Exhibition Celebrates Rafael Guastavino: Asheville's Master Builder

Basilica of St. Lawrence Catholic Church

You’ve likely seen his powerful work. After all, Rafael Guastavino’s incredible tiled domes and vaultings can be found in 31 states and six countries. From the Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. to Grand Central Station in New York City, from The Public Library in Boston to Biltmore here in Asheville, Guastavino has helped shape the American architectural landscape.

Now, an exhibition will showcase his life and works in Black Mountain, N.C., the location of his former estate. The exhibition titled, “Palaces for the People: Guastavino’s Great American Places,” opens April 8, 2017, at Black Mountain's Swannanoa Valley Museum. The exhibition, which is free to the public, has already opened to great acclaim in Boston, Washington D.C. and New York City. When the exhibition opens in Black Mountain, it will include rare pieces and experiences that have not been enjoyed anywhere else.

The Master Builder

Rafael Guastavino, who was born in Valencia, Spain, arrived in New York in 1881 with his 9-year-old son. He had been so successful as a master builder in Spain that he brought $40,000 with him (a lot of money for that time!). Guastavino made a name for himself as an innovator who pioneered a form of grand tile work that did not require iron beam construction. His first great success in the United States was creating the tile vaultings and ceilings throughout the Boston Public Library. His fine works caught the attention of George Vanderbilt's head architect, Richard Morris Hunt, who contracted Guastavino to bring his talent for tile work to Biltmore Estate.

Biltmore Swimming PoolGuastavino’s Asheville Footprint

To this day, visitors to Biltmore in Asheville, N.C., will see Guastavino’s tile work in the hall ceilings around the Winter Garden and in the basement swimming pool.

After completing work on Biltmore, Guastavino took on a project near and dear to his heart: the heavenly Basilica of St. Lawrence in downtown Asheville. Guastavino finished the plans for what became the largest free-standing elliptical dome in North America but died before construction was complete. He is buried there on the grounds of the Basilica.

Guastavino was so inspired by the mountain landscape in the area that he bought 1,100 acres and built a stately Spanish-style home, called "Rhododendron," in Black Mountain. The home burned in the early 1940s but some ruins still remain today.

The Exhibition Experience

The exhibition opens in April 2017 at the newly renovated Swannanoa Valley Museum in Black Mountain, less than a mile from Guastavino’s former estate.

The exhibition details the life and work of Guastavino through a series of displays and artifacts. Four major artifacts have been added just for this local exhibition: an enormous iron bell from the top of his home, a huge exotic fountain, a four-piece parlor set rescued from a fire in the home, and the black dress Guastavino’s widow wore for several decades. Biltmore also has donated artifacts for the exhibition.

After enjoying the exhibition at the museum, take the self-guided walking tour of Guastavino’s estate ruins before visiting Biltmore and the Basilica of St. Lawrence to see his works first-hand.

Know Before You Go

  • WHAT: “Palaces for the People: Guastavino’s Great American Places” 
  • WHERE: Swannanoa Valley Museum. The museum is located at 223 West State Street in Black Mountain.
  • WHEN: April 8, 2017 to December 1, 2017. It will be open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • ADMISSION: Free. Donations are welcomed.


Top photo of Basilica of St. Lawrence by Steven Hyatt. Photo of Biltmore swimming pool courtesy of The Biltmore Company.

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