A few days ago various sites were sharing photos by James and Karla Murray, authors of Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York as they were doing a ten-year update in which they revisited several iconic mom-and-pop businesses in the city from their book to see if they were still there or had caved to the whims of modern New York and closed. Sadly, many are no longer there, either being replaced with banks and Subway shops (seriously) or sitting as unused and blank spaces. Change and gentrification, especially in a place like New York, are inevitable, but it always hurts a little more when something goofy and unique is replaced with another soulless corporate box of steel and glass.
I’m angry that the glass box that replaced the M&G Diner is still going unused.
In the midst of all of this upheaval, it’s almost refreshing to find a new way to experience the city and appreciate its history, and the Palaces for the People exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York does just that:
Throughout the five boroughs are more than 200 long-overlooked marvels of engineering and architectural beauty—the interlocking tile vaults built by Spanish immigrants Rafael Guastavino, Sr. (1842-1908), and his son, Rafael Jr. (1872-1950). The system of structural tile vaults developed by the Guastavinos—lightweight, fireproof, low-maintenance, and capable of supporting significant loads—was used by leading architects of the day, including McKim, Mead & White and Carrere &Hastings. Ellis Island’s Registry Room, Carnegie Hall, the Bronx Zoo’s Elephant House, and Grand Central Terminal all contain Guastavino vaults.
The exhibit provides one of the most exhaustive looks at the Guastavinos and their method of building Catalan vaulted ceilings, including a replica vault that a team of professional masoners and engineering students from MIT constructed specifically for the exhibit and as a way to help preserve the technique for generations to come. Watch the video that captures it here (go ahead, I’ll wait).
It’s incredible to see how many layers are needed—and it’s not nearly as many as you think—to make something so functional and beautiful, and then wander around the perimeter of the room and see how it was integrated into so many iconic buildings all over the world. Not every building featured is readily accessible today or still standing—we all know what Penn Station looks like today, and it’s not this, and sadly the City Hall subway stop is only open to infrequent tours and brief glances if you happen to sit in the front subway car as the downtown 6 becomes the uptown 6 at Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall. But if you spend $3 and have a decent map on you, it’s possible to find many, many specimens that are easy to access and turn a nice spring or early summer day into a sort of tapas and tile crawl* on the island of Manhattan alone.
On our walk from the museum to midtown to do a bit of shopping before heading to a late lunch, we even inadvertently came upon one quite by accident: the Church of the Heavenly Rest, a block above the Guggenheim. Their coffee shop was what drew us in as Michael was in the mood for a cup, and while we waited and I noted that the ceilings were vaulted, I quickly pulled out my little guide and lo and behold, it was on the list. Of course, I also had to make a visit to the Grand Central Oyster Bar before we left the city because the restaurant has been under extensive restoration for the last year or so, and the last time I was here it was closed as they finished up their work.
(Random factoid from the pamphlet: when a fire struck the oyster bar back in 1997, it only took them six weeks to get up and running again, in part because only 17 of the 30,000 tiles had required replacement, or 0.057% of all of the tiles. How’s that for an engineering marvel?)
The focus of the MCNY exhibit is naturally biased towards New York, but the overall project is looking to catalogue as many examples of Guastavino projects as possible, so if you feel so inclined to do some architectural exploring and photography, they can certainly use your help. I know I’m going to keep some of these on my radar, including perhaps taking a quick day trip to Greenwich to check out this restaurant.
Related: huge hat-tip to Les Culs for pointing out the Guavastino tiling to me in the first place a few months ago.
*I totally want to make tapas and tile crawl a Thing, so long as I can find enough tapas bars around the city that are open before 5PM on a weekend, which is a surprisingly difficult thing to do even in a place like New York.