Restoring Guastavino Vaulting As seen in May/June, 2000 Clem Labine’s Traditional Building

6/01/2000

To restore the massive terra-cotta tile vaults under New York’s Queensboro Bridge required a lot more than just cleaning; in all, 28,000 Guastavino tiles were removed or replicated.

At first glance, the soaring terra-cotta barrel-vaulted arches of the restoration project recently completed by Graciano Corp. of Pittsburgh, Pa., seem to belong to a church in the south of France. What a surprise to discover that the job constituted the Manhattan underbelly of New York City’s Queensboro Bridge. The 120-x-275 ft. space was designed by Henry Hornbostel in 1914 for use as an open-air market. The hall features a terra-cotta ceiling tile which, thanks to a tongue-and-groove design developed by Rafael Guastavino y Esposito, is capable of creating self-supporting vaults. Three dozen such vaults rise from the terra-cotta-clad columns, creating airy 30-x-30-ft. bays. Other famous Guastavino-tiled vaults can still be found in Grand Central Terminal and the old Immigration Station on Ellis Island.

Over 28,000 tiles needed to be replaced, having been irreparably damaged either by water or from the vibration of traffic on the bridge above. In one area the ceiling was permanently lowered to prevent further harm.

As in many New York churches and halls, Guastavino tile was employed under the Queensboro Bridge to create a self-supporting vaulted ceiling.

The bridge market was closed in the 1930s, whereupon the site was used by the Highways Department as a garage and storage. Forgotten by most New Yorkers, the building languished even after receiving Landmark Status in 1974. Attempts to redevelop the area and the hall as “bridgemarket” met stiff community opposition over concerns about congestion, until one plan finally passed to everyone’s satisfaction. Although concessions had to be made to a significant commercial presence in the hall, Jennifer Raab, chairwoman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, noted at the time: “ How many people get to see the Guastavino vaults now? Certainly not enough. That’s a preservation purpose: Bringing people into this marvelous historic space...But it wasn’t going to happen without commercial investments as well.” Various upscale restaurants and markets carefully moved into their designated spaces, not an easy task considering the building’s landmark status. The merchants were not permitted to hang anything from the precious vaults above. Lighting, ventilation, and air-conditioning all had to be carefully routed (the heating, for example, by pipes within the floor slab).

Before the merchants could move in, Graciano had to conduct a careful restoration. A gentle low-pressure wash with cleaning chemicals was repeated several times. Tiles that were damaged beyond repair were then marked for replacement. However, because the tile vaults were held together in a tongue-and-groove system (the essence of the self-supporting Guastavino tile system), the removal of just one piece could conceivably start a devastating domino effect of cascading Victorian tile! Sections that required only a light restoration were shored up with wooden scaffolding; sections with extensive damage needed a complete wooden form of the ceiling area to apply the needed support. All in all, 28,000 Guastavino tiles were removed or replaced.The job of fabricating tile replacements went to Boston Valley Terra-Cotta, Orchard Park, N.Y. After lab analysis of the tile’s composition, Boston Valley made molds from the patterned originals, experimenting with color and glazes to create the best match. Several samples were submitted to the architects for on-site, in-the-light analysis before a perfect match was found. Although the tile originally had a high gloss, time and weathering dulled its appearance, and so the decision was made to match the original tile as it appears today.

Good scaffolding was an intrinsic part of Graciano’s job. In areas that required extensive tile replacement, wooden molds were created to apply the pressure needed to keep the remnant tile in place and intact.

The Graciano team noticed that the worst damage occurred where the masonry of the ceiling came into direct contact with the construction of the bridge above, permitting the transmission of vehicular vibration. In one area at particularly high risk, they made the creative decision to lower the ceiling permanently, thereby isolating their restoration from the worst of the vibration.

Certain supporting columns also needed extensive help. Although they were steel encased in concrete, six of the columns suffered such severe water damage that they had to be completely replaced. Their surface tiles had to be carefully removed, numbered, and stored, so they could later be replaced in the correct order over the new steel support.The entire job took over two years, but offered its own satisfaction beyond the knowledge of a preservation job well done. Glenn Foglio, the Graciano executive who oversaw work on the site, was thrilled to find a few tiles with Guastavino’s own signature on them.-Eleanor Mancusi