The Guastavinos Are Here? The Guastavinos are Here!

Last Friday, several descendants of Raphael Guastavino visited our headquarter office, which originally served as Guastavino Tile Factory. Amy Thompson-West, Director of Strategic Support, is our internal Guastavino historian, so was thrilled to meet them. Her account follows.

Last Friday, a fellow Tocci employee rocketed into my office looking wild eyed. He said there were folks in the lobby who had been told by the Boston Public Library (BPL) to come by our building—the former R. Guastavino Tile Factory. “Come by our building? Come by for what?” My mind raced ahead. On Thursday, a Guastavino retrospective opened at the BPL. So, I could connect one or two dots between us and the BPL. I surmised people were here for a tour. But the BPL wouldn’t be sending people out here for tours unannounced, would they? We hadn’t arranged anything. And, how many any people were here?

Before I got to the lobby, Lila Tocci intercepted. She told me the Guastavinos were here for a look at our building. The Guastavinos are here? The Guastavinos! I picked up my pace. My confusion gave way to excitement. Wow! The Gustavinos are here!

I became interested in our building’s history, known locally as “La Ceramica” and nationally as the R. Guastavino Tile Company, while developing materials to support permitting for [our] restoration of 660 [Main Street] in the late 1990s. The story of our building is but a small biographical facet in the lives of father and son duo Raphael Guastavino I and II. Their full saga intersects with the Rockefeller, Astor, Vanderbilt, and Mellon families, whose vast entrepreneurial wealth enabled them to embellish their palatial homes with custom designed Guastavino tilings. They are more than a resume footnote to the accomplishments of the most important architects of their time—Stamford White, Henry Hornbostel, Christopher Wren, and Bertram Goodhue. The Guastavino’s ceramic engineering inventiveness, expressed through an intrinsically decorative structural tiling system, added distinctive character to over 1000 twentieth century American Beaux Arts architectural gems of cultural, religious, academic, commercial, and governmental import. One could argue that their fire-proof and economic means of building vaults, domes, and arches enabled neoclassicism in the U.S.

It was such an honor to guide Helen, her son, her granddaughters, Resa and Helena Rose, and Helena’s boyfriend through our building. I did feel presuming. I caught myself saying “our building; your building” quite often. I shouldn’t have worried; the family was completely charming in receipt of my docentry. They shared their stories and memories with me. I watched present day Raphael, who bears a striking resemblance to his great, great grandfather, observe our Building Information Modelers. I imagined his ancestor taking note through his eyes—measuring how much and how little the science of building has evolved.

It is ironic that this building has hosted two men, Raphael Guastavino and John Tocci, whose driving force has been a love of construction and a passion for doing it better. I hope that the descendants of Raphael I and II smiled at this coincidence. I know they truly appreciated that we have preserved and loved this building that their forebears built. I was thankful that they could almost put ear to wall and hear the echoes of men firing those beautiful Guastavino tiles we all still love today.

Thank you Helen, Raphael, Resa and Helena Rose for visiting.

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