Apple Tart, and Rafael Guastavino

Apple tart, Mama ía blogI am mesmerized by the person of Rafael Guastavino, and I’ve been wanting to write about him for a while. This apple tart made me think of him.

Rafael Guastavino Moreno was a Valencian architect that lived between the 19th and 20th century, and whom, upon his death, the Herald Tribune baptized as “New York’s Architect”, a testament to the more than  300 buildings by him in the Big Apple -that’s probably why this apple tart reminded me of him. This almost unknown Valencian architect, a universal Spaniard, is probably one of the most important architects and builders we’ve ever known, with more than 1000 buildings in 40 states. Yet, many decades later, not even his relatives in Valencia knew that he had achieved the American dream.

La Lonja, mama ía blog

La Lonja de la Seda, The Silk Exchange, Valencia (2)

Rafael Guastavino was born in Valencia in 1842, in Calle Puñalerías, a street that ran alongside the cathedral but has since disappeared. The fifth child in a family of 14 children, he was the son of a carpenter and the grandson of a piano builder, and played violin, in a city with a great musical tradition. At age 17 he moved to Barcelona to study in the Builders School, what nowadays would be the equivalent of the School of Architecture. He arrived in Barcelona in the 1860s, a moment of great expansion and the golden age of architecture in Barcelona. Even before graduating, he worked in the construction of a small theater, developing an ingenious solution to build domed ceilings. What he did was, taking as a base the traditional Valencian domed ceiling, he incorporated an interlocking system of bricks and mortar that produced robust, fireproof structures. As a child, he probably watched as the remodeling of the Silk Exchange in Valencia (La Lonja de la Seda) took place. An impressive Gothic building constructed between the 15th and 16th centuries, its domed ceilings are supported by gorgeous twisted columns. Rafael Guastavino must have learned from those designs and method of construction, and applied it to his own creative designs, with outstanding results. Another influence must have been his own greatgreatgrandfather, architect Juan José Nadal (1690-1783), who designed and built the Saint James Church in Villarreal (Castellón), a large church that Guastavino must have visited in his youth. Saint James Church incorporated the “tile arch system,” that Guastavino developed, patented, and was ultimately famous for. His innovation was developed further by other architects like Gaudi, a contemporary, in the modernist Catalan style. But the first formulas were Guastavino’s.

Boston Public Library, Mama ía blog

Boston Public Library (9)

A period of personal turmoil in his life, with the death of his parents and a number of his siblings, and the abandonment of his wife, who, tired of his infidelities, left him and moved to Argentina with their three daughters, encouraged Guastavino to turn his life around. At the age of 40 he moved to America with his nine-year-old son, his lover Paulina Roig and her two daughters. Guastavino arrived in New York with considerable money, which he soon lost, and without speaking one word of English. Their first winter in New York was very harsh, and the customs very different, so much so that Paulina and her daughters decided to abandon this adventure and return to Barcelona. Rafael was alone in a city he barely knew and where he could not communicate. Yet his entrepreneurial spirit, incredible talent, enthusiasm and energy, made him start anew. Guastavino was a good drawer, and soon found his first job illustrating for a magazine. While he worked for the magazine, he entered a building contest and won, with a project that causes admiration. With the monetary award, he purchased land in Manhattan and built apartment buildings. His career as an architect in America had begun.

Queensboro market, Mama ía blog

Queensboro Market, New York (14)

With his son, Rafael Guastavino Espósito, he developed 24 patents, among them the tile arch system that made him famous, used for constructing robust, fireproof, self-supporting arches and architectural vaults using interlocking terra-cotta tiles and layers of mortar. After the great fires in Chicago in 1871 and in Boston in 1872, the United States was under great psychosis towards fire. When this quasi eccentric architect made a model of his domed ceiling and, after calling the press, set it on fire, in the great Valencian tradition (see Fallas here), the investors, and the people, were sold.

Guastavino worked on a number of projects, but his major break came with the construction of the domed and vaulted ceilings of the Boston Public Library, probably one of the most beautiful buildings of the 19th century. His reputation as an architect skyrocketed.

In 1889 he founded the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company, ran by him first, then by his son, until 1962. The company worked in all kinds of buildings, from schools to universities to hospitals to restaurants, hotels, banks, bridges, tunnels, stations, homes. It is not rare in New York City to walk around the corner and bump into a Guastavino structure.

Great Hall Ellis Island, Mama ía

Great Hall or Registry Room at Ellis Island, New York (16)

St John the Divine, Mama ía blog

St John the Divine Church, New York (17)

His legacy as an architect is left in such important public New York buildings as, to name a few, the Grand Central Terminal, Carnegie Hall, the American Museum of Natural History, Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, the Queensborough Bridge and its market, the Great Hall or Registry Room at Ellis Island, the City Hall Station, Pennsylvania Station, the Elephant House at the Bronx Zoo, or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, with the largest dome created. This dome in fact was intended to be a temporary structure, to be replaced by a high central tower, but in 2009 this temporary structure celebrated its 100th anniversary of construction, a testament to its strength and solidity.

With regard to the Registry Room at Ellis Island, this is the first place he stepped in when he arrived in the United States. When he was commissioned to build its ceiling, he understood that stepping in that hall when arriving in America had to be an inspiring moment, and built it accordingly. The strength of his structure is evident in the fact that, when the building was abandoned for over 25 years, during which the roof disappeared completely, and the structure was submitted to rain, snow, ice and melting, over and over throughout the years, only about 20 tiles had to be replaced.

