On Saturday, Jan. 20, the Swannanoa Valley Museum & History Center will pass through the ruins of the "Spanish Castle," the estate of architect Rafael Guastavino, subject of the museum’s popular 2017 exhibit "Palaces for the People." The hike just south of Black Mountain is the first of the museum's Swannanoa Rim Explorer Hiking Series.
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 4.2-mile hike is the first hike in the 2018 Swannanoa Valley Rim Explorer Hike series. The series visits the highest peaks encircling the Swannanoa Valley, enabling hikers over the course of a year to 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" meaning “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. After his first marriage failed, he packed up his youngest son, Rafael Jr., in 1881 and immigrated to New York.
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. The commission led to projects in 32 states for his company, the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Co.
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, he 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.
“Rhododendron” was a ramshackle three-story white-washed 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 so he could pursue his hobby of cider making from apple trees on the property. He had special bottles made that were 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 the water power supplied by Lakey Creek and two man-made ponds. He built at least two kilns, one which still survives, complete with its 60-foot tall chimney. The kiln could fire thousands of tiles at a time, including those used in the Basilica of Saint Lawrence. The proximity of the railroad in Black Mountain enabled Guastavino, who died in 1908, to run his business from the estate. 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, Francisca, continued to reside at Rhododendron. Living as a recluse, she survived a fire started by an old stove. 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 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. Register on the museum’s website swannanoavalleymuseum.org, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 669-9566. The hike will meet at 8 a.m. at the museum.