Guastavino’s architectural influence in Asheville
Written By Judy Ross
When Spanish architect Raphael Guastavino came to the U.S. in 1881, he already had a reputation for creating grand arches, domes, and vaults in Europe. Within a few years, his work caught the attention of Richard Morris Hunt, head architect for Biltmore House.
“Guastavino had introduced an impressive and inexpensive alternative to iron beam construction in the U.S. that resulted in interiors with soaring arches and open spaces,” said Leslie Klingner, Curator of Interpretation. “His tile work was low maintenance, fireproof, and functional.”
He was commissioned by Hunt to create the decorative tile vaulting at Biltmore House, including the hall ceilings around the Winter Garden. His tile work in the Swimming Pool is reminiscent of the vaulting in New York City’s earliest subway stations, another Guastavino design.
“The herringbone pattern on the ceiling of the Porte Cochere as you exit the house is remarkable,” Leslie said.“He also created the beautifully patterned vaults at the Lodge Gate—the acoustical effects when horses passed through there must have been amazing.”
After his work on Biltmore House, Guastavino also remained in the area, focusing on two projects near and dear to his heart. His masterpiece—St. Lawrence Basilica in downtown Asheville—is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the architect is buried there. Guastavino finished the plans, including a dramatic freestanding elliptical dome, and gave them to the church but died before construction was complete.
Guastavino built a modest estate known as Rhododendron in Black Mountain. His home, called the Spanish Castle, was a rambling three-story wood structure built with timber from his property. Outbuildings included wine cellars, chapel, bell tower, and kilns where he experimented with tile and glazes.
Unfortunately, the home burned in the early 1940s. Some ruins remain, mostly the kilns and wine cellars, on property which is now part of Christmount Christian Assembly. A walking tour on the property offers a view into this working estate from the late 1800s into the 1940s, including photographs and information from historical sources. The Christmount Guest House hosts a temporary exhibit displaying relics from the house and kiln areas found over the years; the exhibit is open to the public.
Around the country, more than 1,000 buildings feature his designs, including his signature vaulting, including the Boston Public Library, New York’s Grand Central Terminal, Carnegie Hall, and the Elephant House at the Bronx Zoo.
Main: Swimming Pool in Biltmore House, with tile vaulting created by Raphael Guastavino
Left: St. Lawrence Basilica in Asheville, ca. 1909, designed by Raphael Guastavino. Photo courtesy of St. Lawrence Basilica.