11 Can't-Miss Stops on a Tour of America's Hidden Architecture Gems
The United States is packed with incredible skyscrapers, houses, bridges, and other architectural treasures. These might not have been on your radar, but if you’re searching for hidden gems, they’re worth a visit.
1. Soldiers' and Sailors' Arch — Brooklyn, New York
Over the river from Manhattan and its more well-known architectural splendors is America’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe. Brooklyn’s Soldiers' and Sailors' Arch marks the center of Grand Army Plaza, and you can spend an entire day staring at the various detailed sculptures that dot this late-19th century arch.
2. Oroville Dam — Oroville, California
The Hoover Dam may be the country’s most famous dam, but it certainly isn’t the tallest. That honor goes to the Oroville Dam, which blocks Lake Oroville and stands a staggering 770-feet. The view alone is worth the trip, although it may take a while to get your breath back.
3. New River Gorge Bridge — Fayetteville, West Virginia
When it first opened in 1977, the New River Gorge Bridge was the highest vehicular bridge in the entire world. The views of the Appalachian surroundings from the steel arch construction are beyond magnificent. Be sure to come back in October for Bridge Day, when Fayette County holds a festival featuring BASE jumping and other incredible stunts from the structure.
4. Mitchell Building — Milwaukee, Wisconsin
The next time you’re in Wisconsin, make a point of checking out Milwaukee’s funky and ornate Mitchell Building. Constructed in 1876, this baroque structure is supposedly built on the site of the residence of Solomon Juneau, the man who founded the city.
5. Prospect Park South — Brooklyn
City dwellers don’t have to head to the suburbs to find Victorian mansions. As Brooklyn’s Prospect Park South shows, you just have to know where to look for them. This neighborhood got its start in 1899 when a developer purchased 60 acres of land in an effort to create a development that felt like a rural park for commuters within the confines of city blocks. The experiment ended with a lush neighborhood of around 200 Victorian mansions of varying styles on relatively large lots. The beautifully preserved mansions and well-tended yards are worth a walking tour.
6. National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna — Owatonna, Minnesota
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, architect Louis Sullivan earned the nickname “Father of the Skyscraper,” but some of his most striking designs were much smaller than his signature urban towers. Starting in 1908, Sullivan created a series of small-town banks that became known as “jewel boxes” – short, stout buildings that almost look like safes from the outside, with opulent interiors. While the Owatonna bank was Sullivan’s first jewel box, he created seven more in cities like Grinnell, Iowa and Columbus, Wisconsin. They’re all worth a stop.
7. James Charnley House — Chicago
If you’re interested in Sullivan’s earlier work, take a trip to the James Charnley house in Chicago. This site, located in the city’s tony Gold Coast neighborhood, isn’t in guidebooks or even on many architectural walking tours. The boxy brick exterior and opulent interiors are can’t-miss signs of Sullivan’s style.
8. Poplar Forest — Forest, Virginia
Thomas Jefferson is celebrated for his designs of Monticello and the University of Virginia campus, but this home deserves a closer look. In 1773 Jefferson and his wife inherited a 4800-acre plantation from Jefferson’s father-in-law, and in 1806 Jefferson began work on a new plantation home that would offer him refuge from the public eye after his presidency ended. The home boasts quirks that matched Jefferson’s personality – it’s shaped like an icon – and eventually became his favorite retreat. If you’ve already seen Monticello, give Jefferson’s other masterpiece a look.
9. Thomas Hockley House — Philadelphia
Frank Furness was one of the Victorian era’s truly prolific architects, with over 600 buildings to his credit. Furness specialized in ornate, meticulously embellished designs that fell out of favor with the dawn of Modernism, but some of his buildings are still standing. If you’re in Philadelphia, take a look at the beautiful home Furness created for lawyer Thomas Hockley at the corner of 21st and Locust Streets.
10. Sycamore Historic District — Sycamore, Illinois
If you head west out of Chicago into DeKalb County, you can find your way to Sycamore. Although Sycamore isn’t huge – its population is around 17,000 – its historic district offers an incredible cross section of 19th and early 20th century architecture. The 187 homes that make up the district showcase everything from Italianate designs to Colonial Revival houses. Driving through the historic district is like a quick architectural tour of an entire century.
11. Sundial Bridge — Redding, California
This pedestrian and bike bridge spanning the Sacramento River is a swooping and dramatic architectural icon, but the most amazing thing about it is how it lives up to its name. The bridge’s 217-foot mast functions as a working sundial.
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