Destinations No Passport Required: Unexpected US Architecture

by Kate Thorman | November 05, 2019

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum

Miami, FL, is dappled with its pastel-hued Art Deco buildings. Los Angeles, CA, has a lock on dreamy Spanish Revival villas.

And everyone knows to check out the latest from contemporary “starchitects” when wandering New York, NY. But you don’t have to shell out the cash for a big-city trip or overseas jaunt to be wowed by great buildings.

From Victorian mansions to modernist museums, there are a host of amazing architectural destinations across the United States that won’t break your budget or have you digging around your drawers for that passport.

Gas up the car for a road trip or book a domestic flight to see world-class architecture across the country.

Exterior of the Miller House and Garden, Columbus, IN
The Miller House and Garden. Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art

Columbus, IN

Mecca for Modernism

The first hint that something special was afoot in this small southern Indiana city was when a striking, modern geometric church by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen rose up amid the traditional 19th-century Victorian buildings in 1942. And it didn't end there: In the wake of this triumph J. Irwin Miller — the young local businessman who had recommended Saarinen — decided to shepherd a full-on transformation of Columbus. Explore this relaxed city and you’ll find more than 70 iconic Modernist structures, most built between the early ‘50s and late ’70s.

Best of all, many of these libraries, churches, community centers and government offices are public buildings. So, visitors can explore these Modernist gems for free. Another way to see these marvels is on one of the Columbus Area Visitor Center’s tours — don’t miss out on the tour of the Miller house itself, designed in the 1950s by Eliel’s son Eero Saarinen and a team of renowned 20th-century architects.

The exterior of the Menil Collection, in Houston, TX
The Menil Collection

Houston, TX

Architecture as art

This Gulf city often gets overlooked architecturally, but it is one of the only major American cities constrained by virtually no zoning laws, making it home to some of the most ambitious buildings constructed since World War II. French immigrants and modern art enthusiasts John and Dominique de Menil hired Philip Johnson to build their house in 1948 — and other Houstonians, newly flush from the post-war oil and industrial boom, soon followed suit.

Before long, world-renowned Modernist architects were building everything from skyscrapers to schools around town. Today, a visit to the Museum District reveals a neighborhood full of stunning Modernist buildings designed as — and for — art. The de Menils' is still the crown jewel, though: The Menil Collection art campus includes structures by Renzo Piano and Johnston Marklee, two of which were designed in conjunction with the artists Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly.

City Hall in Boston, MA
Boston City Hall

Boston and Cambridge, MA

A Brutalist boomtown

It’s not only about colonial architecture in Beantown. For those who know where to look, the streets of the Massachusetts capital and its next-door neighbor Cambridge possess one of the largest concentrations of Brutalist architecture in the United States. Stroll the ivy-clad campus of a prominent university and take note of the visual arts center, a prime example of this modernist architectural movement that emerged in the mid-20th century.

Across the river in Boston, admire Madison Park High School and the Government Center complex, considered one of the most prominent American examples of the style. The controversial 1969 City Hall building has long been threatened with demolition, so don’t sleep on your chance to see this unexpected Brutalist haven.

Facade of the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC
The Biltmore House. Photo courtesy of The Biltmore Company

Asheville, NC

Turn-of-the-century time travel

You could be forgiven for wondering if you’d been somehow transported to 16th-century France as you explore the Biltmore House, the grand Châteauesque mansion that put this scenic city in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the architectural map in the 1890s. The construction of the estate “brought a group of architects and artisans to Asheville that cities this size usually did not have access to,” explains Kevan Frazier of Asheville by Foot Walking Tours. As a result, after the project's completion, many of the international artisans stuck around, filling the city with houses in such styles as Queen Anne Victorian, Arts and Crafts, and Spanish and Gothic Revival. By the mid-1920s, the thriving downtown was lined with ornate Art Deco buildings.

Though the boom ended with the Depression, Asheville’s decision to pay off all of its debt before building anything new preserved the historic downtown for decades. In other words, to visit Asheville is akin to time-travel: The streets you stroll today look almost exactly as they did when they were built. For those interested, you can actually stay in this time preserved ambiance at an original Vanderbilt-era cottage on the Biltmore estate.

Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI
Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum

Milwaukee, WI

A legacy of industry

In the late 19th century this Midwestern metropolis sought to rival Chicago, IL, in both scale and importance as an industrial hub. Newly minted titans of industry poured money into grand structures, proclaiming significance and planting a flag for posterity through Gilded Age Renaissance Revival mansions and ornate Victorian municipal buildings. Even after the city’s industrial bustle faded, Milwaukee remained a center of architecture: Its distinctive cream-colored brick buildings still line the streets of the Brewery District today. The last remaining examples of Frank Lloyd Wright’s American System-Built Homes can be found here as well, alongside several of his private commissions.

Thanks to these roots of architectural innovation, the city has continued to attract top architects well into the contemporary era. No archi-tourist’s visit would be complete without a trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum, where “the architecture in itself is a reason for visitation,” as Amanda Peterson, the museum's senior director of audience engagement, explains. Come for Eero Saarinen’s 1955 War Memorial, and stay for Santiago Calatrava’s sculptural Quadracci Pavilion, most famous for its moveable Burke Brise Soleil wings.

Architecture worth traveling for

For the true architecture fanatic, some experiences are worth going the extra mile. Explore beyond the façades at these architectural icons off the beaten path.

Park Inn

Mason City, IA, is a two-hour drive from Des Moines, and the pilgrimage will be worth it for many: The city is home to the last remaining hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, opened in 1910. Book the Historic Suite for the full experience and be sure to explore the other examples of Wright’s Prairie School architecture around town.

St. Mary Aldermanbury

Renowned English architect Sir Christopher Wren built this East London church in the late 1660s, but it was transported and rebuilt in Fulton, MO, in the 1960s. Now it’s part of the National Churchill Museum, honoring British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Glenstone Museum

The newest addition to this 300-acre Potomac, MD, art museum is a breathtaking series of pavilions from architect Thomas Phifer. Despite dancing on the architectural cutting edge, the complex is designed to blend into nature, taking full advantage of the surrounding landscape.

Farnsworth House

A number of the world’s most celebrated architects have designed private homes in lesser-known spots around the United States. Journey 60 miles west of Chicago to Plano, IL — as many architecture students and curious fans do — to tour Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. Set along the Fox River, this private-residence-turned museum is a pristinely restored and maintained example of minimalist architecture.

Kate Thorman

is a writer, editor, and architecture enthusiast whose writing has appeared in AFAR, Bon Appétit and the New York Times. One of her proudest moments as an archi-tourist was visiting Riga, Latvia, home to the world's highest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings.