BASILICA OF ST. LAWRENCE
97 Haywood Street
Asheville, NC 28801
Bella Morte Rating: 3 Tombstones
Upon approaching 97 Haywood Street in Asheville, one might wonder why we’d directed you there. The beautiful Spanish Renaissance Basilica of Saint Lawrence at that address is certainly not a cemetery, you’d say, and you would be right…at least to an extent. But let’s start at the beginning…
Rafael Guastavino, primary architect and major financial contributor of the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, came to America from Barcelona, Spain. Having experienced a tumultuous relationship, he and his wife, Pilar Exposito, separated in 1881. Pilar took their three oldest sons and immigrated to Argentina while, on the 26th of February, 1881, Rafael and his youngest son, Rafael III, set sail for America.
An accomplished architect in his home country, Rafael struggled for five long years before finally finding an American audience for his flat brick masonry technique, a revival of Catalan vaulting, a Spanish system of layering tile and mortar. The system allowed for the creation of enormous, freestanding curved surfaces. Once the technique was accepted in America, numerous contracts began to arrive and, from there, the story of Guastavino’s success is, as they say, history. His work can now be seen in over one thousand buildings including Grand Central Station, Carnegie Hall, Grant’s tomb and, of course, Asheville’s Basilica of Saint Lawrence.
Guastavino came to Asheville, North Carolina, to work on the swimming pool and vaulted ceilings in the grand Biltmore House. Finding the area to his liking, he built a home he named Rhododendron on a 1,000 acre estate in Black Mountain just outside Asheville. He lived there with a Mexican Governess named Francisca Ramirez whom he had met years before. The two eventually married and had a daughter, Genevieve.
Although unconfirmed, one popular story states that Guastavino was turned away from Mass in Asheville one day because the church was overcrowded. His solution? Build the Basilica of Saint Lawrence. Whether the story is true or not, the indisputable fact is that Rafael Guastavino’s hand was the guiding force in the construction of the Basilica which, due to his tile and mortar building system, now encompasses the largest freestanding elliptical dome in North America. Measuring 58 by 82 feet, the structure is a marvel to behold.
Sadly, Guastavino himself did not live to see the completion of his masterpiece. He succumbed to lung disease in 1908 at the age of 66, three years into the project. Work on the Basilica was completed by his son, Rafael III, in 1909.
Of course, while you may or may not find this information interesting or useful, it is all pertinent to our purpose, for you see, Rafael Guastavino had three deathbed wishes. The first was for his son to complete work at the Basilica. The second was that Guastavino himself be entombed within the walls of his beloved masterpiece. The third was that his crypt be large enough to also contain the remains of his wife and their daughter when their deaths occurred.
Wishes number one and two were fulfilled. Thus, the inclusion of the Basilica here at Bella Morte, for it is both church and crypt. And a fascinating crypt it is.
Enter the Chapel of Our Lady, just left of the main altar, and you will see the sacristy door, carved of wood and depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd. You will also see a stained glass window portraying Mary holding the infant Christ. The focal point of the chapel, however, is a white marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary being assumed into Heaven. Turning your back to this sculpture, you will find yourself facing an arched, blue tiled door featuring an earth-toned cross at its centre. Above are two tile work scrolls. The uppermost reads “A.D. 1908.” The lower reads “R. Guastavino.” The door, designed by Guastavino’s son, has a heavy brass handle encircling a keyhole. Do not be misled, however. The tomb is not kept locked. A firm tug will see the massive, cement-lined door swing open to reveal the treasure within. Namely, the crypt of Rafael Guastavino himself. The crypt front is decorated with randomly-placed white tiles inset with a half circle plate with three angels surrounding a Latin inscription which, translated to English, reads:
Here rests Rafael Guastavino y Moreno,
a distinguished architect from Spain.
He died with a pure heart on February 2nd, 1908.
May he rest in peace.
The crypt walls are composed of dull gray concrete blocks and it is painfully apparent that Guastavino’s tomb, hovering amidst the empty space between floor and ceiling, was meant to have eternal companions. Recalling his final deathbed wish, it is apparent that the empty spaces were intended for the crypts of the architect’s wife and daughter. Alas, that wish was not fulfilled. We have heard two reasons for this. The first is that, sometime after Guastavino’s death, the City of Asheville banned the burial of bodies on any land, public or private, other than designated cemeteries. Conversely, we have heard that the observance of Canon Law 1242 is the cause of this post-mortem insult to Guastavino’s request. The law reads: “Bodies are not to be buried in churches unless it is a question of burying in their own church the Roman Pontiff, cardinals, or diocesan bishops, including retired ones.” Perhaps that particular piece of Canon Law had not been written at the time of Guastavino’s death or perhaps Church officials turned a blind eye to the law in deference to the architect of their grand new Basilica.
Whatever the reason for the decision, it was made rather quickly as Guastavino’s daughter, Genevieve, followed him to the grave a mere two years after his passing. Both she and her mother, Francisca, rest not at Saint Lawrence, but at nearby Riverside Cemetery.
No wonder, then, that stories of hauntings abound. It is told that Guastavino roams Saint Lawrence in search of his loved ones and that his wife and daughter also rest uneasily as they, too, seek their beloved.
Ghosts or not, the crypt of Rafael Guastavino is a must-see stop for taphophiles travelling in the Asheville area. Don’t miss it.
Rafael Guastavino, Sr.