Monday, October 10, 2011

Grand Central Oyster Bar & Guastavino Tile

Once in a while my life has a moment of synchronicity when everything feels aligned and a sense of peace washes over me.  There is no engraved personal invitation or an explanatory movie trailer prior to these moments; the glorious moment just glides in as a gift and I can choose either to enjoy it or over analyze it.  One such moment recently occurred at an unlikely location: the Grand Central Oyster Bar. The background to this moment is worth elucidating.

One day a couple of years ago, while living on Long Island's south shore, I ran through a nearby neighborhood which has charming historic homes. On one street in particular, nearly every waterfront home is breathtaking; but, as I crossed over a little bridge, a two-story brick Mediterranean-style villa captured my attention. For weeks. I found myself 'in the neighborhood' quite often and even researched it online [it was for sale].  The plain exterior did not do justice to the mesmerizing tiled interior. Aptly named the Tile House, this 4000-square foot home was built in 1912 by Rafael Guastavino, Jr., a name that links to pretty much all of my favorite places in Manhattan. 


Rafael Guastavino Sr. emigrated with his son in 1881 from Barcelona, Spain [Guastavino, Sr was born in Valencia]. Guastavino Sr., a trained architect, became credited as the inventor of the "Guastavino Arch" used in the construction of the New York City subway system. In 1889, he and his son, who had apprenticed under him, founded the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company.  Guastavino Sr. became known for his tile work, a system in which he adeptly used thin, interlocking tiles with layers of mortar to construct supporting arches.  Remarkably, the company acquired 24 patents for this system during its years of operation. Guastavino Jr. also became famous for his own inventions.  His craftmanship is evident at the Tile House where he even had a separate little structure which housed a kiln for his experiments making tile.  

The Guastavinos influenced thousands of structures and my little blog does not begin to scratch the surface.  Of the many New York structures they influenced, some happen to be my favorite places: 

Alexander Hamilton Custom House [ this building has a Catalonian specialty of stair vaulting; the stairs are constructed using hard burned clay tiles and there are no metal supports]; Carnegie Hall; the Elephant Pavilion at the Bronx Zoo; the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; Grant's Tomb; the Museum of Natural History; and of course, Grand Central Station.

The expansive open space of Grand Central Station feels as relaxing as the Roman Baths that influenced the design. When you step into the entrance way to the Grand Central Oyster Bar, it feels more intimate without feeling claustrophobic. Your eyes cannot resist the aesthetically teasing design that zig-zags its way up the arches and ceilings. When you walk inside the restaurant, besides being overwhelmed by the smell of shellfish, the spaciousness and sensuality is striking.  Neutral toned smooth and textured tiles enhance the comfort created by wood panels on the walls inside the restaurant and the adjacent saloon.  In the main dining area the vaulted ceilings appear to play with light and create a dreamlike atmosphere. This space feels alive and timeless.

The Oyster Bar is almost 100 years old. In late February 1913, the same month Grand Central Station began service, Grand Central Oyster Bar opened its doors for business from patrons who were long distance travelers and commuters.  Over time, though, train travel decreased and the restaurant [and station] fell into disrepair. By 1972 the Oyster Bar was bankrupt and remained empty until 1974 when it was revitalized.  In 1997 the restaurant suffered an immense fire that destroyed the entire restaurant but not the structure.  It was quickly renovated and has continued operating where it reportedly serves about 5 million oysters a year!
After researching the Tile House and then discovering a similar thread of artistry in all these other places that had captivated me, I could not wait to visit the Oyster Bar. Sitting in the main room I could take a moment to really see and feel the details of the design and the space.  What had drawn me to that particular house on Awixa, or what had motivated me to learn more about its architect became irrelevant. What matters is that we follow what we are drawn to and recognize, in the structure of our lives, we are placing our own tiles, in a design unique to us.