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Rafael Guastavino

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Rafael Guastavino

American, (1842–1908)

Rafael Guastavino Sr. (1842-1908) was born in Valencia, Spain, the fourth of fourteen children. Guastavino studied at the Special School of Builders in Barcelona. By the 1860s he was participating in architectural competitions. During this period he worked professionally, both as a builder and as an architect.

In response to an increasing demand in Barcelona for new buildings that were fireproof, Guastavino Sr. experimented with different economical methods of fireproof construction eventually turning to a construction method that utilized tile and mortar vaults known as the Catalan vault. This was a traditional construction technique that had been all but forgotten by architects and builders.

Rafael Guastavino Sr. moved to New York in 1881, along with his son Rafael Guastavino Jr. (1872-1950). There the elder Guastavino patented his Catalan vaulting system and began the R. Guastavino Company, a building firm which would continue until 1962. By the 1890s his son was working with him and the company was well known among New York architects. Their patented vaulting techniques made it possible to create the bold, broad spaces that helped define the architecture of this era. In 1883 he won the competition for the Progress Club at 59th Street and Fourth Avenue in New York. Between 1881 and his death in 1908, Guastavino Sr. and the R. Guastavino Company worked on more than 1000 buildings in North America, including Grand Central Terminal, Ellis Island and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Since they served as contractors on these projects, the R. Guastavino Company name did not appear on most of their buildings, and the accomplishments of the firm remained relatively unknown to the public.

In 1900, American architects were asked to name the ten most beautiful buildings in the United States. Of those done after 1881, all but two were of Guastavino construction, and the R. Guastavino Company was involved in additions to two of the earlier buildings as well. In 1967, the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects selected, for its centennial exhibition, thirty-eight outstanding Manhattan buildings of the past hundred years. Of the twenty-two created during the years that the R. Guastavino Company was active, over half were listed in the Company inventory. Additionally, the R. Guastavino Company had installed Catalan vaults in a modification to one of the four buildings included in the exhibition that pre-dated the Guastavinos arrival in America.

Architect Richard Morris Hunt brought Rafael Guastavino Sr. to Asheville to work on Biltmore House (completed 1895). He was attracted to the region and built a house and tile factory in Black Mountain. Beginning around 1905, Rafael Guastavino Sr., working with Richard Sharp Smith, designed and built Saint Lawrence Church (currently known as the Basilica of Saint Lawrence) in Asheville using his cohesive construction. He began work on a sister church, St. Mary, in Wilmington, North Carolina, but died before construction began. His son, Rafael Guastavino Jr., completed the work on both churches. Rafael Guastavino Sr. is buried in the Basilica of Saint Lawrence.

[Source: Museum Staff]

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