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Rafael Guastavino and The Basilica of Saint Lawrence

By on May 13, 2016 in Non-Fiction, Spirituality, Uncategorized, Viewpoints, Writing | 2 comments

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It was a chance encounter with the Basilica of Saint Lawrence in Asheville, NC that brought me back to the Catholic faith and it was a chance encounter that brought Rafael Guastavino, it’s creator and architect, to Asheville. Is there someone in charge of chance encounters? Was God responsible? Or was it the magic of these mountains? Maybe it’s a little of both or not at all. It would be easy to believe that God has a special place in His heart for Asheville. They say the mountains around here are magical, that they have the ability to change people. Maybe in the blue mist that cloaks them there is, as is rumored to be, a cosmic hole in the sky, a whirling vortex that exists between the parallel universes of eternity and the space-time we call life. It’s a window to eternity and we feel it, the special energy, and are drawn to our own metamorphosis. We want to stay. We want to come back and live in its force field. Ask me what it was that drew me here and I’m not sure I can give you a clear answer. I just like it here. That’s what most people say. That’s probably what Guastavino said when he came here. He came to work. He came for a job, to earn money, to further his career, but he stayed and built a home. Then, after a while, he built a masterpiece: he built the Basilica. Is all this hocus pocus stuff real? I don’t know. All I’ll say is I like it here. Artists like it here. That will have to be enough on the subject.

What is lucky is that Rafael Guastavino liked it here. He was an artist and a craftsman as well as an architect. If he hadn’t liked it here, we wouldn’t have the Basilica of St Lawrence or its elliptical tile ceiling that so impressed me that I felt the pull of God not so long ago.

Basilica of St Lawrence interior dome

Basilica of St Lawrence interior dome

Who is Rafael Guastavino? Let’s stop right here and find out. His education was essentially pragmatic. He received the title of Mestre d’obres in Spain. He wanted an architect’s degree but the necessity of earning a living and supporting his wife and four sons precluded this. At his school there was particular emphasis on thin tile vaulting. In Catalonia and more specifically in Valencia where he lived, there already was a strong tradition of thin tile vaulting, which differs immensely from the stone vaulting that had been used since the Roman era in an important way.

Source: Comparison of the traditional stone vault (a) and the Guastavino vault (b)

Comparison of the traditional stone vault (a) and the Guastavino vault (b)

Stone vaulting required that each thick stone be cut by a stonemason on an angle and fitted together. Thin tile vaulting used relatively thin flat tile, only an inch or so thick and usually no bigger than six by twelve inches and joined by a quick setting mortar over temporary scaffolding which was removed after construction was complete. The tile was layered several courses thick in a crosshatch pattern for strength. In short, thin tile vaulting was just as strong and far cheaper than the Roman vaulting and it was fireproof which was becoming very important at the time.

Let’s go back in time a little. In Valencia, the inner oval dome of the Basilica de la Virgin de los Desamparados, which I am loosely translating into English as Our Lady of the Insane and the Forsaken Innocents, was created with this very same thin tile. The legend is that in 1409 a priest was walking home when he happened upon the lynching of an insane man. He intervened, saved the man, and thereafter preached for the care of the insane. A hospital originally named Hospital de Los Locos, Hospital of The Insane, and later changed to Hospital d’Innocentes, Hospital of the Innocents, was established under the patronage of Our Lady of the Insane and Forsaken Innocents. Several centuries later a Basilica in her honor, the Basilica de la Virgen de los Desamparados (forgotten ones) was finished in 1667. I guess somewhere in the more than two hundred years that passed from 1409 until 1667 Insane and Forsaken was changed to Forgotten. I think it was an effort to be politically correct. I’ll bring this back to the Basilica in Asheville, I promise, but this is an interesting and informative divergence. Thirty-three years later, about 1700, a new inner dome was constructed that is of particular interest. The inner surface, the intrados, was plastered and painted with a beautiful mural by Antonio Palomino. The tiles used were thin flat tiles. The tiles on the inner surface were about 1 and 1/3 inches thick and the outer tiles were a little less than an inch thick. A plaster coating covered the inner surface preparing it for painting. It has been standing for 300 years and it still stands today. Now why is this important? Because it was the construction process used in this vaulted ceiling that influenced Guastavino when he designed the vaulting in the Basilica of Saint Lawrence in Asheville. What goes around comes around.

