What’s on exhibit lately at the Guggenheim Museum? Well, amongst other things, it’s me. I’m typically on view for a week or two during the short interval between shows known as the changeover period. Now in my third year there, I am kept busy restoring/repairing the museum’s iconic spiraling terrazzo floors. How did this occur?
I was exhibiting my latest terrazzo furniture designs at NYC’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) as I do every May (this month will be my 17th show there). Into my booth came the facilities manager of the Guggenheim. She told me they were having difficulty finding someone in New York to do some terrazzo work for them, and were considering importing someone from Italy. I went to take a look with her.
The Guggenheim Museum is a breathtaking structure, and Frank Lloyd Wright was way out in front of the current trend of sculptural architecture. In addition to the superlative art collections housed within, the building itself is a destination, and it is a major tourist and art lovers attraction. A great deal of money has been spent in recent years to restore the museum, especially the exterior—and the structure looks great. The terrazzo floor, however, needed a little TLC. Some patching had been done over the years, but it was of variable quality. What I like about the staff I have met is that they genuinely care about this historic structure, and seek to maintain or improve it.
I effected some initial terrazzo repairs and they liked my work. They agreed to pay my hourly rate, and so I came on board.
Terrazzo restoration is quite different than the pre-cast terrazzo that I have specialized in since 1979. A lot of what I do at the museum is essentially oversized dental work. The parallels between tools and technique are striking. As is the material being restored—teeth are largely composed of calcium and marble terrazzo chips are calcium carbonate. I also perform extractions.
Partly because of the slope of the floors, some of the art work and constructed exhibits are mechanically bolted to the terrazzo floors and attached with anchors. A typical anchor repair involves wet boring around the anchor with the smallest diameter of a variety of hollow-core diamond bits. Depth is one-half inch. The plug containing the anchor is extracted. The new bore (or cavity) is cleaned, then filled with a matching terrazzo mix. The new plug is cast just proud of the surface, and after hardening, it is ground down to grade. Next step is grouting the patch with the colored cement matrix to fill in any small voids. Lastly, the hardened grout is fine-ground to 120 grit.
Some of my technology for this work is beguilingly simple. My wet-drilling jig is made of two one-by-twelve boards with pre-bored holes for each diamond bit diameter. This helps me drill perpendicular to the floor. I prefer to grind the hardened new terrazzo plug dry. I fashioned a grinding shroud from a cardboard box with a hole for a vacuum cleaner hose. Dust control is important.
I have performed hundreds of these repairs, and a good repair will blend in and not distract from the art. I now have a collection of extracted anchors. It’s kind of like a personal hurt locker. Tapcons, lag shields, plastic anchors, wedge anchors, even antique looking fiber plugs I have never seen before.
Different tasks are presented often enough to make things interesting: resurfacing a bathroom floor; filling in the valve boxes for Frank Lloyd Wright’s original hydronic radiant heat floor system; or the present assignment of filling in the voids of the ornamental stainless steel grates in the main entrance with a black terrazzo mix. These grates, which surround the large bronze dedication medallion at the museum’s entrance, collect dirt and catch the occasional stiletto heel. Filling in the voids should remediate the situation.
The museum is an exciting place to work. Shows are planned three years in advance and all exhibits and installations are highly orchestrated. Teams of specialized carpenters, plasterers, painters, and art wranglers unbuild and build new installations within tight timelines. These people are generally talented and well educated. Many have art backgrounds. I had no idea of the huge amount of work that is done between shows. They practically construct a new museum inside for each show, then re-plaster and repaint the whole place. I particularly enjoyed watching the multi-story oval aluminum superstructure erected for the James Turrell show.
An unexpected occurrence has been how often museum personnel have approached me, introduced themselves, and told me with some sincerity how much they appreciate the work I do. From the museum director, department heads, and on through museum guides, many have thanked me and expressed their desire that I stay on. This is altogether pleasant, and the recognition is gratifying.
So do come to the Guggenheim Museum and see a show. It’s worth your while. Come look for my work. I’ll be pleased if you can’t find it.
The following are highlights of my recent visit to the historic Art Deco district in Miami Beach, Florida, also known as South Beach. Photos are organized into two sections: Terrazzo and Architecture.
