The several hundred young Spanish ex-pats who, on May 21, 2011, gathered under the Washington Square Arch in New York City, to demand electoral and democratic reforms in their country, were probably unaware of one aspect of the symbolic import of the location they had chosen for their rally. The protesters, many of them highly qualified professionals who have come to New York because of a lack of opportunity in their native country, were standing and chanting in the shadow of the work of an illustrious predecessor.
In the early 1890s, the great American architect Stanford White was working, pro-bono, on the design and construction of the Washington Arch, on the north end of Washington Square Park, at the foot of where Fifth Avenue begins. The arch was to become a permanent replacement of a temporary structure that had been put up to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary (1889) of the inauguration of George Washington as the first President of the United States.
When the time came to subcontract the work inside and atop the arch –roofing, interior staircase and the room at the top of the monument– White and his colleagues turned to a company that had just recently (1889) been established: the Guastavino Fire Proof Construction Company.
The founder of this upstart company, Rafael Guastavino (1842-1908), was a Spanish immigrant who arrived to New York in 1881, in search, like so many others, of opportunities he could not find in his own country. He brought with him from his native Valencia an ancient Mediterranean technique for creating vast light-weight and fire-proof vaulted spaces, using tiles and mortar. He refined and patented this technique, just in time to benefit from the boom in construction of vast public buildings with large vaulted interior spaces. Guastavino’s visible work can be enjoyed at scores of sites throughout the city: in Grand Central Terminal, Ellis Island, even at the Elephant House at the Bronx Zoo, for example.
But perhaps the best emblem of the constant if hidden history of talented and hardworking Spaniards seeking new opportunities in Greenwich Village and New York, is the invisible contribution made by this immigrant from Spain to the landmark Washington Arch.
“Guastavino Co: the reinvention of public space in New York” exhibition website, here.
New York Times slideshow of Guastavino work, here.