Guastavino, the master who changed America’s most iconic rooms


ASheville, a town of 95,000 in the verdant foothills of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, is known as the bastion of funky southern charm. It is home to dozens of breweries, a thriving music and arts scene, and one of the most architecturally preserved historic city centers in the country. It’s also the unexpected final resting place of Rafael Guastavino, once one of the most famous and innovative builders in the country, whose name and architectural influence have been largely forgotten.

Born in Spain in 1842, Guastavino immigrated to the United States in 1881. In New York, he flattered the country’s leading architectural firms and their wealthy clients. His signature work was an ornate brick vault style common in his Spanish homeland, using lightweight clay bricks to create raised, open interiors without the need for heavier, more expensive materials. The “Guastavino method” enabled architects not only to save money, but also to create larger and lighter spaces than otherwise possible.

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

Smith Collection / Gado / Getty

Guastavino is best known for his groundbreaking 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 remained in business through 1962, used the “Guastavino Method” in hundreds of other buildings across the country, including the capitals of Massachusetts, Louisiana, West Virginia, and Nebraska.

Guastavino’s top-class customer list grew along with his reputation. In addition to major public works, he has been hired to vault the homes of families such as the Morgans and the Vanderbilts. His work can still be seen today at Breakers, the palatial 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. He had built his “summer house” there for years, an extensive 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 eight children of William Henry Vanderbilt. His older siblings, leaders of the New York social scene, married into other wealthy families and founded a colony of sumptuous mansions along Fifth Avenue, later known as Vanderbilt Row. George, however, floated back and forth between the houses, apparently disinterested in the insignia his name and legacy offered him. It wasn’t until he started traveling to western North Carolina with his mother that he found a place he wanted to call home.

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

George Rose / Getty

Construction of the Biltmore began in 1889 and turned 125,000 acres of rolling farmland into an estate reminiscent of the French Loire Valley. Richard Morris Hunt, the man behind the grand entrance hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, modeled the house after several castles, including Blois and Chantilly in France and Waddesdon Manor in England. Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, was responsible for the manicured grounds on the property. George Vanderbilt was a quasi-Renaissance man who had a deep appreciation for art and literature. He did not surround himself with fellow heirs and celebrities, but with writers, painters and all sorts of creative types. Portraits often show him holding a book while his finger splits the 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 safes on the Biltmore Estate. Its iconic striped tiles, arranged in an elegant zigzag pattern, can be found in the entrance hall of the mansion, above the underground swimming pool and around the glazed winter garden. Guests even walk under a large guastavino tile arch in the Biltmore gatehouse. His work added flair and a touch of an industrial whimsy to a home that was otherwise built as an American tribute to traditional French castles.

I saw the beauty of Guastavino’s work firsthand on a recent tour of the Biltmore led by Leslie Klingner, the curator for interpretation of the property. Here, explained Leslie, its vaults are not structural. They were specially installed for aesthetic reasons and give many of the most prominent rooms in the house a modern, geometric flair. George Vanderbilt viewed Guastavino’s tiles as 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. During the construction period, he lived on the manor’s grounds and built his own estate east of Asheville in the town of Black Mountain. Rhododendron, as he called it, comprised more than 600 acres of wooded peaks and valleys. The main house was a three-story wooden post with a bell tower that the locals called the Spanish Castle. There Guastavino enjoyed a quiet but busy life, overseeing construction projects, bottling his own cider and even planting a vineyard. He built stoves in which he experimented with burning bricks and bricks that he could use in his many commissions. The property was razed in the 1940s after the death of Guastavino’s widow. The country is now home to “Christmount”, a religious retreat and conference center.

The last and perhaps most significant project carried out by Guastavino in North Carolina was to serve as his grave. As a devout Catholic, he lamented Asheville’s lack of a suitable church. He donated a lot to local efforts to build a Catholic cathedral and was its chief designer when construction began in 1905. This church, now known as the Basilica of St. Lawrence, has a huge elliptical dome that is no different from any other church in the country, or even the world. The dome has a diameter of 58 x 25 meters and consists of Guastavino’s characteristic tiles in pale-sand-pink tones. Despite its immensity, it seems to float above the nave. “This mighty vault,” described the Asheville Citizen-Times in 1909It was “gradually built over nothing, above the church floor.”

Interior of the Basilica of Saint Lawrence in Asheville, North Carolina.


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 methods of construction,” but his accomplishments far surpassed them. Guastavino was a innovator and artist, and the influence of his work long outlived him. His son, Rafael Guastavino Jr., took over the management of the Guastavino “Fire-Proof Construction” Company. Under his direction, Guastavino tiles were laid in more than a thousand projects across the country using his father’s methods.

The younger Rafael has completed many of the company’s most iconic and enduring projects. He was responsible for the new barrel vaulted ceiling in the great hall of Ellis Island as well as for today’s Oyster Bar in the Grand Central Terminal. It arched the underside of the entrance ramps to the mighty Queensboro Bridge; Part of this airy space now houses a restaurant called “Guastavino’s”. Description of the room as it was prepared for adaptive reuse in 1973, New York Times Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it “A dramatic array of landmark-quality cathedral-like vaults and arched openings.”

When the Guastavino Company closed in 1962, its archives were donated to Columbia University. More than a century after the elder Guastavino’s death, his influence and designs can seemingly be found everywhere. In New York in particular, residents come and go by perhaps half a dozen guastavino safes every day. But it was far from the city’s crowded streets and terminals, in the wooded silence of North Carolina that Rafael Guastavino spent his final years doing his final projects. There in Asheville, the man who changed the cityscape so much rests peacefully under a dome he designed himself.

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