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Guastavino, the master who transformed America’s most iconic spaces

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Asheville, a town of 95,000 people nestled in the leafy foothills of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, is well known as a bastion with funky southern charm. It is home to dozens of breweries, a thriving music and arts scene, and one of the country’s most architecturally intact historic city centers. It is also the unexpected last home of Rafael Guastavino, once one of the country’s most famous and innovative builders, whose name and architectural influence have since been largely forgotten.

Born in Spain in 1842, Guastavino immigrated to the United States in 1881. In New York, he made a name for himself with the country’s leading architectural firms and their wealthy clients. His signature work was an elaborate tiled vault style, common in his home country of Spain, using lightweight clay bricks to create tall, open interior spaces without the need for heavier, more expensive materials. The “Guastavino Method” allowed architects not only to save money, but also to create spaces larger and lighter than possible.

Illustrated postcard of passengers waiting for the train under the vaulted ceiling of the City Hall subway station, aka, 1904. City Hall Loop, Manhattan, New York City.

Smith / Gado / Getty Collection

Guastavino is best known for his flagship projects in New York and Boston. Its revolutionary tile vault system can be found in the Boston Public Library, the Plaza Hotel, and the New York City subway. His construction company, which continued until 1962, used the “Guastavino Method” in hundreds of other buildings across the country, including the capitals of Massachusetts, Louisiana, West Virginia. and Nebraska.

As his reputation grew, Guastavino’s list of star clients grew as well. In addition to major public works, he was enlisted to vault the homes of families such as the Morgans and Vanderbilts. His work can still be seen at The Breakers, the lavish summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II in Newport, Rhode Island. But it was Cornelius’ younger brother George who invited Guastavino to North Carolina in 1890. There he had already spent years building his “summer vacation home,” a sprawling castle called Biltmore. With nearly 180,000 square feet of floor space, it remains the largest private home ever built in the United States.

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George Washington Vanderbilt II was the youngest of William Henry Vanderbilt’s eight children. His older siblings, leaders of New York’s social scene, married other wealthy families and established a colony of grand mansions along Fifth Avenue known as Vanderbilt Row. George, however, floated between the residences, seemingly indifferent to the attributes his name and heritage bestowed upon him. It wasn’t until he started traveling with his mother in western North Carolina that he found a place he wanted to call home.

The Biltmore Estate, America’s largest private home, built by George Vanderbilt between 1889 and 1895, is one of the area’s top tourist attractions.

George Rose / Getty

Construction on the Biltmore began in 1889, turning 125,000 acres of rolling farmland into an estate reminiscent of the Loire Valley in France. Richard Morris Hunt, the man behind the grand entrance hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, modeled the house on several castles including Blois and Chantilly in France as well as Waddesdon Manor in England. Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in New York City, was responsible for the estate’s well-maintained grounds. George Vanderbilt was a near-renaissance man, deeply admiring the arts and letters. He surrounded himself not with joint heirs and socialites, but with writers, painters and all kinds of creators. Portraits often show him holding a book, his finger slicing through its pages as if he had been interrupted in the middle of a sentence.

It was George’s creative appreciation that brought Rafael Guastavino to Asheville. There he was asked to install his famous Spanish vaults at the Biltmore Estate. Its iconic striped tiles, arranged in an elegant zigzag pattern, are found in the mansion’s entrance hall, above its underground swimming pool, and all around its glazed winter garden. Guests even pass under a large Guastavino tile arch inside the Biltmore gatehouse. His work added flair and a touch of industrial whimsy to a house that was otherwise built as an American homage to traditional French chateaux.

On a recent visit to the Biltmore, led by estate curator Leslie Klingner, I saw first-hand the beauty of Guastavino’s work. Here, Leslie explained, its vaults are not structural. They were installed specifically for aesthetic purposes, adding a modern, geometric touch to many of the home’s most important spaces. George Vanderbilt considered Guastavino’s tiles to be inherently valuable, beautiful enough to adorn his home as architectural works of art.

While working on the Biltmore, Guastavino fell in love with the surrounding landscape. He lived on the mansion grounds during construction and built his own estate just east of Asheville in the town of Black Mountain. The rhododendron, as he called it, encompassed over 600 acres of wooded peaks and valleys. The main house was a three-story pile of logs with a bell tower that locals called the Spanish Castle. There, Guastavino led a quiet but busy life, overseeing construction projects, bottling his own cider, and even planting a wine-growing vineyard. He built ovens where he experimented with firing bricks and tiles to use in his many orders. The estate was razed in the 1940s following the death of Guastavino’s widow. The land is now home to “Christmount”, a religious retreat and conference center.

The final and perhaps the most important project executed by Guastavino in North Carolina would serve as his tomb. A devout Catholic, he lamented the absence of a proper church in Asheville. He made large donations to local efforts to build a Catholic cathedral and was its chief designer when construction began in 1905. This church, now known as St. Lawrence Basilica, has a huge elliptical dome that does not unlike any other church in the country, not even the world. Fifty-eight by 82 feet in diameter, the dome is made of Guastavino’s signature tiles in shades of pale sand pink. Despite its immensity, it seems to float above the nave. “This mighty vault,” described the Asheville Citizen-Times in 1909, “was built little by little on nothing, above the ground of the church.”

Interior of St. Lawrence Basilica in Asheville, North Carolina.

Getty

There, under the dome he designed, Rafael Guastavino was buried after his death in 1908, at the age of 55. obituary called him “an authority on new construction methods,” but his accomplishments far exceeded that. Guastavino was an innovator and an artist, and the influence of his work has long survived him. His son, Rafael Guastavino Jr., took the helm of the Guastavino “Fireproof Construction” company. Under his leadership, using his father’s methods, Guastavino tiles have been installed in over a thousand projects nationwide.

The young Rafael has carried out many of the company’s most iconic and enduring projects. He was responsible for the new barrel vaulted ceiling in the Great Hall on Ellis Island as well as what is now the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal. He jumped under the entrance ramps to the mighty Queensboro Bridge; part of this airy space now houses a restaurant called “Guastavino’s”. Describing the space as it was prepared for adaptive reuse in 1973, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called him “a dramatic series of cathedral-like vaults and arched openings of historic quality.”

When the Guastavino company closed in 1962, its records were donated to Columbia University. More than a century after the death of the elder Guastavino, his influence and designs are apparently found everywhere. In New York City in particular, residents can walk past half a dozen Guastavino safes in their daily comings and goings. But it’s far from the crowded streets and city terminals, in the wooded calm of North Carolina, that Rafael Guastavino has chosen to live out his final years and execute his final plans. There in Asheville, the man who changed the cityscape so much rests peacefully under a dome of his own design.


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