Cupola Basilica de la Virgin de los Desamparados

By Joanbanjo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Back to Rafael Guastavino.

He was born March 1, 1842, a hundred years before me, and grew up in Catalonia, Spain, one of thirteen siblings in a family of musical craftsmen. He played the violin but yearned to be an architect. A wealthy uncle took him under his wing and in 1861 at the age of 19, he began studying at the Escola Especial de Mestres d’Obres. The Escola stressed practical, hands-on aspects of building. He did well at school and in his work.

He was so successful and famous for his use of tile vaulting in designs that he was chosen to represent Spain at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. This visit to the United States was to prove pivotal to his future career. Back in Spain, he was hired to build La Massa theater

in 1881 which further showcased his abilities to use thin tile to span dramatic public spaces, but he didn’t see it completed. In February of 1881 his wife, Pilar, after a two year separation due to his infidelities, moved to Argentina with their three oldest sons. Guastavino wanted desperately to get away from Valencia and what must have been an oppressive atmosphere of familial condemnation. He remembered the Centennial and almost immediately after, he and his youngest son, also named Rafael, sailed for New York.

Coming in past the Statue of Liberty like so many immigrants to America, he must have assessed his abilities on how he would proceed in the New World. He was 39 years of age, had a good education and crucial experience in both design and construction but no English, very few connections and no experience in the new country. In addition, he lacked a degree in American architecture, a necessity to design in this country. He learned English and published in American architectural magazines. It was necessary for him to work for other architects but he did well and soon developed a name and reputation. In 1895 Richard Morris Hunt, Vanderbilt’s chief architect, hired him to do the tile work on the Biltmore Mansion in Asheville, NC. Hunt contracted Guastavino to make vaulting for the vestibules and outdoor loggia, areas that would be subjected to weather. But Guastavino submitted drawings for the corridors surrounding the glass-roofed winter garden and for the white tile swimming pool. The designs were approved and included into Hunt’s overall design.

Guastavino liked it here, bought a thousand acres of land in Black Mountain and built a large frame house on it. Why not a thin tile masonry house? Because he was in a hurry to finish it and at the time the cost would have been prohibitive. He was enchanted with the area and settled into semi-retirement giving his son the lion’s share of authority in the business. He sculpted the land to create ponds and terraces and constructed out-buildings mostly so he could continue his experiments. He built a wine cellar and a kiln and called the estate Rhododendron. Locals called it the Spanish Castle.

The Spanish Castle

Postcard view of Guastavino’s estate from the NC Register of Historic Places

He built small kilns for experimentation. The clay of the area seemed ideal and he held many patents for his processes. He wanted Asheville to be a center of his tile manufacture but it was too distant from the East Coast and the East Coast was where the bulk of his construction projects seemed to be. Transportation costs at the time were too high so at the encouragement of his accountant, a trusted friend and employee, he instead built a large tile manufacturing factory in Massachusetts.

He lived at his new estate with his second wife, Francesca Ramirez Guastavino, a native of Mexico and seventeen years his junior. There was a fire and the house and grounds are now in ruins but what there is left is on the National Register of Historic Places. The wine cellar, the foundations of the house and a kiln are still standing. The property is owned by Christmount Christian Assembly who run a facility near the ruins. Their website says they are trying to establish a museum for Guastavino. You can visit the ruins. Contact Christmount for information. See below.

There aren’t many Catholics in Asheville. Although I don’t know what the percentage was in 1904 when the Basilica was built, it probably wasn’t much higher than what it is today or about 4%. Guastavino, a Spaniard, was accustomed to worshipping in the soaringly beautiful churches of his home country. The first time he and his wife, Francesca, went to the ill made and crowded Asheville church to attend Sunday mass, he was disappointed. Afterward he complained to the local parish priest that the church was too small. The priest, accustomed to the privation of southern Catholicism, said it would all calm down after tourist season was over. We can only imagine how dissatisfying this sort of response would have been to Guastavino. His whole life had been dedicated to creating churches and public spaces that filled the soul and spirit with reverence and wonderment. Since he intended Asheville to be his home, he decided to build a church that would be worthy of the beauty of the area, a church that would mimic the strength and awe of the mountains that surrounded Asheville.

