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The Saint Lawrence Basilica Centennial and Rafael Guastavino

St Lawrence RS

…Not too many human creatures witness two Centennials…of anything or anyone….

Rafael ventured to the New World from Barcelona, Spain in 1881…taking full advantage of this Promised Land…and giving back to this same Land some 1000 beautiful, classic and unique public buildings…that continue his legacy….On the island of Manhattan alone, RG was involved in 300 major epic structures, applying his patented trademark decorative tile system, and letting other lead architects take all the credit for monumental structures like Grant’s Tomb, Grand Central Terminal, and the Ellis Island Registry Room. In the past decade, Techno-Genius Rafael Guastavino’s fame has mushroomed, especially in greater New York, Spain, and North Carolina. Director Pam Myers, Curator Frank Thomson and a blue-ribbon committee of our own Asheville Art Museum assembled an excellent exhibit, “Rafael Guastavino…Barcelona to Black Mountain,” in the summer of 2002, which gave a major visibility boost to RG and his genius.

Guastavino’s 1905 Saint Lawrence Basilica collaboration with British Architect Richard Sharp Smith stands as a signal sign of the melding of the true design-construction creative genius of these two 1895 Biltmore Mansion construction “alumni.”

In 1905 Asheville, the entire backdrop for the Spanish Baroque Saint Lawrence venture was totally unique and unbelievable…socially, economically, religiously, racially, and culturally. One third of the permanent residents of Asheville were black. The Buncombe Turnpike had been in existence for 55 years. The railroad had served the region for only 25 years. The trolley system was excellent, second only to Richmond, Virginia. The Great French Broad Flood of 1916 would wait for more than a decade.

Saint Lawrence Church would not have happened without major interest and action by the world famous James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore. Cardinal Gibbons was only the second Cardinal in American history and a good friend of President Teddy Roosevelt.

(When Gibbons was appointed Vicar of the entire state of North Carolina in 1868, there were fewer than 700 Catholics in the mountain state.) Other key hierarchy that did the “heavy lifting” to bring about National Historic Register Saint Lawrence Church to fruition were Benedictine Abbot Leo Haid of Belmont Abbey and Fathers Peter and Patrick Marion.

When we cut a cross-section through the whole process to place this masonry liturgical gem on the National Register of Historic Places, we find that it was listed on
March 24, 1978. It is presently a prime candidate for the National Park Service’s “Save America’s Treasures” prestigious Grant Program. [ Note: Senor Rafael Guastavino y Moreno’s lovely 1000 acre Black Mountain estate was placed on the National Register on July 13, 1989, including his “Rhododendron” vineyards and beehive ceramic kilns. ]

As the dedicated docents at the Saint Lawrence Basilica tours quickly inform you, the central figure on the main façade facing south to Haywood Street and Downtown Asheville is that of Saint Lawrence, holding in his left hand a palm frond and in his right hand a gridiron, the instrument of his torture and death in A.D. 258. Once inside this historic edifice, you are at once lifted up…to the largest, freestanding elliptical, beautiful, decorative terracotta Guastavino dome, spanning 82 feet by 58 feet…a latter day example of RG’s “Cohesive Construction” magic.

Asheville is truly blessed with more than one dozen examples of outstanding liturgical Historic Architecture…and the Celebration of the centennial of Saint Lawrence Basilica this October 17th causes us to give Thanks to the Divine Architect for these gifts. Amen.

William Flynn Wescott, P.E., is an active Historic Preservation Consultant and Past President of the Preservation Society of Asheville & Buncombe County.

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