Larios on the Beach (Ocean Drive). This dazzling terrazzo tile floor certainly caught my eye. It features an aggregate mix of crushed seashells, blue sea glass, and cross sections of spiraling nautilus seashells in a neutral gray matrix. If I were assigned to create these rectangular tiles, I would cast blocks of solid terrazzo with the above aggregate and matrix mix, and include whole spiral seashells in the mold. Later I would run a diamond saw blade through the block and slice off tile-thickness rectangular slabs. That’s how to get the cross sections. The highly designed interior is replete with polished, stunning terrazzo surfaces. I just had to inquire who owned this fabulous restaurant. The answer: The seven-time Grammy award-winning Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio, who designed the space. (left)
A richly patterned geometric terrazzo design in the former Chase Federal Savings & Loan Bank. Now a Banana Republic and very tastefully repurposed. I sense that this striking floor is probably a relatively recent installation. (right)
An exquisite geometric-patterned terrazzo hotel lobby floor in excellent condition with a bright polish. Wearing quite well… (left)
The Marlin Hotel is a typical Miami Beach Art Deco gem. Smallish in size, it features a “Rule of Three” Deco façade with ornamental relief work depicting sub-aquatic marine life. The ornamental friezes are painted in “Tropical Deco” pastel colors. There is geometrically-patterned terrazzo flooring both in and outside. The corners of the building are rounded in “Streamline” style. Concrete “eyebrows” projected over windows provide shade. The perimeter of the façade is framed in blue neon lighting–very striking at night.
Better seen in the next image are the decorative steel railings featuring wave patterns and portholes or seafoam (your choice). Also note the use of native coral wall cladding and Deco wall sconces. (right)
This structure, awaiting renovation, shows a simple formula for elegance on what is basically an inexpensive flat white stucco façade. Two vertical pilasters connected by a decorative steel railing that sits on an “eyebrow”; a line of ornamental relief squares above the second story windows; and a scalloped cornice. One can of lime-proof pastel blue paint highlights all relief elements. Simple, elegant, and relatively inexpensive to create. (left)
Door grille using geometric patterns (think portholes). Interior terrazzo floor visible through glass. That’s me taking this picture in the reflection. (left)
Note use of perforated decorative concrete block for ventilation in center, as well as truncated “campanile” style pediment that is reminiscent of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. (right)
This recent visit was a delicious appetizer. I now have some questions that seek answers. Who were the artisans who installed these acres of colorful, decorative terrazzo? (We are kindred spirits.) Where did they come from? Italy? The Caribbean? (I myself, for example, learned to do terrazzo in Puerto Rico.) Was there some cross pollination between the Art Deco architecture in nearby Havana, Cuba and Miami Beach? This does seem apparent to me.
I will be exploring all this in the future. I look forward to my next visit to this exciting tropical locale.
I passed through Miami Beach in 1976 on my way to a 7-month trip through Central America. I had no particular interest in terrazzo until 1978. All I remember of Miami Beach was lots of aged retirees, many of whom were Jewish New Yorkers. The area looked somewhat bedraggled.
Years later, I became aware of the Miami Beach Art Deco District and the important part that terrazzo played in it. I designed and cast the Crescent Table in 1988 as my homage to this Tropical Art Deco. For this piece I employed a derivative tropical pastel color palette.
Fast forward to February 2015. On a recent trip to Florida, my wife and I did a detour to Miami Beach to see the historic Art Deco district and to look for terrazzo in particular.
We didn’t have to look hard. Terrazzo was everywhere, both inside and outside buildings, and replete with ornamental design.
It was all quite exciting. The Art Deco style buildings, many designed as hotels, had been restored and looked great. I ran from place to place, feeling mildly ecstatic, and took pictures. Many buildings were surprisingly small by today’s standards and were human scale. They were like so many gems, each perfect in their own unique design.
We located the Miami Design Preservation League, an outfit that is largely responsible for the preservation and restoration of this unique national treasure. They had books on the architectural history of Miami Beach. Looking through their indices, I saw no listings under terrazzo whatsoever. This is an egregious omission, in my opinion, and fairly typical as far as architectural books go. Similarly, in my research for this article, there was a dearth of online information about the ubiquitous decorative terrazzo in this historic district. We terrazzo people are largely undocumented, and I’m not talking about immigration.
