An Exhibition of Guastavino's Signature Tile Ceilings - TribPapers

An Exhibition of Guastavino’s Signature Tile Ceilings

The incredibly talented architect and master builder, Guastavino, is known for his tiled ceilings and vaults. Photo courtesy of Asheville Museum of History.

Asheville – An exhibition about the life and works of Rafael Guastavino, a Spanish architect and master builder, is currently being shown at the newly renovated Asheville Museum of History on the A-B Tech campus. Palaces for the People is an exhibition about Guastavino’s life and works that opened to great acclaim in Boston, then moved to Washington, D.C. and later to New York City. Rafael Guastavino’s dazzling tiled domes and vaultings can be found in 31 states and six countries. There are countless photos and descriptions to explain what was involved in producing and building these amazing “signature” ceilings. In addition, the exhibit here in Asheville features elements and artifacts from the years the master builder spent in this area.

A traveling exhibition of the Guastavino works by father and son is currently on view at the recently renovated Asheville Museum of History. Photo courtesy of the Asheville Museum of History.
A traveling exhibition of the Guastavino works by father and son is currently on view at the recently renovated Asheville Museum of History. Photo courtesy of the Asheville Museum of History.

Guastavino was born in Valencia, Spain, in 1842 and came to New York in 1881 with his 9-year-old son. He made a name for himself as an innovator who pioneered a form of tile work that did not require iron beam construction. By 1889 he was collaborating on the Boston Public Library with the well known firm of McKim, Mead & White. Guastavino’s patented system was based on the principles of the tile vault, a Mediterranean technique dating to 1382 that uses thin clay tiles and plaster. His self-supporting tile arches were simultaneously lightweight, strong, and attractive—as well as fireproof, an important feature.

The soaring tile vaults 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. His work can be seen in the hall ceilings around the Winter Garden, the gatehouse, the basement swimming pool and other spaces. The Basilica of Saint Lawrence in downtown Asheville is his last great structure. The stunning dome is the largest free-standing elliptical dome in North America. The master builder designed and oversaw the construction of the church, then was buried in the Chapel of Our Lady in the Basilica when he died in 1908.

Guastavino moved to Black Mountain in 1884 and ultimately bought 1,100 acres and built a home, “Rhododendron,” there. The great tile and brick artist built his house of wood from trees on his property. He built several kilns and became a wine maker. It was a rambling, three-story white-washing house containing 25 rooms, including a billiard room, bell tower and chapel. An accomplished violinist, pianist, and composer, he often played for family and friends. He also wrote several books. Visitors to the exhibition may take a self-guided tour of Guastavino’s Estate, which now belongs to Christmount Conference Center, a retreat center of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Very little other than the foundational ruins and an impressive kiln chimney of the original house still stand. A collection of Guastavino memorabilia is held in the Christmount library. The Rafael Guastavino, Sr., Estate was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.

The father and son achievements are overwhelming. Over the years their professional reputation for high quality tiles grew and many today recognize the signature tile work. They produced many of the terracotta tiles for their projects in their own plant in Woburn, Massachusetts. In North Carolina Guastavino completed a number of projects: their work is found in Duke Chapel in Durham, the Jefferson Standard Building in Greensboro, the Motley Memorial in Chapel Hill, and Basilica Shrine of St. Mary in Wilmington. Other places their work can be seen are: The National Cathedral in Washington, the Reception Hall at Ellis Island, Carnegie Hall,the Bronx Zoo,the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City, the Boston Public Library, the Nebraska State Capitol, and Pittsburgh’s Union Station. This exhibition is the story of the celebrated accomplishments of father and son. Rafael, Jr. carried on the tile business after his father’s death, which include impressive ornamentation in his own creations, such as the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station in New York. He was an innovator in acoustic tile. He sold the company in 1943; died in 1950; and the company closed in 1962.