Basilica of St. Lawrence is a Gustavino Masterpiece

One of my favorite churches in the American South is the Basilica of St. Lawrence, located in the mountain town of Asheville in North Carolina.  The basilica is a beacon of beauty and immense creativity, one of the most visited places in Asheville. 

The architect was the great Rafael Gustavino (1842 - 1908), a Catalonian builder and engineer from Barcelona who emigrated to the United States in 1881. It is no surprise he came from a city of architecture. He went on to be part of a significant building boon in the United States during a golden age of architectural creativity. His style and system represented a unique architectural achievement in the New World that brought Mediterranean know-how with enduring good taste and charm to the United States. 

Gustavino is credited with a tile arch system that he patented in the U.S. in 1885. Called the "Gustavino tile," it was based on the Catalan vault from his homeland in Spain.  The secret was robust, self-supporting arches and vaults that were made with curved interlocking terracotta tiles and layers of mortar. His works appear in numerous prominent buildings and churches across the United States. With knowledge he took from Catalonia that had been used for centuries, he brought this new style of vaulted ceiling to a new audience in America. 

Gustavino had a busy career. He, and later his son, installed their trademark masonry ceilings, vaults, domes, floors, and stairs in churches, seminaries, museums, train stations, building lobbies, state capitols, libraries, concert halls, government and university buildings, and private homes. In all, his firm created nearly 400 works in New York City alone. 

Due to strong foundations and his method of design, Gustavino ceilings never crack (unless disturbed) and they are fireproof. His style lived after his death, peaking in the 1920s and 1930s, seen in over one-thousand buildings, including many churches. 

The Basilica of St. Lawrence is perhaps Gustavino's greatest creation. A Spanish Renaissance gem, it was also his home parish and became his burial place, where he requested to be entombed. 

Gustavino first came to Asheville in the mid 1880s when he arrived from New York to work on the indoor and outdoor ceilings of the newly constructed Biltmore Estate, the largest single-family home in North America. Gustavino so enjoyed the rural area and green mountains that he purchased land and had constructed a flamboyant looking home at Black Mountain (the ruins of his "Spanish Castle" can still be seen there, today owned by Christmount). 

In 1905 Gustavino's design of the Basilica was chosen and construction began. It was completed in 1909 by his son, the year after his untimely death at age 65. The building is renowned for its solidity and remarkable design. What makes the construction so unique is that the entire building was constructed without steel beams, but instead with masonry, bricks, and tiles.

The massive dome, also visible from the air, stretches 82' x 58,' one of the largest elliptical masonry domes in the U.S. It is made of tile with a copper covering. The stone foundation is of local North Carolina granite. The solid brick superstructure was built to last centuries with strong durability and physical stability. 

The art inside and outside the church has its share of glazed terra-cotta tiles, gleaming with a dull radiance suggestive of diamond dust. Visitors who enter through the front entrance are met by an outdoor polychrome lunette of terra-cotta over the main entrance. Similar terra-cotta images can be seen on the face of the main altar (depicting the Last Supper) and the apse wall of the sanctuary, depicting life-sized images of the four Evangelists with St. Raphael and St. Michael the Archangel (interestingly, the image of St. Michael includes a depiction of the devil's head underfoot, a rare sight in a worship space). 

Above the main altar there is a precious work of art, a 17th-century Spanish style tableau that depicts the crucifixion. This true European masterpiece, carved from walnut, including statues of Our Lady and St. John. It is rare to have such a museum-quality work in an American church, a worthy backdrop for the such a renowned place of worship. 

Although the interior has been largely untouched, the position of the altar was tampered with in 1968. Hopefully that decision will be reconsidered and the altar restored to its original design. Evidently at some point another entrance was also added to the church, slightly damaging the dome with unusual cracking over time.  

The basilica's doors are open 15 hours a day and it receives approximately 133,000 visitors per year, with many walk-ins and visits from curious tourists who find inspiration within its walls.  Visitors are struck by the particular beauty of the church, with its unique domed ceiling and the warmth of the windows. 

The main draw is obviously the aesthetic influence of the basilica. It attracts by its beauty. This brings prestige and inspiration. It has stood the test of time and the challenges of age and change. It is a source of inspiration for residents and visitors alike, an immense expression of creativity that gives glory to God and brings something of joyous Mediterranean sunshine and happiness. 

May St. Lawrence, with his palm frond and gridiron of martyrdom pray for this parish and bless this community. Although Gustavino died before the completion of the basilica, his son Rafael Gustavino III ensured its completion and for that reason a debt of eternal gratitude is due to both men, father and son. His son went on to build the ceiling arch of the crypt chapel of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C., creating the largest masonry arch in the world.


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