Asheville, NC, is renown for its eclecticism, so it’s hardly surprising that amid the community designated as one of the “Top 25 Small Cities for Art” sits the striking Basilica of Saint Lawrence, a Spanish Renaissance-style Roman Catholic church that stands out in a region noted for architectural beauty.
Formally named the Minor Basilica of St. Lawrence the Deacon & Martyr, the church was designed and built in 1905 by Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino.
The building is remarkable in that, despite its size, it was constructed with no wood or steel; all walls, floors, ceiling and pillars are of tile, granite, stone or brick. The roof is of tile with a copper covering.
This, even though the basilica’s dome has a span of 58 feet by 82 feet and is said to be the largest freestanding elliptical dome in North America.
Guastavino (1842-1908) came to Asheville to work on the famed Biltmore House in the mid-1890s and opted to remain in the region even after his work on the impressive structure was completed.
He had immigrated to the US from Barcelona in 1881. Prior to his arrival in the US, Guastavino had been successful in his home country, designing large factories and homes for Catalan industrialists.
Guastavino is credited with reviving an ancient tile-and-mortar building system that had once been used extensively in Spain. It involved using layers of thin tile bedded in layers of mortar, creating curved horizontal surfaces, according to Basilica of Saint Lawrence literature.
In the basilica every horizontal surface is made using this title-and-mortar technique.
By the turn of the 20th century, Guastavino was working leading architects across the United States, using his patented “Tile Arch System.”
His work can be found in more than 1,000 structures, including the Boston Public Library; Grand Central Terminal, Grant’s Tomb, Carnegie Hall, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York; the US Supreme Court building and the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC; Saint Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia; Pittsburgh’s Union Station; the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago; and in the Nebraska State Capitol.
Besides beautiful stained glass, much of which was made in Munich, and array of statues of Catholic saints, the basilica features a couple of other interesting aspects.
Above the main altar is a painting by Massimo Stanzione (1686-1656) depicting the Visitation that dates from the 1600s. Also, the lunette over the basilica’s main entrance, representing Christ giving the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to St. Peter, is made of polychrome terra cotta.
Today, 110 years after work began on the basilica, preservation efforts are underway.
Issues include worn copper sheathing on the roof and at other locations that has allowed water to seep into masonry, causing deterioration; and expansion and contraction related to rain and freezing conditions have chemically weakened and dissolved portions of the mortar between bricks and tiles, which has also accelerated water penetration.
In addition, hand-carved stone decorative elements are damaged and some stained glass windows and their metal supports need replacing or stabilizing.
The pains that the Basilica of Saint Lawrence are experiencing are not uncommon among older structures; it is the church’s good fortune, one hopes, that the region’s devotion to art and beauty will enable it to raise the funds it needs to successfully preserve this treasure.