It was May 2014 when I first looked at the encaustic tile vestibule floor at 129 West 78 Street in Manhattan. The townhouse had originally been built by Raphael Guastavino in 1886 and had undergone a comprehensive restoration just prior to our involvement. It was not until March 2018 that we finished the installation.
The area of the floor measured 2x 5 ft., 10 square feet. I am not in the tile business, but I am known for tinkering around with odd small projects. I was tempted by the challenge, by the history of the property, by the enthusiasm of the owner, and by the chance to work with the restoration architect with whom we have enjoyed a number of heritage projects.
The design is a mix of ornamental tiles with a majority of monochrome colors. Blue, white, orange, and several shades of brown. The tiles were manufactured by the American Encaustic Tile Company in Zanesville, OH.
First task was removal of the tile. Over the years there had been several butchered jobs of fixing, because of which some areas of the tile came up intact, while other areas, which were held in place with a hard mortar, were not so fortunate. We ended up with a jumble of pieces of tile. All of the pieces were carefully cleaned of mortar and soiling -- cleaned several times. The assembly quickly became a headache of a puzzle. For tile that was missing I temporarily made full-size pieces out of poplar wood. Once they were laid out on the workbench, it was easier to wrap our heads around the object at hand.
Our task was to locate encaustic tile to match the existing. We spent several months looking around, asking around, wandering around but were not able to locate a match. It was suggested that we go to Ohio and dig around, or to New Orleans and explore architectural remnant shops. Travel was way out of budget, and we were supposed to be making a semblance of a living with our work. We also experimented with several options to replicate the tile -- short of going into the encaustic tile business. If the owner had not decided to sell the property we might be still looking.
In the end the design compromise was to select a new gray porcelain tile that would accent but not overwhelm the underlying original design. Procuring that specified tile took an entire day of travel. Then dealing with the new tile became an issue in itself. It is more difficult to cut porcelain tile than ceramic tile. This was news to us. The gray tile was also thinner.
We wanted to reduce the amount of time spent in the field for installation. This is an approach that one gets used to when you work in New York City, particularly when the task is in a place where people will want to walk sooner rather than later. So we opted to make panels of the tile. For this we glued the tile to a nylon mesh. Each time we made a step forward, we ran into another challenge. In this case we had four thicknesses of tile. Our solution was to lay the tile face down within a frame and then to glue the mesh to it. But the mesh would not support the varied thicknesses, so we applied a leveling coat of fiberglass-reinforced mortar. In setting the tile face down we were working blind, and in a few cases we had to start over or make delicate modifications.
With the original floor the tiles were exact dimension and there was no space between them. Contemporary tile floors have grout lines. This meant setting the panels together very tight another --headache and a half. I was sometimes tempted to return the mess of tile and tell everyone that I could not handle it.
The tile panels were laid in a natural hydraulic lime mortar bed and then, once set given, a dark gray sandless grout. Discrepancies slowly dissolved, but I had looked at the tile for so long that every hair of a line stood out for me. I wanted it to be smooth enough to roll marbles on. Curiously, fitting a tile floor into such a small vestibule space between two sets of doors also means that you have to sit on the work in progress. When I was able to stand up and step back it looked fairly decent. The owner was very happy with the result.
The architect for the project was Zach Watson Rice. For more information, see Christopher Gray’s article in the New York Times,