Explore the ruins of the ‘Spanish Castle’ in Black Mt.

Melanie English
Special to The Black Mountain News

On Saturday, Feb. 20 the Swannanoa Valley Museum will pass through the ruins of the “Spanish Castle,” the estate of architect Rafael Guastavino just south of Black Mountain.

Examples of the internationally renowned architect’s craftsmanship grace many of America’s most famous Beaux-Arts landmarks, including the Boston Public Library, Grand Central Terminal, Grant’s Tomb, the Great Hall at Ellis Island, Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian, and the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the Biltmore Estate and Basilica of Saint Lawrence in Asheville.

This moderate 3.8-mile hike is the first hike in the 2016 Swannanoa Valley Rim Hike series. The series visits the highest peaks encircling the Swannanoa Valley. Over the course of a year, hikers traverse the highest and most historic skyline in eastern America. Participants can sign up for a single hike or complete the whole series.

Born in 1842 in Valencia, Spain, Rafael Guastavino y Moreno abandoned a promising musical career to pursue architecture, which he studied in Barcelona alongside modernist Antonio Gaudi. Guastavino was bestowed the title “mestre d’obres” (“master builder,” analogous to an architectural engineer) for his revival of a Catalan masonry technique of layering thin tiles to produce lightweight and fireproof self-supporting arches. The method may have been a region variation of Roman arches or introduced through the Islamic invasion in the 8th Century. Guastavino was awarded high-profile commissions, such as Barcelona’s largest textile factory, but after his first marriage failed, he packed up his youngest son and immigrated to New York in 1881.

Language proved a barrier as Guastavino struggled to secure commissions, finally landing the contract for the vaulted ceilings of the Boston Public Library in 1889, from the prominent firm of McKim, Mead, and White. The library’s holdings included rare books and the papers of John Adams, and thus the architects were willing to risk awarding the commission to a relatively unknown foreigner because of his fireproof masonry.

Guastavino created seven vaults for the Renaissance revival building and rose in the nation’s attention. The commission led to projects in 32 states. His company, the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Co., opened offices in 11 U.S. cities and eventually received 24 U.S. patents.

As Guastavino’s reputation grew, George Vanderbilt commissioned him to supervise the construction of vaults at the Biltmore Estate, visible in the entrance vestibule, the Winter Garden and the swimming pool. Guastavino relocated to North Carolina in 1891. In 1894, Guastavino started investing in land in eastern Buncombe County and across the ridge in McDowell County. Guastavino acquired additional acreage in 1897 and 1901, amassing more than 600 acres, most of which was never developed. In 1895, he built a home for himself and his second wife, Francesca, in a cove south of Black Mountain. The estate served as his primary residence for the last years of his life.

Situated on an east-west axis extending up into Brittin Cove and bounded by Lakey Creek to the south and N.C. 9 to the west, “Rhododendron” was a ramshackle, three-story whitewashed wooden house with a central bell tower. Through grander than local farmhouses, the house did not exhibit the cohesive construction technology that made the architect famous. Locals called the house the “Spanish Castle.” Guastavino did employ tile vaulting in the construction of a hillside wine cellar. He make cider from apple trees on the property. He had special bottles made, embossed with the estate’s name, and shipped cases of cider to friends and family during the holidays.

Guastavino continued his experiments with tile technology from the grounds of Rhododendron, taking advantage of North Carolina’s abundant clay and waterpower supplied by Lakey Creek and two manmade ponds. Guastavino built a gazebo overlooking the picturesque ponds. Although no formal landscape plans exist, the grounds show the influence of Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central Park and the Biltmore Estate grounds.

Guastavino built at least two kilns, one which still survives, complete with its 60-foot tall chimney fully intact. The kiln could fire thousands of tiles at a time, including those used in the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, completed a year after Guastavino’s death in 1908. The proximity of the railroad in Black Mountain enabled Guastavino to run his business from the estate (company letterheads from the turn of the 20th Century feature Rhododendron’s address). Rafael Jr. took over the business following his father’s death and in 1910 executed one of the largest domes in the world for New York’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.

Guastavino’s widow continued to reside at Rhododendron. Living as a recluse, she survived fire started by an old stove until her health declined and she passed away in 1946. The dilapidated estate was razed in the late 1940s. Today, the brick foundations of the “Spanish Castle” are visible on the grounds of Christmount, a national retreat, camp and conference center for the Disciples of Christ. The bell from the house’s tower was given to the Swannanoa Valley Museum.

The museum’s guided hike will travel from Sunset Mountain across Evans Knob through the Spanish Castle’s grounds to N.C. 9. The cost of the hike is $30 for museum members and $50 for nonmembers. Advanced registration is required by emailing info@swannanoa or calling 669-9566. The hike will meet at 8 a.m. at the Black Mountain Savings Bank at 200 E. State St.