The purpose of this blog is to start to tell some of these terrazzo backstories, including my own.
Speaking of backstories, I think it’s time for a bit of history on Miami Beach and the historic Art Deco area, sometimes called South Beach.
The most prominent character in the history of Miami Beach was the flamboyant Carl Fisher. Fisher became a millionaire from creating the first bright automobile headlights. He also created the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
On a trip to Florida in 1913, Fisher came across the barrier island of Miami Beach, which was then an undeveloped mangrove swamp. He envisioned a vacation destination for rich Northeners, along the lines of New Jersey’s Atlantic City. He provided the money to finish the bridge started by John Collins, that would connect it to the city of Miami. In its day, it was the longest wooden bridge in the world. In exchange, he received some of the real estate that Collins owned.
Fisher physically created Miami Beach. He cut down the vegetation, dredged up sand, and dumped it down to create flat acreage and additional acreage as landfill. He brought in topsoil from the Everglades and replanted this new environment.
Carl Fisher was quite clever at promoting his holdings, and soon Miami Beach was the place to go. Affluent Americans came and built fabulous homes on his land. All this promotion helped contribute to the Florida land boom of the mid 1920s, which featured a lot of speculation and unscrupulous practices by hucksters. Fisher made money, but in 1926, a hurricane leveled everything and shook his finances . With the crash of 1929, Fisher began to fade from view.
Around this time, many people moved to Miami Beach, including a robust population of Jews. Due to restrictive covenants, Jews were not permitted to live north of South Beach. Many of them started building small hotels in South Beach, and chose the Art Deco style, which was very popular at that time. The most prolific architects building in this idiom were Henry Hohauser and L. Murray Dickson. They used hurricane-proof materials such as concrete block, stucco, concrete and glass block. Hundreds of these structures were built.
By the 1970s these Deco buildings were aging and some buildings of historic value were being knocked down. A preservation effort was led by Barbara Capitman, and the Miami Design Preservation League was formed. The Art Deco district was put on the National Register of Historic Places, and this led to the preservation and restoration of this architecturally significant area.
Today there are 960 Art Deco buildings in this district. It is one of the areas with the most Art Deco buildings in the world, rivalled only by the elegant Art Deco apartment buildings on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, New York City, very near where I grew up.
What characterizes Miami Beach’s Tropical Art Deco architecture? These are masonry structures devised to resist tropical storms. Typically, there is the “Rule of Three”—a strong central element, flanked on either side by two similar structures. This creates a pleasing geometry. The buildings have what is sometimes called “the wedding cake” look. This includes the “icing” in the form of decorative relief friezes, usually made of stucco on the exterior. Glass block is a another distinctive element, as is the use of neon lights, which create a colorful and magical nightscape.
Tropical pastel colors are used, such as flamingo pink, seafoam green and turquoise, the color of the Caribbean Sea. In theory, these light colors were used to reflect some of the tropical heat. Another passive cooling element in these pre-air conditioning days were the “eyebrows” or concrete projections above windows that provided shade. Perforated decorative concrete block was used for ventilation as well. Also typical is the abundant use of colorful terrazzo flooring, often featuring bold geometric designs, both inside the buildings, as well as outside on their entry porches. The address or the name of the building may also be inlaid in the terrazzo.
Another strong theme is the “nautical” element. This is a seaside community, so the reference seems obvious. However, some of the most elegant Art Deco designs of the time were on the interiors of the luxurious trans-Atlantic ocean liners and reappear in the architecture. Porthole elements are common, and ornate metal railings evoke the ship’s railings.
Many of these buildings are just a few stories, so that elevators would not be a necessity.
Stay tuned for my next blog featuring a South Beach Art Deco tour, which is divided into two sections—Terrazzo and Architecture.
The world’s largest map is made out of colorful terrazzo. It appeared in the New York State Pavilion’s Tent of Tomorrow at the 1964 World’s Fair. This month marks the 50th Anniversary of that map and the World’s Fair.
