The Legacy of the Asheville Area's Master Architect: Rafael Guastavino
By Jason Tarr
You’ve already 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 helped shape the American architectural landscape.
A historical marker commemorating his life is installed near the site of his Black Mountain estate. You can find the marker at the Interstate 40 interchange in Black Mountain (Exit 64).
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 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.
Guastavino's cooperation with architecture firm McKim, Mead and White on the Boston Public Library in 1895, cemented his reputation as an essential collaborator on both private and public commissions.
Guastavino’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.
Prior to his death, and around the time he began working on the Basilica plans, Guastavino was so inspired by the mountain landscape in the area that he bought more than 600 acres and built a stately Spanish-style home, called "Rhododendron" in Black Mountain. He died at Rhododendron in 1908. The home burned in the early 1940s but some ruins still remain today. The portion of land encompassing the house is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and it is now owned by the Christmount Retreat, Camp and Conference Center.
Top photo of Basilica of St. Lawrence by Steven Hyatt. Photo of Biltmore swimming pool courtesy of The Biltmore Company.