About 600 buildings in the United States, including 200 in New York, 29 in Boston, 22 in Washington and 7 in Rhode Island, feature a tile vault system perfected by a native of Valencia, Spain, brought by him to America in the 1880s, and rubbed out by modernism in the 1950s and ’60s.
Rafael Guastavino Sr. (1842-1908) rediscovered a Mediterranean tiling and vaulting technique that reaches back to ancient Rome.
His innovative tile work resolved the difficulties of large domes and vaulted structures. Once in America, where he immigrated with son Rafael Jr. in 1881, he developed the decorative possibilities of his technique. His firm dominated the field for half a century. In the end, however, Guastavino vaulting fell prey to modernism, as architects and builders spurned ornament, even utilitarian ornament.
Read the rest of this column at the Providence Journal.