Picture it: Asheville, 1905. The Basilica of Saint Lawrence — one of the largest freestanding elliptical domes in North America — has been designed by Rafael Guastavino + Richard Sharp Smith, and it’s slated for completion in 1909.
At the same time, the city is riding a wave of financial prosperity and architectural innovation, with notable architects like Frederick Law Olmsted and Richard Morris Hunt flocking to Asheville, awestruck by Blue Ridge beauty. And the Biltmore House has been open for a decade.
As the Basilica eyes its 113th birthday — and prepares to seek between $15-20 million in funding for critical repairs — let’s look back at what makes this historic building so special.
The origin story
Renowned Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, who originally came to town to work on the Biltmore House, declared that Asheville needed a bigger Catholic church soon after settling in Black Mountain in the mid 1890s.
After roping in his pal and fellow architect Richard Sharp Smith, the duo got to work, fundraising and sketching plans for “an opulent testament to the local Catholic community’s faith.”
The Basilica, like Guastavino’s other signature projects, was fashioned in the Spanish Renaissance Revival style, meaning it used ancient Catalonian building methods and materials such as stone, brick, tile, and mortar. Other famous examples of this style include Carnegie Hall, Grand Central Terminal, and the Boston Public Library.
This was Guastavino’s final project before he died in 1908. Fun fact: His son Raphael Guastavino, Jr. saw the project to completion, and to this day, his father’s body is entombed in the church.
- The building uses zero wood or steel beams, instead relying solely on tile and masonry material for its enduring stability.
- The center dome has a clear span of 58 x 82 ft and is composed of tile with a patina copper covering.
- Ten of its elaborate stained glass windows, which depict scenes from the life of Jesus, were made in Munich, Germany by the Royal Bavarian Establishment of Franz Meyer and Company, which were considered the world’s best makers of glass at the time.
- Inside, there’s also a Spanish woodcarving from the mid-17th century and a 17th-century painting of “The Visitation” by Massimo Stanzione.
Over the years:
- In 1978, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
- The building was given the ultimate recognition of being dedicated as a basilica by the Pope in 1993.
- It remains the only basilica to exist in Western North Carolina.
Want to visit?
You’re in luck. The Basilica, located at 97 Haywood St. in downtown Asheville, is open for self-guided tours on Mondays from 11 a.m.-12 p.m., and on Tuesday-Thursdays from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3-5 p.m. There’s also daily masses, confessions, and Sunday mass offerings, which you explore here.