Friday, September 14, 2012

Some History of the Basilica

(photos by Michael Oppenheim)

Some history of the Basilica:

Paul Roebling Jr,  grandson of the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, (Yes!)  first started development of Haywood Street exactly one century ago with The Haywood Building. At that time, Haywood Street was little more than a ravine running along the base of the resplendent Battery Park Hotel property. This is not the same Battery Park Hotel as the one standing at the north end of the city today. It was a Queen Anne-style green-painted wood and was owned by the Coxe family. Thomas Wolfe spent hours in the lobby watching the guests as they arrived, and he lamented its loss heavily when E.W. Grove purchased the land, razed the hotel and destroyed the mountain it stood on. Both Vanderbilt and Grove first espied their respective mountain real estate legacies from windows of that original hotel.

Guastavino came to Asheville on a commission from Richard Morris Hunt, the first Fine Art architect in the U.S. and designer of the Biltmore Estate. The Spaniard, from Valencia, had devised a method of tiling for which he had secured a patent, a method that revolutionized the making of domes.

Rafael Guastavino, Richard Sharp Smith and James Vester Miller all worked on Basilica of St. Lawrence. This makes it a monument to multicultural and creative collaboration. News of this collaboration has only recently come to light, as is the case with much of Asheville's architectural and social history. The city is still waking from its economic sleep and much needs to be remembered before dashing forward. While Executive Director of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, Martha Fullington spotted Sharp Smith's signature on the blueprints. Other Sharp Smith/ Miller collaborations include YMI, St. Matthias, Hopkins Chapel and many more. Miller was born into slavery and became arguably the most prolific builder in the city during the real estate boom. Each of these men is a legend unto himself. The Basilica is the only structure on which all three worked.

Guastavino died prior to the Basilica's completion and is buried within. His son completed his work. Recently in Manhattan, one of the designer's bridges in lower Manhattan was converted into a restaurant; this means New York traffic was re-directed to preserve his work. Manhattan now features Guastavino's work in tours, including one of the abandoned City Hall subway station. In 1904 NYC Mayor McClennon specifically demanded Guastavino's craftsmanship saying ""My station under City Hall will be more beautiful than the rest." In the Basilica we have the last work of a man to whose work MIT devotes an entire department. The school brought together engineers from Britain and Spain to design a sustainable conference center, Pines Calyx, based entirely on his work.

The Basilica of St. Lawrence was deemed a basilica in 1993 by Pope John Paul II, based on the criteria comprised of liturgical norms, exemplary performance of ritual and compliance with the General Statutes of the Roman Missal. The honor was bestowed, in part, because this is Rafael Guastavino’s only church. By the time he came to Asheville, Guastavino’s American projects included Grant's Tomb, the Great Hall at Ellis Island, Grand Central Station, Carnegie Hall, and the chapel at West Point, the Duke Chapel in Durham, the Jefferson Standard Building in Greensboro, the Motley Memorial in Chapel Hill and St. Mary's Catholic Church in Wilmington, among more than six hundred remaining works around the world and in U.S.

Here is a video celebrating New York's love of its Guastavino legacies

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Emailing Mother Theresa: On Losing the Art of Gazing

I sent my first email in 1996. My boyfriend at the time had a computer, and the computer had internet. He sent emails all the time. When I was working on a project with PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health) to develop a salivary ferning microscope that was cost-efficient enough to be distributed to impoverished women in India and Africa, I was asked for my email address. My boyfriend said I could use his. 

One afternoon, my colleague at PATH forwarded an email from Mother Theresa. She was giving PATH her approval of the device. Once you get an email from Mother Theresa, there isn't much else to anticipate (Note to the 20000 senders of emails I've received since: you understand). The project got tanked along the way, despite my patchwork re-design that involved a cardboard kaleidescope from a child's birthday party and a 50x magnifying glass. I waited another two years to get my own email address, and another two passed before I started to actually "use" the internet, which I did because I was a teacher and had to teach my students how to use it. Now I always use it.

Nicholas Carr is coming to Asheville to speak about his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains on September 28 at 7 p.m. at AB-Tech. It is part of my job as Program Co-ordinator of the Master of Arts in Writing Program at Lenoir-Rhyne University Center for Graduate Studies of Asheville to promote the event. As often happens in tasks relating to writing, it is now a meditation.

I am reflecting on how the internet has changed my brain. I don't like how my brain feels when it has to look at itself and ask this question. It feels wrong. It feels like the first twenty minutes of a therapy session when I don't think I have anything to talk about but sit in the chair anyway. And then it all comes out.

But after that year of emailing with Mother Theresa (which only happened once), I lived (sans boyfriend) in a small cabin on the shores of Sequim Bay, off the Strait of Juan de Fuca. While I suppose I could have had internet since I did have a telephone, I did not. When someone wanted to talk with me, they called me, on a land line, without caller ID. I spent my time sitting on the rocks gazing out at the water, waiting for a seal to break the surface from below or an eagle to break the surface from above. Those were pretty much my choices. Those and the herons and loons and skoters who held the surface, dipping above and below it at will. I learned to gaze.

Gazing was a practice. The longer I gazed, the more I saw. The hours moved slowly, tremendously so. All of nature was my computer screen.

In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr examines how internet grazing has spoiled our appetite, and threatens altogether our literary digestive tract, for real reading. He also directs our attention toward these other implications of having our very plastic neural circuitry reconfigured through practice of computer gazing. I am reminded that I used to gaze at nature in my free time. This practice has now been replaced by cruising the internet for news and information.  Have I lost my patience with stillness and slowness? Do I really get antsy at the beach? Could I go back to that year I got the email from Mother Theresa and sit still on a rock for hours and not wonder if someone "liked" me?

For more information about Nicholas Carr's visit to Asheville on September 28 at 7 pm at Ferguson Auditorium, a free event, please visit And while this is my job to tell you about the event, I'd love to know if you still gaze?