I grew up in the Bronx, NY and, as a kid, visited the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Long before my long affair with terrazzo, the colorful terrazzo roadmap at the NY State Pavilion completely captured my imagination. Here’s that terrazzo story.
Governor Nelson Rockefeller hired architect Philip Johnson to design the NY State Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing, NY. This was subsequent to Johnson’s design for the State Theater at Lincoln Center, an earlier job done for the State. The Pavilion was the largest structure at the Fair. It consisted of an oval-shaped, open air construction called the Tent of Tomorrow, a circular theater building called Theaterama and three Astro-View towers. The tallest of these towers stood 226 feet high. All of these structures still stand.
The largest structure was the Tent of Tomorrow. This consisted of 16 concrete columns in oval plan, which supported a steel superstructure. One hundred feet up, cables supported multi-colored plexi-glass panels as its roof. The chief attraction at this huge assembly hall, which measured 250 feet x 320 feet, was its vast terrazzo roadmap. The map was 130 feet x 166 feet. It was sponsored by Texaco, the fuel retailing company, which has since been absorbed by Chevron. The terrazzo map showed, in scale, all 54,000 square miles of New York State. A group of Yale students projected a colorful Rand McNally map of New York onto template paper, and they meticulously traced all roads, placed names, and map symbols by hand. They included all Texaco gas station locations. The map consisted of 576 square precast panels, each 4 feet x 4 feet x 2 inches thick. Each weighed about 400 pounds. The cost, in 1964 dollars, was about $1 million.
The templates were sent to the Manhattan American Strip Company in Connecticut. They still exist, but are now in Staley, NC. They laid out all the divider strips and cut out plastic letters and numbers and did all the art work, which was assembled into 4-ft. square marine plywood boxes.
Port Morris Tile and Terrazzo of the Bronx, NY got the call to do the actual terrazzo precast work. The company still exists and does terrazzo work, but their primary focus today is natural stone. In accordance, they have changed their name to Port Morris Tile and Marble.
The terrazzo panels included interlocking hardware on the sides, and suction cups were used to lift them into position. They were bedded on sand over a concrete substrate. The entire map was supposed to be temporary with the idea being that at the end of the Fair, the precast panels would be removed and reassembled at a State building in Albany. This never occurred.
The terrazzo floor map was wildly popular. Six million people visited it. It has been called the first piece of public art to be commissioned.
While the rest of the Fair was demolished, the host New York State and New York City Pavilions were saved. The NYC Pavilion is now the Queens Museum, which still houses the sprawling scale model of New York City. Theaterama has been converted successfully into Queens Theater in the Park (adorably called Q-tip). The other structures have been neglected and ravaged by New York’s severe weather.
After the Fair, the Tent of Tomorrow with its terrazzo roadmap was used as a concert venue, then later as a skating rink, which probably helped degrade the terrazzo. The map was allowed to deteriorate over 50 years with no maintenance and some vandalism.
In 2009, students of the University of Pennsylvania program in historic preservation conserved four of the terrazzo panels showing Long Island. Two appeared at a show at the Queens Museum called Back on the Map. Included in the show was the history of terrazzo and the story behind the terrazzo roadmap. The University of Pennsylvania also carefully photographed each remaining terrazzo panel, which shows that the terrazzo is severely degraded.
In an effort to prevent further deterioration, the terrazzo roadmap has now been covered with landscaping cloth with gravel placed on top.
Earlier this year, I contacted a group called People for the Pavilion. They would like to see restoration of the Pavilion and some adaptive reuse of the structures. I offered to give them an opinion on the status of the terrazzo at no charge, but they told me the site was under the control of the Parks Department. One of the group’s founders, Mathew Silva, is close to completing a film on the Pavilion called Modern Ruin, a World’s Fair Pavilion. At present there is a controversy between those who would like to see the hulking neglected structures demolished, and those who want to see restoration, which has been estimated to cost $70 million for all structures. Queensboro president Melinda Katz is in favor of restoration. In the recent past, the Pavilion has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This designation does not unilaterally mean that it may not be demolished.
I would still like to view the terrazzo map to give a pro bono opinion as to the possibilities for restoration. But based on the photographs that I’ve seen, I believe it may be too late to restore the world’s largest map in its entirety.