Historical marker for designer associated with Biltmore, Basilica of Saint Lawrence to be unveiled


A historical marker commemorating the life of a renowned immigrant architect and builder soon will be installed near the site of his Black Mountain estate.

Raphael Guastavino Sr. was best known for his striking vaulted and domed ceiling designs that graced numerous public and private buildings. Born in Valencia, Spain in 1842, Guastavino settled in western North Carolina following his involvement with the finish construction of George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., in 1894. He designed and supervised vaulted ceiling finishes in the Biltmore House porte cochere, entry vestibule, winter garden, loggia, basement rooms and corridors, and Gate House.

The marker unveiling and dedication celebration will be hosted by the Guastavino Alliance, the Swannanoa Valley Museum, and the Western North Carolina Historical Association on Monday, Sept. 13 at 10:30 a.m. The marker will be placed at the Interstate 40 interchange in Black Mountain (Exit 64).

Perhaps in emulation of Vanderbilt’s project, Guastavino purchased land in eastern Buncombe County near Black Mountain in 1895, amassing more than 600 acres. With his second wife, Francisca Ramirez Guastavino, the master builder constructed a wood frame villa with terraced grounds, ponds, flower gardens, and holly tree allee, and called the estate “Rhododendron.”

Despite establishing this primary residence in western North Carolina, far from commissions in major U.S. cities, Guastavino retained a leadership role in the R. Guastavino Company, traveling to project sites and conducting project correspondence from Rhododendron.

As an essential collaborator to major architects and firms such as Richard Morris Hunt, McKim, Mead and White, and Carrère and Hastings, Guastavino designed and supervised the construction of vaults and domes that were strong, lightweight, fast to build, fireproof, and complementary to monumental Beaux Arts homes, churches, institutional buildings, and even public works projects such as the New York City subway and the Queensboro Bridge.

Guastavino’s cooperation with McKim, Mead and White on the Boston Public Library, completed in 1895, cemented his reputation as an essential collaborator for both private and public commissions in the popular Beaux Arts style.

Development of the Rhododendron estate was concurrent to Guastavino’s involvement with the Basilica of Saint Lawrence in Asheville, his culminating architectural work. He designed Saint Lawrence in the Spanish Baroque Revival style, utilizing his patented cohesive tile construction methods from floor to elliptical dome. Guastavino died at Rhododendron in 1908 and was entombed at Saint Lawrence Church.

Prior to the establishment of a company tile manufactory in Woburn, Massachusetts, around 1900, Guastavino appears to have experimented with tile production at Rhododendron. He sourced clay from nearby McDowell County and built at least two brick beehive kilns and a 60-foot brick chimney stack on the estate grounds, where their ruins remain today.

The portion of land encompassing the house and kiln site is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and is in the ownership of the Christmount Retreat, Camp, and Conference Center, which maintains the remnants of the Rhododendron estate and plans to develop a museum facility to interpret Guastavino’s life and achievements.

For information on the Highway Marker Program, call (919) 814-6620. The N.C. Highway Historical Marker Program is within the Office of Archives and History and administered by the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The Highway Marker Program is collaboration between the N.C. Departments of Natural and Cultural Resources and Transportation. 

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