Immigrant Architect: Rafael Guastavino and the American Dream

by Berta de Miguel, Kent Diebolt, and Virginia Lorente, ill. Virginia Lorente (Tilbury, 2020, 60 pp., ages 8-12)

I picked up this volume several months ago in a search for architect biographies. It was only today, upon taking a closer look, that I realized its perfect suitability for Hispanic Heritage Month. The two Rafael Guastavinos, father and son, immigrated from Spain in 1881. The elder Guastavino was a successful architect who brought to the U.S. a distinctive building method that would leave a permanent mark on American architecture and engineering.

This award-winning title contains more text than most picture books, but the first-person narration ably draws readers into the ups and downs of the immigrant experience and the pair’s eventual, monumental success. The elder Guastavino, with his limited language facility, initially struggled to gain credibility, while barely supporting himself and his son. Finally, however, his designs commanded enough attention to win contracts for the Boston Public Library and the first subway station in New York. His son began working for the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company at age fifteen.

The company’s ingenious contribution was a dome uniquely designed to be lightweight and fireproof. It was an invaluable contribution to America’s burgeoning, fire-prone cities of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

The text and illustrations in Immigrant Architect supply accessible explanations of the concept, as well descriptions of many of the Guastavinos’ projects. In all, the company placed its signature ceilings in more than a thousand buildings in ten countries. More than 400 of these reside in New York, one of which is in the main hall of the immigration station on Ellis Island.

An afterword that reads as if it could be a story in itself concerns the architect credited with preserving a major contribution to the Guastavino legacy. In 1965, with evidently serendipitous timing, professor George Collins went searching for the designer of a dome at Columbia University. He ended by salvaging a trove of architectural drawings from a dumpster behind the by-then defunct Guastavino factory.  

Not surprisingly, the authors of Immigrant Architect are themselves architects, one of whom is also the book’s illustrator. Lorente, who lives in Valencia, Spain, supplies an avant-garde aesthetic uniquely suited to the innovative Guastavinos. De Miguel is also a native of Spain and, like the Guastavinos, a New York immigrant.

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