Another Immigrant Architect

While the history and work of the Guastavino Company is well researched and documented, including the newest piece of literature recently published. Its title “Immigrant Architect” made me think of another, less successful, immigrant architect: John Comerma. John Comerma was also a Spanish thin-tile vault builder, yet he was not able to bend the American system to his needs quite as well as the Guastavinos did. 

Imagine for a moment. You grow up in Spain in the late 19th century. Tile vaults are nothing new, they have been around for centuries. Maybe you even grew up in a family of vault builders, a trade typically passed on from generation to generation. For whatever reason you or your family decide to take the boat across the ocean to New York. After arriving, you continue what you do best: building tile vaults. First you work for a boss named Guastavino. When he dies and his son takes over, you decide to start your own tile-vault building business that takes off. You continue a tradition, employing some of your family including your namesake cousin John Comerma. Until one day, you get sued and are put out of business because your former boss patented a centuries-old Mediterranean trade in the U.S.

Part of the paragraph above is speculation, but the gist of it stands. We know for sure that John Comerma was a Spanish national who worked for the Guastavino Company building tile vaults. Whether he learned the trade in the US or not, John “Copycat” Comerma founded The Comerma Company Inc. in 1909, advertising the construction of “Arches, Domes and Vaults Built of Cohesive Tiles.” He was in business with his cousin, John Comerma, and others. One of the first projects of their company was the 1909 Sheffield Farms Dairy factory on W 125th Street in Manhattanville, NY.* The company also worked on a series of other projects in and around New York City, like the St. Thomas Parish House in Manhattan and a trade school in Mount Vernon, NY. They even ventured into Northfield Massachusetts to build vaults at Kenarden Hall at Thomas Aquinas College. Most notably, the company built the impressive dome at St. Anselm Church in the Bronx (1917). 

In 1885 Guastavino Sr. had filed a patent for fireproof construction using tile vaults that expired in 1905. In 1908, five months after the death of Rafael Guastavino Sr., his son Rafael Guastavino Jr. filed a new patent claiming improvements to thin tile masonry construction. It was approved in 1910, a year after the formation of the Comerma Company. In the ensuing decade the Comerma Company lost a series of court cases which upheld their violation of this 1910 patent. In 1917 the Supreme Court of New York ruled that the Comerma Company could no longer build using tile vaults, despite John Comerma’s patent for his own improved version of tile-arch construction with interlocking tiles (issued in 1917). The Guastavino Company subsequently took over Comerma Company projects, such as the expansion of Prentis Hall, and aside from a 1921 patent for “fireproof wall board” very little else can be found about the fate of the Comerma Company**. 

Overall it is interesting to reflect on how the Guastavinos brought a construction technique that had been pervasively used for centuries in the Mediterranean to the U.S., exploiting patent law to commercialize it***. As a result, these type of vaults are inextricably linked to the Guastavino name in North-America, whereas in Europe they are often simply referred to as Catalan**** vaults. This begs the question whether other Mediterranean immigrants like Comerma could have further expanded the prevalence of tile-vaulting in the U.S., if Guastavino hadn’t gained the legal right to monopolize its production.

* The Sheffield Farms building is now Columbia University’s Prentis Hall and has had an intriguing history, ranging from milk pasteurization factory to nuclear testing facility and Arts School. It currently still houses one of the first electronic sound synthesizers. The building’s future is engulfed in uncertainly due to development pressures from Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion project.

**While litigation was ongoing, Comerma also patented a few other products, such as an acoustical plaster “Amremoc” – likely trying to compete with the Guastavino Company’s popular acoustical products. At least the Guastavinos wisely named their product akoustolith, rather than choosing “Onivatsuag,” a semordnilap of their family name as Comerma had. 

*** Granted with some alterations like the introduction of Portland Cement, and arguably taking it to another level architecturally.

**** The name Catalan vaulting in turn is not particularly accurate, as these vaults were first popularized in Spain in the region around Valencia.

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