Pool Biltmore mansion, Mama ía blog

Indoor pool at Biltmore Mansion, Asheville, NC

His buildings and ceilings can also be found in other cities, like the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, The Boston Public Library, Philadelphia’s St. Francis DeSales Roman Catholic Church, Pittsburgh’s Union Station, Nebraska State Capital, and the Biltmore Mansion in Asheville, where I first discovered this great Valencian architect. In fact Rafael Guastavino died in Asheville, and he’s buried in the crypt of the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, which he designed in 1905. Both the basilica and Guastavino’s own estate, built in Black Mountain, North Carolina, are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Rafael Guastavino embodies the American dream. He arrived in America with a significant amount of money, lost it in the crisis of 1884, had to sell his house and his violin, and he resurfaced from the ashes, stronger than before. As all adventurers with great talent, energy and enthusiasm, but not the best financial foresight, the adversities never fazed him. Both Rafael Guastavino Moreno and his son Rafael Guastavino Espósito changed the course of architecture in the United States, following the building techniques of their native Valencia. They established a solid architecture, with structures very different than the wood ones used in the United States before their arrival. Guastavino introduced an impressive and inexpensive alternative to iron beam construction in the U.S. that resulted in interiors with soaring arches and open spaces. His tile work was low maintenance, fireproof, and functional.

Guastavino was without a doubt the first Spanish architect that crossed frontiers and earned international recognition, even if he first only appeared in architecture books in 1972. Fortunately, he has been rediscovered.

After I visited Asheville and the Biltmore Mansion in 2016 and heard about this architect for the first time, I longed to find out more about him, and wondered why he was an unknown in Spain. Coincidentally, a couple of months later, the program “Imprescindibles” from RTVE, Spanish public television, dedicated a program to this national treasure, in which they also recognized that they had only recently discovered him (click here for a link to the show in Spanish).

How many more Spaniards made history away from home? I wonder.

Appe tart, Mama ía blog

Apple tart, mama ía blogApple tart, mama ía blog

Apple tart, mama ía blogApple tart, mama ía blog

Apple tart, mama ía blog

My sister Paula says that America smells like apple pie. But our mom made apple tart, this apple tart, very popular and found in most fine bakeries in Spain. Spanish apple tart is thin, has a layer of apple compote and, in many cases, incorporates orange blossom water (in fact, many Valencian desserts incorporate it). It is best eaten warm or at room temperature, and since it doesn’t contain that much sugar, I love to eat it for breakfast, alongside a strong espresso. I brushed the apples the Spanish way, with unflavored gelatin, but you can brush it with apricot sauce, as explained in the recipe. I hope you like it.

Apple tart, mama ía blog

Apple tart, mama ía blogApple tart, mama ía blog

Apple tart, Mama ía blogApple tart, mama ía blog

Apple tart, mama ía blogApple tart, mama ía blogApple tart, mama ía blog



Tarta de Manzana

For a 11.5-inch round tart (I made one 7-inch and one 6-inch round tart)
               For the crust:
2 cups flour
8 Tbs butter, diced and chilled
6 to 8 Tbs ice cold water
1/2 tsp salt
                For the filling:
7 medium apples
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 Tbs orange blossom water
3 Tbs apricot jam
3 Tbs water


Make the crust:

In a large bowl, mix the flour and salt. Add the butter. Using your fingertips or a pastry blender, incorporate the butter into the flour mixture until it becomes crumbly. Make a well in the center and add 3 or 4 tablespoons of ice water. Incorporate with your fingertips until a dough forms (keep adding more water as needed for a dough that holds together).

If making two tarts like I did, divide the dough in half and shape into 1-inch thick discs. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes (if making only one tart, you don’t need to divide the dough).

Meanwhile, make the apple filling.

Peel and dice 4 apples. In a small saucepan, combine the apples with the sugar and the orange blossom water and cook over low heat until the apples are soft, 10 to 12 minutes. Using a fork or a potato masher, purée the mixture to make a compote. Set aside to cool.

On a lightly floured work surface, gently roll out one of the disks of dough into a circle about 1/8-inch thick and about 1 1/2 inch wider than the diameter of the tart pan. Ease the dough round into a tart pan. Trim the overhang dough with a small knife or with your fingers. Prick the bottom with a fork, cover the pan with plastic wrap and freeze for about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375ºF.

Peel, core, and thinly slice the remaining apples. Spread the apple compote evenly over the tart bases. Distribute the apple slices nicely over the compote (I did it in concentric circles starting at the center, and overlapping the slices, but you can distribute them less uniformly). Bake in the center of the oven for about 20 minutes.

In a small saucepan, combine the apricot jam with the water. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 2 or 3 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh colander and discard the solids.

After 20 minutes of baking, gently brush the apple slices all over with the apricot sauce and continue to bake for another 10 minutes or so, until the apple slices are golden brown.

Let the tart cool on a wire rack before serving.

Note: with the leftover dough I cut out small hearts, placed them in the center of the tart, and brushed them with an egg wash before baking. This is strictly optional.

Note 2: Instead of apricot sauce, I used unflavored gelatin. It you decide to prepare it this way, follow the instructions in the gelatin pouch, and add it to the apples AFTER the tart is baked, 28 to 30 minutes.


Guastavino brick, Mama ía blog


Photo credits:

(1, 13) (2) (3, 7, 9) (4) (5) (6,8) (10) (11) (12) (14) (15)architectmagazine (16)ArchitecturalDigest (17) (18)Guastavino_Collins Collection, Avery Lib. (19)Jen G. Bowen (20)


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