A Touch of Asheville

I’ve had some extra time on my hands this spring between the completion of one contract and the beginning of another. And since time, in my mind, most often equals “chance for a trip,” I’ve been taking a few little ones around to visit long-lost friends and rekindle important relationships before, well, you know, before the things that happen begin to happen.

Most recently, I flew down to North Carolina, where I checked in with a dear friend from my divinity school days and also a former State Department colleague. Since I managed to schedule my visit with a significant heat wave (over 100 degrees F with humidity off the charts), the latter suggested a day trip to Asheville, and I quickly agreed.

I had visited Asheville once before when living in NC a couple decades ago and remembered it as a lovely little city up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I checked in with TripAdvisor, my go-to site, and was surprised to see that listed amid the Biltmore and beer tastings, there was something called the Basilica of Saint Lawrence. Who knew? And since my friend J is an intrepid soul and a curious traveler like me, she was game to add it to our itinerary.

Serving the faithful since 1909


The published information is a bit modest on the reason that this piece of Spanish Renaissance architecture came to be standing in the middle of the the Appalachians, but to my recollection, there were two determined priests, named appropriately enough Peter and Paul, who managed to commission the then-famous architect Rafael Guastavino to build the church in order to serve the Catholics of the region. Guastavino had immigrated to the US from Barcelona where he had designed homes and factories for the industrial elite of Catalan. He brought with him a passion for tile and the secret of an ancient building technique that had been used on the Iberian Peninsula for centuries, possibly of Middle Eastern origin.

Arriving in the Piedmont to work on the Biltmore House in the mid-1880s, Guastavino  apparently fell in love with the lush rolling hills of Asheville and built his own house nearby. Toward the end of his life, his design was accepted for the church and it was built between 1905 and 1909. Guastavino himself died in 1908 and is buried between the church walls – his tomb is on view for parishioners and guests. In addition to the Biltmore and the Basilica, I was astonished to learn that Guastavino’s style and the influence of his tile method can be found in over a thousand buildings across the US, including Grant’s Tomb, Grand Central Station, Carnegie Hall, the Chapel at West Point, and many many others.

No wood or steel

No wood or steel

But what’s a basilica, you ask (as did I)? It is a Greco/Roman word meaning “public building,” but is now a term given by the Pope to particular churches because of their historical or other significance. There are 56 such places in the US (again, news to me). The title has to be earned through three criteria: long history with the local people; providing the possibility of more than one service celebrated at the same time (separate little chapels) and (naturally) performance of all rites “in an exemplary way with fidelity to liturgical norms.” Privileges are accorded thereto.

Busy granting plenary indulgences to the Faithful

Busy granting plenary indulgences to the Faithful

Lawrence, himself said to be born in Spain, was appointed a deacon by Pope Sixtus II in roughly 257 CE. He died a martyr’s death, it is told, because the pope after Sixtus wanted Lawrence to turn over all the Church’s material treasures to him for his personal use. Legend has it Lawrence was appalled by this crass bid for wealth and hid or gave away most of the items he could find, replying in a cheeky manner that “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering were the true treasures of the Church.” This story of course doesn’t end well for Lawrence, and no less than the Italian master Tintoretto painted his difficult end. His name graces many things around the world, including the river that separates the US and Canada.

Well, all this history and architecture makes even the most die-hard traveler a might peckish, so after this enlightening visit we hied over to the Grove Park Inn for a little luncheon repast.

Quite the pile

Quite the pile

Another architectural wonder of the region, the GPI was “built from granite boulders hewn from Sunset Mountain”and opened in 1913. The hotel was envisioned by a E. W. Grove who had made his fortune selling “Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic,” apparently an elixir that cured enough ills to fund this enormous project. The printed propaganda tells us that Grove’s son-in-law designed the property and then “it took a crew of 400 men only 12 months to build the majestic landmark, dragging hundreds of tons of boulders up the mountainside with the aid of teams of mules, ropes and pulleys, wagons and a lone steam shovel.” (Poor mules).

Here’s a shot of the entrance hall, which I heard is decorated in grand style for the Christmas holidays:

Where's my gimlet?

Where’s my gimlet?

…and a chair in the design of the day…

Classic Arts and Crafts

Classic Arts and Crafts

… a view of the more modern side of the resort….

GPI View

…and finally a shot of my good friend J as we enjoy a lovely meal on the veranda. Skal!

Magical moment

Magical moment

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1 Response to A Touch of Asheville

  1. Fascinating history of the basilica!

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