PALACES FOR THE PEOPLE: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces Opens Saturday, April 8, 2017

Palaces for the People Exhibition, 2107, Swannanoa Valley Museum. Photo by Joe Standaert.

From 1882 to 1943, in 31 states and 6 countries, Rafael Guastavino and his son created more than 600 unique tile domes and vaultings that met his criteria of health, safety, and beauty.

PALACES FOR THE PEOPLE: GUASTAVINO AND AMERICA’S GREAT PUBLIC SPACES is an exhibition about his life and works that opened to great acclaim in Boston, moved to Washington, D. C., and New York City, and will open in the celebrated little town of Black Mountain, North Carolina, location of Guastavino’s former estate.

The exhibition opens in the Swannannoa Valley Museum April 8 and will run nine months, closing December 1, 2017. The museum is at 223 West State Street. The hours are 10 to 5 Tuesday-Saturday.

A native of Valencia, Spain, Guastavino, then 40 years old, arrived in New York with his 9-year-old son in 1881. He had been so successful as a master architect and tile artist in Spain that he brought with him 40,000 dollars, a great sum for an immigrant in those days.

After many high and low points, he achieved his first great success in his adopted country by creating tile vaultings and ceilings throughout the new Boston Public Library.

As awareness grew of Guastavino’s fine works in various types of buildings, some listed among the country’s ten greatest, George Vanderbilt contracted him to bring his talent for tile vaulting into major areas of the Biltmore Estate under construction in Asheville, North Carolina. Guastavino’s work can be seen in the Biltmore House atrium’s tiled vaults and domes and in the basement swimming pool.

Guastavino was so inspired by the mountain spectacles in and around Black Mountain that he bought 1,100 acres. The great tile and brick artist built his house of wood from trees on his property. He built several kilns, and he became a wine maker. An accomplished violinist, pianist, and composer, he often played for family and friends. He also wrote several books.

Visitors to the exhibition may venture less than a mile from the museum and take a self-guided tour of Guastavino’s Estate, which now belongs to Christmount Conference Center, the site of a proposed Guastavino museum.

Unable to find a seat in the tiny Catholic church in Asheville, he built his last great structure, the St. Lawrence Basilica. The dome is the largest free-standing elliptical dome in North America. The master builder is buried under that dome.

This is the story of the celebrated accomplishments of father and son. Rafael, Jr. carried on the tile business, including impressive ornamentation in his own creations, such as the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station in New York. He was an innovator in acoustic tile. He sold the company in in 1943; he died in 1950; the company closed in 1962.

Among the other many father and son achievements are the National Cathedral in Washington, the Queen’s Bridge Market, the Reception Hall at Ellis Island, the Elephant House at Bronx Zoo, The Nebraska State Capitol building, the train station in Buffalo, New York, and the University of Pittsburgh Cathedral of Learning.

Truly palaces open to the people for more than a century, their works included colleges; churches and cathedrals; zoos; tennis and boating houses; memorials; government, business, and hotel buildings; private residences; restaurants; train terminals and subway stations, even swimming pools, as at Biltmore.

Four major artifacts have been added to the exhibition in Black Mountain — an enormous iron bell and a huge exotic fountain, a four-piece parlor set rescued from a fire in the house and restored, and the black dress Guastavino’s widow wore for several decades.

The Exhibition is a co-operative venture of Christmount Conference Center.

In connection with the exhibit, there will be conferences, lectures, performances, and other exhibits in Black Mountain, Asheville, and around the nation, involving tile artisans, architect, engineers, musicians, artists, poets, and actors.

Permanent Exhibit – Located in our 2nd floor gallery

steppstopPathways from Our Past

The Swannanoa Valley has been a pathway for animals and humans for more than 12,000 years as they crossed the Blue Ridge over the Catawba River headwaters or through the Swannanoa Gap. It was one of the main routes taken by frontiersmen and pioneers making their way west.

Our 2nd Floor Permanent Exhibits include:

  • The animals and plants of the region
  • Early hunters and gatherers, Cherokee
  • Pioneer settlement
  • Stage coach and drover’s path
  • The coming of the railroad
  • Into the 20th century—paved roads, automobiles and development
  • The pathways of today

Temporary Exhibits – Located in our 1st floor gallery; change seasonally

Fall 2016 – Edward L. DuPuy’s Artisans of the Appalachians

Hardy Davidson, Swannanoa (Photography by Ed DuPuy.)

Hardy Davidson, woodcarver, Swannanoa (Photograph by Ed DuPuy.)

Born in Blacksburg, VA, in 1914, Ed DuPuy moved to Black Mountain, NC, as a teenager. From the 1950s until the 1980s, he made a living photographing weddings, special events, conference groups, real estate, and commercial subjects, but he would also capture everyday life and landscapes around Black Mountain out of pure interest.

He was also an artisan woodworker whose antique reproductions no doubt are still in many homes. He taught classes at Black Mountain College, was a dedicated member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, and published a book, Artisans of the Appalachians, about regional craftsmakers. Never before seen photographs of the artisans featured in the publication are exhibited here.

Special thanks to Chelsea Ensley for creating this web version of the exhibit.


Spring 2014 – Moonshine in the Mountains


Contrary to the stereotype of the lazy, drunken moonshiner, many supported their families and community by paying taxes, mortgage, and store bills – even starting businesses – from the revenue their liquor produced.

Moonshiners are the people who make the alcohol, while Bootleggers are the smugglers who transport and sell it. In colonial times, these distributors would conceal their product inside their tall riding boots, which is how they got their name. 

More recently, bootleggers in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s took to racing cars packed with moonshine through the night to avoid local police. Their mechanical skills developed as they learned to increase the horsepower of their vehicles to outrun the authorities.

This created a culture of car lovers in the US that eventually grew into the popular NASCAR racing series. In fact, the winner of the first NASCAR race had used the same car to make a bootleg run a week earlier.

Special thanks to Chelsea Ensley for creating this web version of the exhibit.


A Timeline of Women’s History in the Swannanoa Valley

Women of every description have inhabited the Swannanoa Valley since the Cherokee claimed this land as hunting ground. In March, we celebrate Women’s History Month and take the opportunity to especially tell the stories of the women who shaped the history of our Valley as we know it today. Follow along to learn more about just a few of the amazing women who made their mark on the Swannanoa Valley.

Special thanks to Andreea Woods for helping create this exhibit.