Guastavino Dome

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What do the Penn Museum, Ellis Island Registry Hall, Grant’s Tomb, and SFDS all have in common?

Each one has a Guastavino tile Dome or vault as part of its architecture.

When you look up at the herringbone pattern in our dome, consider that Rafael Guastavino y Moreno, the founder of the R. Guastavino Company, started out working as a tailor, in the family business in Valencia, Spain. Perhaps the work of fastening fabric and linings smoothly together gave him a special affinity for knitting together the tile constructions that would one day become his life’s work!

At age 19, when he was already married. with two children, Guastavino went to Barcelona to study architecture. Seeking a better life for his family, he then moved to America in 1881, settled in Woburn, Massachusetts, and opened a construction business. There, he improved and patented a traditional Catalan technique for using interlocking tiles and thin layers of special mortar to build arches and domes without requiring expensive temporary interior framework and bracing. This construction method was not well known in America, and his business prospered.

Today, Guastavino’s tiles can be found on more than 600 buildings in 36 states. Our 90-foot high, 62-foot diameter dome is unique among them because it has no copper or other roofing above it. The distinctive appearance of the coloured dome has made it an  icon in our neighbourhood – with some of the same issues as other architectural icons, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s too-aptly named Fallingwater. It turns out that a construction method designed for use in sunny Spain is vulnerable when exposed to our region’s freeze and thaw winters.

The Guastavino firm was consulted about leaks in the 1920s and again in 1938. In the 1950s, the dome was topped with a layer of concrete and shiny ceramic “subway tiles” which held up for fifty years; today, the heavy, deteriorated tiles are gone, and the concrete shell is sealed and painted (and scheduled soon to be re-painted under warranty!) to match the original tile pattern – without the water-seeping gaps – for the next century.

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