies the tile arch system. These Guastavino tile locations in New York City will hopefully motivate you to take a moment in your commute or your stroll to appreciate the legacy to which New York City owes some of its most spellbinding architecture.

1. Ellis Island Registry Room

Photo by James and Karla Murray

In 2014, the Museum of the City of New York housed an exhibition on the work of the Guastavinos, named “Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile.” The retrospective called attention to many structures, including the Ellis Island Registry Room (The Great Hall), which used to be the first step in the U.S. immigration process for people who were waiting to be inspected by Immigration Service Officers.

The room opened in 1900, and for over two decades, up to 5,000 immigrants passed through on a daily basis. Guastavino’s work, however, was not added until 1918. The Registry Room has since been restored to its appearance in 1918-24.