A part of the Mass General experience is walking by someone or something on a daily basis that has won international accolades. While that’s often a person or a new technology, sometimes it’s a piece of history.

On the first floor of the Lunder building, the ceilings in part of the Emergency Department actually predate the building. They were from the Clinics building built in 1902 and incorporated into Lunder when it was built in 2011. The ceiling tiles and their vaulted arches are a hallmark of the renowned architect Rafael Guastavino, and in 2020, Mass General joined the Guastavino Alliance, an organization of places that still have Guastavino tile. 

Guastavino ceilings are made of thin terracotta tiles which form self-supporting arches. This style, a variation on the technique called Catalan vaulting, was known for elegance and practicality. It was used in places ranging from cathedrals and churches to a New York City subway station and the Oyster Bar restaurant in Grand Central, to the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, to the Nebraska state capitol building. Several of the ceilings were specifically engineered to reduce excess sound in busy places. 

Rafael Guastavino was born in Spain and immigrated to the United States, bringing this tile technique with him and patenting it in 1892. He later founded the Guastavino Tile Company in Woburn, Massachusetts with his son, also an architect. The two of them created over 600 tile domes and vaults in 31 states and 6 countries between 1882 to 1943. 

A number of architects have worked to ensure that his work is given the recognition it deserves. MIT professor John Ochsendorf and other Guastavino enthusiasts created a traveling exhibit titled “Palaces for the People: Guastavino & America’s Great Public Spaces” that has been shown in several buildings with Guastavino tile around the country. Seeing a Guastavino ceiling is a special treat for architecture fans. Boston boasts three, at the Boston Public Library, the Josiah Quincy Upper School, and Mass General. Currently, Mass General is the only health care institution that’s a member of the Guastavino Alliance.