Under the Dome

The architectural genius of Rafael Guastavino

By Nan Graham

If you are not too jaded, you may have been hooked a few years back on the TV series of a town trapped under an invisible dome — “Under the Dome,” filmed here in Wilmington and its environs — Stephen King’s tale of the inexplicable dome, which dropped over a small town that cuts it off from all contact with the outside world. Chaos and terror follow, with neighbors seeing the worst and best of other neighbors’ behavior as the panic rises.

In the nonfiction world, another Accidental Southerner created real-life architectural domes all over America. They were masterpieces of a brilliant artisan, Rafael Guastavino, who, though born in Valencia, Spain, became a transplanted Southerner after he took a high-profile job in North Carolina.

After immigrating to the United States in 1881 and establishing himself by collaboration with such architects as Stanford White, Richard Morris Hunt and Charles McKim, Guastavino created some of the “most monumental spaces in America,” wrote architectural expert Thomas Prudon. In 1900, an incredible eight of the 10 most beautiful buildings in America featured installations by Guastavino. A mind-boggling thousand of his installations still exist today, long after his death in 1905.

His amazing structures were built on the principle the architect set up in his patented “Guastavino Tile Arch System.” The amazing vaulted roof with absence of any sign of support was also fireproof. So meticulous was Guastavino in his work that he even made and fired his own tiles, some soundproof, to construct his re-creation of an ancient method called “cohesive construction.”

Guastavino made a substantial imprint on American architecture. The entrance vault to the Boston Library, the arch over Plymouth Rock, vaults over St. John the Divine, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Great Hall at Ellis Island, Carnegie Hall and the Chapel at West Point are only a handful of his hundreds of soaring vaulted ceilings in the United States. An incredible example of the acoustics of his tiled domes can be found in the archway in the lower concourse of Grand Central Station outside the Oyster Bar. If you stand in a corner outside and speak in a normal voice, you can be heard clearly by another person 32 feet away . . . with his back to you!

Some 14 years after arriving in this country, Rafael Guastavino headed to North Carolina at the bidding of George Washington Vanderbilt, who had determined that he would outdo all Vanderbilts and their impressive Newport and Manhattan mansions by building Biltmore. He did. Even now, Biltmore Estate remains the largest private residence ever constructed in the United States. Guastavino was just the man to help create Vanderbilt’s extravagant vision, fashioned after castles in the Loire Valley: a Carolina chateau in the Smoky Mountains west of Asheville, overlooking the French Broad River and a jaw-dropping 125,000 acres, which now comprise Pisgah National Forest.

His designs include ceilings in Biltmore’s Lodge Gate, arches featured next to the Winter Room, and those soaring over the great house’s massive indoor swimming pool. In Asheville, he also constructed the magnificent St. Lawrence Basilica, the church where he was eventually buried.

Guastavino fell in love with North Carolina and ended up spending the rest of his life in these beautiful mountains. He and his wife bought 1,000 acres just outside of Black Mountain, not far from Montreat, built an eccentric 25-room wooden mansion the locals called the Spanish Castle, but which the couple named Rhododendron.

The renowned artisan and his beautiful, much younger (17 years), wife with black hair down past her waist . . . some say she was from Spain, others from Mexico . . . were the talk of Black Mountain.

The grounds at Rhododendron were carefully designed and transformed by the architect himself. The Spanish architect met the renowned creator of Central Park during Frederick Law Olmsted’s extensive landscape work at Biltmore. Guastavino was heavily influenced by the genius of Olmsted, called the “Father of American Landscape Architecture” for his vision of the natural world. Guastavino created at Rhododendron his own version of Biltmore: terraces, pathways, roads, dams and ponds carved into the rolling landscapes around the grounds.

Their “castle” was originally built to be a barn, it was reported. It was a curious multilevel concoction built of wood from timber in the architect’s newly acquired forest near Black Mountain, cheap and easily accessible. The Guastavinos lived on the second floor and the livestock on the first. Eventually the animals moved to a new barn, and the entire house was converted into a lavishly decorated mansion for the couple. They gave extravagant parties, with wine from their own cellars, at the huge mansion built entirely of timber, no fireproof tiles in the construction, which ironically burned years later after the architect’s death. His widow, still living in the house, barely escaped — badly burned but alive.

Guastavino designed the Basilica Shrine of St. Mary here in Wilmington in the Spanish Baroque style. His trademark exuberant ceiling and floating staircase are a fine example of his vaulted technique: using no steel beams or supports. What must Mother Teresa have thought of the Spanish immigrant’s work when she worshipped here in 1975, 64 years after Guastavino finished the structure?

The transplanted Spanish Southerner is buried at his St. Lawrence Basilica, which he designed himself in Asheville, not far from the site of his home place Rhododendron in Black Mountain.

Another critic declared of the remarkable Accidental Southerner Rafael Guastavino, “He is probably one of the best examples of a Renaissance man . . . who never got any P.R.”

Nan Graham is a frequent contributor with unparalleled knowledge of the south.

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