Museum reopens with ‘Palaces for the People’ exhibit

David Madden
Special to The Black Mountain News

Black Mountain townspeople, Ashevillians and tourists who attended opening day of the exhibition “Palaces for the People, Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces” expressed amazement at the exhibition.

Swannanoa Valley Museum in Black Mountain, reopened on April 8, is the venue for the exhibit, which was earlier seen to great acclaim in Boston, Washington and New York City.

“The quality of this exhibition is on a par with those that come to the L.B.J. Presidential Library in Austin,” said Barbara Whitlock, who serves as a docent there, along with her husband Russ.

Lindsay Mitchell, a server at Que Sera restaurant, and her boyfriend James Burns were impressed with the grandiose scale of the exhibition. Margaret Stanley of Black Mountain, remembering having seen many poorly lit exhibitions, was impressed by how well-lit the elements are.

“The (Raphael) Guastavino exhibition at the Swannanoa Valley Historical Museum showcases one of the most monumental world cultural influences enriching the greater Asheville area,” Michael Sartisky said in an email. A Fairview resident, he is the former director of Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

“Seeing (Asheville’s) Basilica of St. Lawrence in the company of his other magnificent structures across the United States and his native Spain enables us to evade ever taking (the exhibition) for granted,” Sartisky said.

Among the 40 local business people and individuals who helped fund the exhibition are Carol and Joe Tyson. They donated a parlor set that was rescued from the fire at Guastavino’s estate and restored. “This show is far grander than we ever imagined it would be,” said Carol Tyson.

“That such a world-renowned artisan as Guastavino made his home in Black Mountain testifies to the powerful effect our mountains has upon people,” local historian and museum board chairman Wendell Begley said. “And this exhibit about his life and work enhances the importance of our uniquely endowed museum.”

The Biltmore Estate and the Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville provided artifacts for display in the exhibition.

When he learned that Christmount Conference Center plans to construct a museum devoted to the life and work of master builder Guastivino, M.I.T. professor John Ochsendorf, the creator of the exhibition, decided to donate all the materials of the exhibition. He had come to Christmount to speak at the dedication of the walking tour of the ruins and remnants of the Guastavino Estate that hotelier John McKibbon had funded. Local hoteliers Isa and Toni Fraga are major donors to the exhibition.

A major authority on the Guastavinos, Oschendoft is the author of a famous book called “Guastavino Vaulting, The Art of Structural Tile.” Ochsendorf is now in Rome, serving as director of the American Academy there.

Rob Morris, the new director of Christmount Conference Center, which is caretaker of the materials, expressed great satisfaction. “The Guastavino display at the museum is one of the most fascinating depictions of the life of Rafael Guastavino, a world-renowned architect - and it's right here in Black Mountain,” Morris said.

Working to open the exhibition were museum director Anne Chesky Smith and Kathryn Cutshall, assistant director. Mike Murphy, his wife Mary Alice, and Helen Johnson, Guastavino historian, worked all day and into the night for weeks erecting the massive and complex exhibition.

Black Mountain mayor Mike Sobol provided town help in moving the heavy fountain that once set in the reflecting pool at Guastavino’s estate.

Co-directors of the exhibit are local novelist David Madden and Mike Murphy, former director of Christmount Conference Center in Black Mountain.