Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile
March 19, 2014 | The pan roast is back. The herring is coming. The famous Oyster Bar restaurant in New York's Grand Central Terminal reopened last Thursday after a four-month renovation of its 101-year-old interior, particularly a thorough cleaning of its ceiling of interlocking vaults covered with terracotta tiles by the Guastavino firm. Seeing the tiles fully cleaned and all the edging light bulbs aglow hints at the wonders in store for visitors to the exhibition Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile, opening at the Museum of the City of New York on March 26.
The Oyster Bar is one of more than two hundred surviving examples of the marvels of engineering and architectural beauty created throughout the five boroughs by Spanish immigrants Rafael Guastavino Sr. and Jr. in the early twentieth century . Their system of structural tile vaults-lightweight, fireproof, low-maintenance, and capable of supporting significant loads-was used by leading architects of the day, including McKim, Mead and White, Warren and Wetmore (at the Oyster Bar), and Carrère and Hastings. Ellis Island's Registry Room, Carnegie Hall, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the Boathouse and Tennis Shelter in Prospect Park, and the Bronx Zoo's Elephant House all contain Guastavino vaults. The exhibition (on view until September 7) not only includes never-before-seen drawings, large-scale photographs, videos, and a variety of objects but also a large-scale replica of a Guastavino vault built by local masons that will go far in explicating the secrets of the construction of these engineering tours de force.
If you go to the Oyster Bar, try the oyster pan roast and, in June, when the new catch is in, the herring from Holland. Also check out the adjoining Guastavino-vaulted space, where, in addition to admiring the architecture you can- due to a peculiarity in the structure- eavesdrop on a conversation on the other side of the room. It's a little eerie but a lot of fun.