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Architecture feature: The Guastavino Company in Pittsburgh

The Guastavino tile stair in Baker Hall at Carnegie Mellon University

By Albert M. Tannler

Last month we explored buildings in Pittsburgh designed by New York architect Grosvenor Atterbury. One of these, now gone, was the Phipps Natatorium (1907-09), 540 Duquesne Way, with tile work by the Guastavino Company, described as “a polychromed barrel vault with a regular circular geometry. A vaulted skylight system was integrated into the graceful lines of the circular arches.”[1]

Born and trained in Barcelona, Rafael Guastavino (1842-1908) is best known for his construction company in New York City, which used an adaptation of Catalan constructional methods to create shell vaulting and stairs of cohesive tiles hand-assembled in strong mortar. Rafael Guastavino, Jr. (1872-1950) continued the firm after his father’s death in 1908. Guastavino tile was very popular in early 20th-century monumental architecture.

It was George R. Collins, professor of the history of art and architecture at Columbia University, who rediscovered Guastavino tile.

As he sat in the back of the university’s St. Paul’s Chapel (1907) . . . on October 17, 1961, his eyes wandered to the ornate herringbone of tiles of the domed ceiling. The curves and colors reminded him of the work of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), about whom he had recently completed a book. As he studied the ceiling, he suddenly realized that it used the same vaulting technology that Gaudi had deployed in many of his famous works in Barcelona.

This moment of discovery caused Collins to look more carefully at the architecture of the Upper West Side of Manhattan. . . . It seemed that nearly every block of New York City had a tile-vaulted space. Collins recognized that what looked like a decorative tile finish to the causal eye was actually a structural system of interlocking tiles, legendary in Spain for its ability to support tremendous loads with a remarkably small amount of material. . . . After years of studying Catalan art and architecture, Collins sensed that these [Guastavino] Spanish immigrants had a significant influence on American building construction, but it was not until he began to create an inventory of Guastavino tile vaulting that he fully appreciated the quality and importance of the company’s work. In May of 1962, Collins traveled to Pittsburgh to give a lecture, and he was astonished to find that thirty of the most significant buildings in the city contained Guastavino vaulting. These included major buildings at the local universities and many of the city government buildings, as well as numerous churches and synagogues.[2]


Guastavino filed three patents in 1885 for the construction of fireproof buildings, which marked the beginning of decades of patent applications by Guastavino and his son. The earliest patents helped Guastavino to gain credibility in the American building industry and pushed him toward a career as a building contractor specializing in vault construction rather than working as an architect.[3]

Pittsburgh architects

The Guastavino Company worked repeatedly with many architectural firms, the most notable being McKim, Mead, and White; Bertram Goodhue; Charles Haight; Cass Gilbert; Warren and Wetmore; and Henry Hornbostel.[4]

Among the architects who may be considered “Pittsburgh architects” were Henry Hornbostel, who commissioned five academic buildings, two synagogues, and the City-County Building in Pittsburgh as well as several bridges and arcades in New York. Parks and Neumann state: “Of all the architects who used the Guastavino Company, Hornbostel’s work is the most varied in the purely structural sense.”[5] Pittsburgh-based architects included Thomas Hannah; Alden & Harlow; Stanley L. Roush; E. B. Lee; A. F. Link; Benno Janssen and his partners Franklin Abbott and William Cocken; and Ingham & Boyd. E. P. Mellon was born and educated in Pittsburgh before moving to New York in his mid-30s. Twentieth-century Modern American Gothic architecture was represented by Ralph Adams Cram of Boston, Bertram Goodhue of New York and their partners, and Charles Z. Kauder and Wilson Eyre & Mcllvaine of Philadelphia. James W. Windrim of Philadelphia produced a late example of the American Renaissance. York & Sawyer and Trowbridge & Livingston were based in New York. Walter Kidney wrote about a “sober Modernistic manner that began and ended with allusions to Classical architecture” in Trowbridge & Livingston’s Gulf Building.

There are Guastavino tile buildings in Boston, New York, Washington, D. C. and elsewhere, but the range and diversity and character of buildings in Pittsburgh 1905-1942 suggests we focus on them.[6]

Academic buildings

Carnegie Mellon University Porter Hall, 1905-07; 1915, Henry Hornbostel

Carnegie Mellon University Doherty Hall, 1908-09

Carnegie Mellon University Hamerschlag Hall, 1914

Carnegie Mellon University Hamburg Hall, 1916

Carnegie Mellon University Baker Hall, 1919

Community College of Allegheny, West Hall, 1915, Thomas Hannah [Western Theological Seminary]

Chatham University Mellon Board Room, 1917, E. P. Mellon [A. W. Mellon residence]

University of Pittsburgh Heinz Memorial Chapel, 1934, Charles Z. Klauder

University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning, 1937

University of Pittsburgh Stephen Foster Memorial, 1937

Ecclesiastical buildings

Calvary Episcopal Church, 1906, Ralph Adams Cram for Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson

Rodef Shalom Synagogue, 1906, Henry Hornbostel

First Baptist Church, 1911, Bertram G. Goodhue for Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson

B’Nai Israel Synagogue, 1924, Henry Hornbostel

St. Boniface R. C. Church, 1926, A. F. Link & Associates

Holy Rosary R. C. Church, 1929, Ralph Adams Cram for Cram & Ferguson

East Liberty Presbyterian Church, 1931-42, Ralph Adams Cram for Cram & Ferguson

Shadyside Presbyterian Church Addition, 1938, Wilson Eyre & McLlvaine

Government buildings

 Allegheny County Courthouse alterations, 1911-13, Alden & Harlow; 1924-28, Stanley L. Roush

Pittsburgh City-County Building, 1916, E. B. Lee; Palmer and Hornbostel

[Federal] Post Office and Courthouse, 1931-34, Trowbridge & Livingston


William Penn Hotel addition 1928, Janssen & Cocken


 Pittsburgh Athletic Association, 1910, Janssen & Abbott

Children’s Museum

Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, 1938, Ingham & Boyd [Buhl Planetarium]


 Allegheny General Hospital, 1915, Janssen & Abbott; York & Sawyer, 1929-31.

 Public Utility

Bell Telephone Company Building addition, 1931, James Torrey Windrim


[1] Janet Parks, The Old World Builds the New, 93. Illustrated in John Ochsendorf, Guastavino Vaulting, 158.

[2] John Ochsendorf, Guastavino Vaulting, 8-9.

[3] Ochsendorf, 47.

[4] Janet Parks and Alan G. Neuman, 36.

[5] Ibid., 71.

[6] The Guastavino Company drawings, including Pittsburgh projects, are at the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University. Three Pittsburgh buildings with Guastavino tile are known to have been demolished: as noted earlier, the Phipps Natatorium; the Central YWCA 1909 [59 Chatham Street]; and the R. B. Mellon residence, 1908-11, 6500 Fifth Avenue and Beechwood Boulevard (now Pittsburgh Garden Center and Mellon Park), Alden & Harlow. For the latter see Margaret Henderson Floyd, Architecture After Richardson: Regionalism before Modernism––Longfellow, Alden, and Harlow in Boston and Pittsburgh. Chicago: University of Chicago Press in association with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 1994: 298-301. See also Mt. St. Peter Church Centennial: 100 Years of Faith 1904-2004 (Pittsburgh: Broudy Printing Inc., 2004).


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