What to see when visiting Princeton, USA: Guastavino Vaulting

The famous Princeton Reunions are coming up this weekend and many guests will reminisce and celebrate their student years with us .  But few of these guests will know about the Gaustavino vaults hidden between the neo-gothic architecture, typical of our Campus.

Much has been written about how Rafael Guastavino introduced this original Catalan Vaulting technique to the United States of America at the end of the 19th century [1].  The technique goes back to the 14th century in the city of Valencia. The Spanish king Pedro IV encouraged his masons to travel from Madrid to Valencia to learn this new technique to constructs vaults that were “Very profitable, very lightweight, and very low cost work of plaster and brick”[2]. The concept of this construction technique is to interlock tiles with layers of fast-setting mortar to make a thin skin.  Many centuries later the Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino (1842-1908) would bring this technique to North- America.

Figure 1: 1910 Patent for a Guastavino Vault Structure (left) , and Rafael Guastavino (right)

When trying to understand Guastavino’s decision to migrate from Spain to the United States of America, it is important to assess the impact that the socio-economic context of the time had in it. It is important to note that Guastavino was a respected architect in Barcelona. Spain in the 19th century experienced tumultuous period. During these years, the political situation was never stable. The change from the Ancient Regime to the liberalism was not easy. King Alfonso XII ascended to the throne in 1875. He was a popular king and was able to qualify the monarchy again. Being a male was enough to calm down the Carlists, who had been fighting against his mother, Queen Isabel II, for the last 40 years. However, the situation in the country forced many people to emigrate to America. The period between 1882 and 1930 was marked by a deep depression. Around four million Spaniards emigrated to America between 1882 and 1930. Usually, before a period of recession starts, there are some years in which economy stabilizes and does not grow. Guastavino’s family moved before the actual depression started, but they were showing the path to many Spaniards that will move later.

In the United States, the situation was completely the opposite. East coast cities were starting to develop and overpass the European metropolis. Guastavino saw in the new development a great chance to export his technique of tile vaulting. A new era of industrialization was taking place around these cities. The country was being expanded rapidly towards the West Coast as well so, new cities would be created.

One can say that Guastavino made a brave decision when choosing a country with such a different culture and language, which he did not speak at the moment of his arrival, when he could have chosen any other Spanish speaking country such as Argentina or Uruguay where many Spanish emigrants moved to. Guastavino put his career ahead of his personal comfort. He was able to evaluate the different possibilities and choose the most appropriate to develop his job.

For your visit to the Princeton Campus, we have identified no less than three Guastavino Vaults.mapPrinceton

Figure 2: Campus Map showing the location of Gaustavino Vaults

Class of 1879 Gateway

The Class of 1879 Hall was designed by the architect Benjamin Wistar Morris Jr when the President of the University was Mr. Woodrow Wilson, who would become later the President of the United States. Guastavino’s main contribution was the tiling of main arched pathway under the tower. The vaults are built with bricks, and completed with stone ribs to provide stability.


Figure 3: Princeton University Class of 1879 Guastavino Vault

Princeton University Chapel

Princeton University Chapel was built in response to the fire that destroyed the previous Chapel, Marquand Chapel, in 1920. The president of the University at that time was Mr. John Grier Hibbe. The design was based in 14th Century English Gothic style. The University appointed Ralph Adam Cram as the architect for this project, the leading Gothic revival architect of the early 20th Century. The building was completed in 1928 and it costed $2 million, which was a significant amount of money in that time.  Even though the main vault was not designed by the Guastavino Company, some auxiliary vaults, not open to the public, were built by them. The main vault is built, according to the plans, out of cohesive tile. It is reinforced with ribs that meet in the center point of each individual bay. These ribs help the vault to stay stable.


Figure 4: Princeton University Chapel Vaults (image credit Princeton University)

Patton Hall Entrance 

We have little information about the construction history of the Vault in Patton Hall.  The Hall  was first occupied in 1906, so it was built probably between 1900 and 1905. When visiting, one sees the thickness of some tiles and the mortar between two rows of tiles, the typical shape of the Gaustavino Vaultand as well as the arches between the two vaults. This arrangement of arches can also be found in the Boston Public Library, for example. Finally, the artistic pattern in which the tiles are placed is characteristic for the work of  Guastavino.


Figure 5: Azul tiling in a herringbone pattern at Patton Hall.  This pattern can also be found in the Guastavino Vaults at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in NYC.


[1] J. Ochsendorf. Gaustavino vaulting: the art of the structural tile. Princeton Architectural Press, 1st edition, 2010.

[2] P. Araguas. Butlleti de le Reial Academia Catalan de Belles Arts de Sant Jordi, 1998. Extract from “Rey Pedro IV de Aragon a Merino de Zaragoza el 20 Junio de 1382”, from Archivo de la Corona de Aragon.

Author: Lazaro Luis Vallelado

Editor: Sigrid Adriaenssens

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