Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America's Great Public Spaces

Boston Public Library Pays Tribute to Visionary Designer with
“Palaces for the People”
Exhibition about Rafael Guastavino presented in partnership with MIT

BOSTON – September 5, 2012 – The exhibition Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces will open at the Boston Public Library’s Central Library in Copley Square on Friday, September 28, and run through February 24, 2013.

Vaulted tile ceilings, which are considered structural and aesthetic marvels, dot the landscape of the United States because of the farsightedness and imagination of Spanish immigrant builder Rafael Guastavino (1842–1908). His thoughtful design of public spaces transformed American architecture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Guastavino and his family created colorful tile ceilings that are lightweight, attractive, fireproof, and virtually indestructible.

The Boston Public Library’s McKim Building, which opened in 1895 and is now a National Historic Landmark building, was the first major American public commission for Rafael Guastavino Sr., and features seven different patterns of vaulting. Widespread critical and public acclaim for the BPL’s building helped establish the value of Guastavino’s innovative construction technology as well as the functionality and beauty of his product in the United States.

In partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Boston Public Library will present a major gallery exhibition, tours, lectures, and an interactive website dedicated to highlighting Guastavino’s work. What’s more, Places for the People will be exhibited in a beautiful vaulted room at the Boston Public Library designed and built by the Guastavino Company.

“With this exhibition, we celebrate Rafael Guastavino and his combination of innovative engineering, imagination, and artistry, which impresses visitors to the McKim Building and other sites across the country more than 100 years later,” said Amy E. Ryan, President of the Boston Public Library.

The exhibition will include historic drawings, photographs, and objects, along with new photographs by London photographer Michael Freeman to help make the art, engineering, and the immigrant story relevant for audiences of today.

Palaces for the People was conceived and curated by Professor John Ochsendorf, Department of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A 2008 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow, Dr. Ochsendorf is the author ofGuastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2010.

“Palaces for the People tells the story of the Guastavino family and their enormous contributions to American architecture, art, and construction. Their remarkable company was launched with the construction of the Boston Public Library 120 years ago, and it is thrilling to be able to share the story inside one of their most significant buildings. We are still discovering the full extent of their work, and we hope the exhibition will activate the public in the search for other Guastavino buildings,” said Ochsendorf.

Outstanding examples of Guastavino’s work grace more than 600 buildings in 36 states, including 60 in the greater Boston area. Examples include the Grand Central Terminal in New York City, the United States Supreme Court Building, Ellis Island, and the Nebraska State Capitol. In Boston, the Massachusetts State House, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Christian Science Church boast Guastavino tile vaults. By the turn of the twentieth century, the name “Guastavino” was known to every major architect and building firm in America. Today, millions of people pass through and marvel at these great American public spaces, but few know that a family of Spanish immigrants helped to create them. The websites and will allow visitors to locate Guastavino buildings across the country and contribute new building information for inclusion on the list of Guastavino projects.

One of the highlights of Palaces for the People will be the construction by contemporary masons of a scale model of a Boston Public Library ceiling vault. A new film documents the construction of the vault, and provides a detailed understanding of the technique. In addition, a slideshow will feature an in-depth look at iconic Guastavino buildings from the original drawing stage through construction to contemporary views.

During the exhibition’s five-month run, special Guastavino tours of the Boston Public Library will be offered that take visitors to spaces throughout the library where Guastavino made his mark. Additional information about exhibitions and exhibition-related programs at the Boston Public Library is available at

Palaces for the People is primarily funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities with in-kind contributions from the exhibition venues. The exhibition designers are C&G Partners of New York. After being on display at the Boston Public Library, Palaces for the People will travel to the National Building Museum in Washington, DC.

The Boston Public Library has a Central Library, twenty-five branches, a literacy center, map center, business library, neighborhood-based services in the Tierney Learning Center, and a website filled with digital content and services. Established in 1848, the Boston Public Library has pioneered public library service in America. It was the first publicly supported municipal library in America, the first public library to lend books, the first to have a branch library, and the first to have a children’s room. Each year, the Boston Public Library hosts thousands of programs and serves millions of people. All of its programs and exhibitions are free and open to the public. At the Boston Public Library, books are just the beginning. To learn more, visit

About the MIT School of Architecture + Planning
The School of Architecture + Planning is one of five schools at MIT and comprises five divisions – the Department of Architecture, the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the Media Lab, the Center for Real Estate and the Program in Art, Culture, and Technology. The Department of Architecture was the first such department in the nation (1865) and became a leader in introducing Modernism to America. Today, it continues a long tradition of individualized instruction, offering programs at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. The department's setting within MIT permits particular depth in such technical areas as computation, new modes of design and production, materials, structure and energy, as well as in the arts, humanities and social studies. To learn more, visit

The National Endowment for the Humanities offers the prestigious America’s Historical and Cultural Organizations: Planning and Implementation Grants to support museum exhibitions, library-based projects, interpretation of historic places or areas, websites, and other project formats that excite and inform about America’s history and culture.