Guastavino donated his services as designer and although his friend, Richard Sharp Smith, was architect of record, he was the true architect with complete and final word on all aspects of the building. Guastavino was not legally an architect in America although it might be said that he knew more than most of them. His involvement in the Basilica was extensive. Along with his expertise as an architect, he donated all the bricks and tiles used in the construction. Volunteers did a lot of the work and many parishioners and interested parties made specific donations. His construction method, termed “cohesive construction”, was something he was aware of all his life as he had worshipped at the Basilica de La Virgin de los Desamparados in Valencia as a boy. The method disperses gravitational force downward evenly across its surface thus eliminating any need for support. The resulting elliptical dome spans fifty-eight by eighty-two feet and is, in my opinion, his crowning achievement.

Unfortunately, Guastavino died in 1901. His tomb in the Basilica’s Marion chapel is sealed with a door designed by his son, Rafael Guastavino, Jr. When I think of the genius of the man and effort he made when he came to the United States as an immigrant in 1881, how he worked his way up assisting other architects until he achieved a reputation for excellence and innovation, how he learned English and published a definitive work of the era called Essay on Cohesive Construction, which he read before the Society of Arts, Massachusetts’s Institute of Technology in Boston in 1890, and how he published widely in the architectural magazine of the era, The Bricklayer, I am in complete awe. Lucky for him he learned early about the power of the patent and subsequently made sure that each and every inventive process he designed could not be stolen or used by others.

He and his son built thousands of buildings in the United States, some of them breathtakingly beautiful. To name a few there is the Boston Public Library, the New York Subway, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and the Basilica in Washington DC. Two buildings are shown below.

Bridgemarket by Rafael Guastavino

Bridgemarket By Jim.henderson (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Boston Public Library Reading Room by Rafael Guastavino

Boston Public Library Reading Room By Brian Johnson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


You can visit the Basilica of Saint Lawrence at 97 Haywood Street, Asheville, NC 28801. There is a 25 minute guided tour after the Sunday noon mass and longer guided tours available on arrangement. See their website for information

For information on visiting the ruins of Guastavino’s estate see

See the Videos

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth 10,000. Rafael Guastavino designed and constructed thousands of buildings in the United States. You will be surprised when you see them. You may say to yourself, “I’ve been there. It’s beautiful.” The videos can explain his technique and show his buildings far better than I can. You will do yourself a favor to watch them. Guastivino and America’s Great Public Spaces, a video by The National Building Museum The Art of Structual Tile with John Ochsendorf, a video by National Building Museum Guastavino Vaulting: From Barcelona to Black Mountain with John Ochsendorf, a UNCA Ramsey Library Video Production

And the Bibliography

  1. Ochsendorf, John; Freeman, Michael (Photographer). Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile, Princeton Architectural Press, 2010. This is the standard on Guastavino and a beautiful book to boot. In the back there is an exhaustive list of all the projects the two Guastavinos had a hand in building.
  2. Guastavino tile, Wikipedia,
  3. Santiago Huerta, Structural Analysis of Thin Tile Vaults and Domes: The Inner Oval Dome of the Basilica de la Virgen de los Desamparados in Valencia. Excellent article available on line at
  4. National Register of Historic Places — Church of St. Lawrence — A detailed description of the Basilica, the contents, and the property. The original nomination form for the Basilica. and Additional information on the Basilica.
  5. National Register of Historic Places — Rafael Guastavino, Sr. Estate, Registration Form,
  6. Information on the Basilica in Valencia
  7. Kris DeDecker, Tiles as a substitute for steel: the art of the timbrel vault – more
  8. R. Guastavino, The Theory and History of Cohesive Construction Online courtesy of Cornell University. – page/n3/mode/2up
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  1. Francella Poston

    May 20, 2016

    Post a Reply

    Anne, An exceptionally well written first paragraph, beautiful introduction. Well-documented essay including illustrations. Thank you for bring Rafael Guastavino into the twenty-first century,

    • hannahpowers

      May 20, 2016

      Post a Reply

      Thank you for the good thoughts. Rafael Guastavino was quite a guy. He deserves recognition.

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