Guastavino Tiles in Washington, DC

As part of the public history practicum course I am a member of the team partnered with the DC History Center. Our team is working with the DC History Center to produce a digital exhibit detailing the history of the Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square. 

Image Credit: Rosie Cain

The Carnegie Library building was funded by Andrew Carnegie to house the DC Public Library in 1899 and served as the main library from 1903-1972. The Carnegie library was one of the first buildings in Washington, DC to be non-segregated for public use, welcoming Black and white library patrons equally throughout its many years. Currently, The DC History Center’s headquarters are housed on the second floor of the building, while an Apple store is located on the first floor. The digital exhibit my practicum team is producing for the DC History Center will have multiple components including detailing the architectural history, the social history, and the history of the organizations that have inhabited the building; the DC Public Library, UDC, The DC History Center, and now Apple. I would be interested in taking on a specific component; both out of interest for the topic and project and to ‘double dip’ with the digital project for this course.

This proposed component is a map of public buildings in Washington, DC that feature Guastavino tiles. Guastavino tiles are an intricate architectural process from the Medertaranian adapted and popularized by Raphael Guastavino Sr. and Raphael Guastavino Jr. in the late 1800s and early 1900s. John Ochsendorf’s 2014 article for Structure Magazine, titled “Guastavino Masonry Shells” provides a detailed background of the architectural technique. This feature can be seen in multiple prominent buildings throughout the United States; including Grand Central Station in New York City and St. Paul’s Chapel on the Columbia University campus (pictured bellow). This article from Untapped New York, features 15 of the city’s 200 plus buildings that have this architectural feature. 

Image credit: Untapped New York by Michelle Young

The Carnegie library building is one of multiple buildings in Washington, DC that feature Guastavino tiles. Our project partners have expressed interest in connecting the Carnegie library building with the other buildings throughout the city, and my proposed map would aim to do that. I plan to create an interactive map of Washington, DC that has pins of the public buildings that have Guastavino tiles. The viewer would then be able to click on a pin and a pop up would provide information to the viewer about the building with an image of that building’s Guastavino tile work, potentially with a link to the building’s website or the organization of the website within. A resource I have identified as a possible platform to create this map is StoryMapsJS from Knight Lab, as I know our team plans to incorporate other Knight Lab resources into the digital exhibit, as they appear to be easy to integrate into WordPress. However, StoryMapsJS may be more linear, going from place to place in a preset order, and less self guided than I hope for the project to be, and thus I may need to look into other software to create this map. 

Readings and tools we have examined so far throughout this semester will help to guide this project. Tools that we’ve looked at such as History Pin and Cleveland Historical, that Raphael covered for the class, are wonderful examples of what I am envisioning for this project. Martyn Jessop’s Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity, argues that spatial visualization can be useful to digital humanities and can provide an added interactive layer to scholarship that just written text does not. Cameron Blevins “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space” is another convincing example of how interactive digital maps can add to user experience and understanding of topics. 

As someone who is incredible directionally challenged and spatially unaware, interactive maps are extremely helpful to me and I think they are a great tool to connect users to the histories of Guastavino tiles and the buildings that house these features throughout the city.

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3 Replies to “Guastavino Tiles in Washington, DC”

  1. Rosie, this is a very cool project and I learned a lot just reading your post. It would be interesting if you turned the map into a sort of scavenger hunt too to engage people.

  2. Great ideas here Rosie! It’s great that with the DC History Center you have a client to work directly with on this. That will be helpful in getting input from them as to what they think would resonate and be most useful as you go. It also provides you with a ready made vector to reach an audience through their ongoing efforts to interpret the history of the city.

    I think you’re looking at the right set of tools to explore for mapping. It may be worth playing around with HistoryPin a bit for this as they have features in the tool that can support both just viewing a collection of pins/images on a map and for creating tours through a set of pins.

    One of the questions that you’re project brought to mind for me is what do you think the take away message or argument that emerges from seeing the locations and relationships of these tiles in context. Like does their use in the buildings indicate a particular way of trying to present those buildings? Is there something that emerges from the sequence in which they appear in different buildings? What does it have to do with the history of the design of the city. I’m sure there are emergent themes like that which you can draw out and feature and it will be really interesting to see what they are.

    1. Hi Dr. Owens. Thank you for these comments. As I’ve been researching the buildings and playing around with getting them plotted on a map (I’ve been working with StoryMaps.Arcgis so far) some emerging themes/arguments that have popped up have been how these buildings show the success of the Guastavino tile company. There were so many buildings that popped up in such a short time span, the company’s success is evident. I think the buildings also show the progression, both through time (when the buildings were built) and space (where in the city they were built) of the beaux-arts architectural style, or “city beautiful movement” that swept DC. I think some writing and explanation of these things will need to accompany the map but as I’m beginning to work on it I’m very excited about the ways visually seeing the buildings on a map is evidence of these themes.

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