The United States is known for many things: freedom, culture, success. But one of our trademarks — something that defines us as a nation — is our beautiful and unique architecture. Sadly, we often don’t think about these magnificent landmarks. They become part of the backdrop: buildings, bridges, and cultural centers that we walk by or drive over every day. But we should think about them — or at least take a moment to look at them and reflect. Because aside from being visually striking or featuring mind-blowing advances in construction, they are also tangible symbols of our nation’s history, its dreams, and what we represent. Here are 10 of the most historic, amazing pieces of architecture in America.
A view of the Empire State Building (Photo: Thinkstock)
Empire State Building, New York
Construction began on this historic New York City landmark in 1930 under the directorship of architects Shreve, Lamb and Harmon Associates. A year later, on May 1, 1931, President Hoover pressed a button that illuminated the Empire State Building’s celebratory tower lights for the first time. But it wasn’t until 1933, with the release of the movie “King Kong,” that the building became a hotspot. Since then, more than 100 million people have made the trek to the top deck on the 102th floor to get a panoramic glimpse of the Big Apple’s skyline. Fun fact: The building is so large, it has its own zip code (10118).
San Francisco’s golden treasure (Photo: Thinkstock)
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
One of the most famous bridges in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge opened to drivers in 1937. It spans 1.7 miles and weighs 894,500 tons. Each foot of the bridge has the capacity to hold up to 4,000 pounds, which is good news since 39 million cars drive over it each year. It was ranked among the 10 Most Amazing Views in the World by Travel + Leisure. Want to cross it in your car? It will cost you $6.
The Capitol building, reflected in the Potomac (Photo: Thinkstock)
United State Capitol, Washington, D.C.
While Washington, D.C., is home to some of the most spectacular and historic structures in the country, including the White House, the National Cathedral, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Library of Congress — none are more impressive than the Capitol. The crisp white neoclassical-style building sits at the east end of the National Mall. The interior is equally impressive, featuring the fresco-painted Rotunda, Washington’s crypt, congressional office buildings, and the House of Representatives, where the president of the United States delivers his State of the Union addresses. It became a Historic Landmark in 1960.
The leafy Vanderbilt Mansion (Photo: Thinkstock)
Biltmore Estate/Vanderbilt Mansion, Asheville, North Carolina
George Vanderbilt, grandson of industrial tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, first fell in love with Asheville during a trip to North Carolina in 1888. The following year he began construction on the sprawling 250-room French Renaissance chateau. It remains, to date, the largest undertaking in residential architecture and cost a whopping $5 million to build — a huge sum in 1895. The mansion features four acres of floor space, including 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces. In 2001, the Inn on Biltmore Estate opened, giving the public a taste of Vanderbilt hospitality. Also on the grounds are a spa and cottage (the gardener’s former home) for those wishing to experience a private getaway. Its value today is estimated at over $3 billion.
A Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece (Photo: Brian Donovan/Flickr)
Fallingwater, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most famous architect, designed Fallingwater for his clients Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann, who owned a prestigious department store in Pittsburgh. Originally, the house was the site of a small cottage called Bear Run, used by Kaufmann’s employees as a weekend country getaway. When the Great Depression hit, the cottage went vacant. In 1935, the Kaufmanns, who had become recent fans of modern art and design, turned to Wright to transform the small abode into a residential mountain retreat. Wright’s plans took the couple by surprise, as he had designed the home above a waterfall — hence the name Fallingwater. The 5,300-square-foot home was completed in 1939, costing $155,000, including the $8,000 architect’s fee and $4,500 for the walnut furniture. It is a National Historic Landmark and the only Frank Lloyd Wright home that is open to the public with its original furniture, art, and settings.
An indoor pool at Hearst Castle (Photo: Trish Hartmann/Flickr)
Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California
In 1919, William Randolph Hearst inherited 250,000 acres and dreamed of transforming the land into a retreat called La Cuesta Encantada, Spanish for “Enchanted Hill.” It wasn’t until 1947 that he hired architect Julia Morgan, who was asked to create a space that would showcase his legendary art collection. The end result was Hearst Castle, complete with 165 rooms; 127 acres of gardens; three guest houses (with a total of 20 bedrooms); two pools (the fully tiled indoor Roman pool and the outdoor Neptune pool); and a temperature-controlled wine cellar protected by vault doors and fire safety walls. This historic home also came with an airstrip and a hangar, plus the world’s largest private zoo — however, neither exists today.
The terrifying Ledge, at the Willis Tower (Photo: John Pastor/Flickr)
Willis Tower, Chicago
Formerly known as the Sears Tower, the building was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009 after the global insurance broker who purchased it. The 1,451-foot skyscraper has 108 stories and was the tallest building in the world when constructed in 1973. The upper portion of the building, called the Skydeck, underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation in 2009. Added was a cool new feature called the Ledge — a series of glass bays on the 103rd floor. These all-glass boxes extend from the building and allow (brave) visitors unobstructed views of Chicago and the streets 1,353 feet straight down.
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Resembling an intergalactic ship from “Star Wars,” the Milwaukee Art Museum is composed of three buildings designed by three legendary architects: Eero Saarinen, David Kahler, and Santiago Calatrava. The original building created by Saarinen was transformed in 1994 by the postmodern addition of the Quadracci Pavilion, designed by Calatrava. The 142,050-square-foot pavilion was constructed by pouring concrete into hand-made wooden forms. However, the most striking part of the museum is its signature construction of wings called the Burke Brise Soleil. They have a 217-foot span and can open or close to provide light or shade when needed. Sensors on the wings’ 90-plus fins monitor wind speed and direction and close automatically when it exceeds 23 mph.
New York’s original skyscraper (Photo: Thinkstock)
Flatiron Building, New York
The wedge-shaped building that cuts between Fifth Avenue and Broadway in Manhattan is as impressive today as it was when it was erected in 1902. Originally called the Fuller Building, the Flatiron was one of the tallest “skyscrapers” at the time. It was an instant landmark for New Yorkers, and the surrounding neighborhood eventually became known as the Flatiron District. While most of the credit for the design goes to Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, it was actually Frederick Dinkelberg, an architect in Burnham’s office, who came up with the concept. He also oversaw the construction of the vertical Renaissance palazzo with Beaux Arts styling. It remains one of New York’s most photographed buildings to this day.
A Frank Gehry creation in Minneapolis (Photo: kkmarais/Flickr)
Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Located on the University of Minnesota campus, this futuristic structure, created by renowned architect Frank Gehry, is situated on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Completed in 1993, the building has two completely different faces, depending on which side it is viewed from. The campus side has a brick façade that blends with the existing brick-and-sandstone buildings. On the opposite side, the museum is a playground of curving and angular brushed-steel sheets. It is Gehry’s abstract interpretation of a waterfall and a fish.