RESTORING the historic Guastavino tiles

Over time, the effects of wear and tear, as well as the elements, began to take their toll on the structure – particularly on the expansive and architecturally significant Guastavino tile arch in the building’s loggia.

Built of multiple layers of terra-cotta tile that was arranged in colorful and intricate patterns, the arch began to sag and crack over time – a situation that posed a significant safety concern. “The structural integrity of the arch was clearly being compromised,” remarked Tom Corbo, Vice President and General Manager of Graciano’s New York Division. Cracks were becoming larger and more visible, and there was a risk that the arch could fail and fall.

Graciano’s was brought in by the architect, Jan, Hird, Pokorny Associates, and the engineer, Robert Silman Associates, to help implement a stabilization program. Although repairs had been done to the arch in the past, this round of stabilization and restoration activities involved significant structural reinforcement. Fortunately, Graciano was able to draw on its extensive experience in working on Guastavino tile. In the spring of 2000, the firm successfully restored the Guastavino tile arches that line the underbelly of the Queensboro Bridge. That space now forms the backdrop for the successful Bridgemarket – a local tourist attraction.

To keep the arch from sagging further – and from potentially damaging more tiles – a steel suspension system was designed to fit into the attic above the arch. Graciano installed the steel framing in the space, and then gingerly attached anchors and stainless steel rods to the back of the tile surface to keep it from descending further. Due to the tight confines of the space and the need for significant welding, great care was taken to contain sparks and minimize the possibility of fire in the attic. Accessing the building was also a challenge, as one of the structure’s slips is still used for ferry service to Governor’s Island. “We had to make sure our activities didn’t cause disruption for people using the building,” commented Dino Rossi, Graciano’s Vice President of New York Operations. “We scaffolded beneath the arch and shored it up while we were working on it. Scaffolding and shoring was coordinated as not to disrupt the work of other trades.”

Once the new steelwork was installed in the attic over the arch, repair work to the tile surface could be started. “We injected grout with high adhesive and low compressive qualities to literally glue the arch together,” observed Dino. “We also installed an expansion joint to accommodate movement generated by structural and thermal stresses that are exacerbated by the harsh winter conditions found in lower Manhattan along the East River. Finally, we repaired and replaced the damaged tiles, and successfully replicated the patterns and color variations of the glazes. When the job is complete, you’ll never know the repairs were made.”

“Guastavino tile installations are particularly difficult to work on,” added Glenn Foglio, President of Graciano Corp. “Finding craftsmen who understand how architectural elements, such as this arch, are assembled is not easy. But, fortunately, we do have the right craftsmen for this project. They were instrumental in a previous Guastavino restoration several years ago on a much larger project – the Queensboro Bridge.