Architecture is meant to provide shelter from the elements, but great design extends beyond mere function and utility. Exceptional building designs can delight the senses, make a statement, and with luck, become cultural icons.
Legendary architect Phillip Johnson once mused “dullness is the enemy.” There’s nothing dull or uninteresting about the following homes, museums, and monuments. These 10 must-see wonders—designed by some of the world’s most renowned architects—are sure to inspire, fascinate, and elicit a sense of awe. Among scores of architectural treasures in the Midwest and South, these are certainly worthy of placement on anyone’s bucket list of places to visit.
1. The Gateway Arch
Innovative. Graceful. Breathtaking. These words are often used to describe the stainless-steel arch that soars 630 feet over the St. Louis skyline. Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen won a national architectural competition to design a monument to represent St. Louis’ role in westward expansion with his Gateway Arch.
Completed in 1965 as the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, now the Gateway Arch National Park, the landmark is considered one of America’s midcentury modern architectural wonders.
A sprawling park at the base invites visitors to stroll landscaped grounds. Drink in expansive city and Mississippi River views along its pathways and grand staircase. A comprehensive renovation of the site, which was unveiled in 2018, not only enhanced those grounds but included a massive refresh and expansion of the museum below the Arch. Take a ride to the top for stunning views. Museum admission is free; adult tram tickets range from $15 to $19.
2. Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts
A 330-foot-wide glass wall encloses the center’s Brandmeyer Great Hall. Photo by Bill Cobb/Visit KC
Kansas City’s dramatic Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts began with a few simple pen strokes scribbled on a napkin. The sketch doesn’t look like much, but the flowing lines of Kauffman’s circular ribbed roofline took shape in that rough drawing as renowned architect Moshe Safdie laid out his vision for the amazing structure. Opened in 2011, the eye-catching building has transformed the city’s skyline.
The Kansas City Symphony performs in the center’s Helzberg Hall. Photo by Tim Hursley
Located downtown near the Crossroads Arts District, this engineering feat houses 2 independent performance venues. The Muriel Kauffman Theatre is home to the Kansas City Ballet and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, while the Kansas City Symphony performs in Helzberg Hall.
Connecting the performance spaces, the Brandmeyer Great Hall is wrapped by a 330-foot-wide glass curtain. That glass facade and roof are anchored by 27 steel cables reminiscent of a stringed instrument. Admire the center during performances or explore it for free on most Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
3. Exploration Place
Distinctive convex and concave rooflines draw your eyes at Exploration Place, designed by Moshe Safdie. Photo courtesy Exploration Place
The collective use of shapes in the design of Exploration Place, the Sedgwick County Science and Discovery Center, has elevated the museum to an architectural marvel that is every bit as intriguing as the science exhibits it houses. Another stunning project designed by Moshe Safdie, the museum complex sits along the western edge of the Arkansas River within a 20-acre park.
Exploration Place is comprised of 2 buildings tied together by a window-encased pedestrian bridge that overlooks a reflecting pool. The landside pavilion, which contains The Dome theater and its 60-foot-tall screen, has a convex roof that contrasts with the concave roof of the island pavilion that houses most of the exhibits.
Learn about the curving rooflines that give the museum its distinctive character, as well as its innovative construction, in the “Making a Landmark” exhibit. Adults, $12.
You may also like: Fun things to do in Wichita, Kansas
4. Dana-Thomas House
A renovation designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Dana-Thomas House encompasses 16 level changes and 35 rooms. Photo courtesy Visit Springfield
The Dana-Thomas House offers a splendid overview of Frank Lloyd Wright’s beloved Prairie style, characterized by low horizontal roofs, sloped gables, and an open floor plan. Free guided tours are offered 4 times daily. Take in a dizzying array of art-glass windows, skylights, door panels, bookcases, and light fixtures. Socialite Susan Lawrence Dana hired Wright in 1902 to remodel her family’s 1868 Italianate mansion. It was his first “blank check” commission, and very little of the original house was left intact.
In designing many of the art-glass pieces and other elements, Wright found inspiration in 2 natural shapes: the prairie sumac plant and the butterfly. The celebrated architect turned those abstracted forms into geometric designs and repeated them throughout the sprawling 35-room house that’s operated as state historic site. Reservations are required for tours, which also showcase the home’s built-in furniture, a 2-story barrel-vaulted ceiling in the dining room, and 16 level changes throughout.
5. The Atheneum
New Harmony, Indiana
One of architect Richard Meier’s seminal works, The Atheneum serves as the visitors center for New Harmony. Photo courtesy Historic New Harmony
At first sight, The Atheneum, a modernist multilevel building clad in stark white porcelain panels, may seem out of place as the visitors center for New Harmony—a historic village that dates to the early 1800s. But the progressive design by award-winning architect Richard Meier makes sense considering the town’s forward-thinking utopian roots, embodied by 2 separate groups that attempted to establish model communities there.
Completed in 1979, the Atheneum features a 2-story ramp and a grid-like design that provide a pathway to follow with frequent views of the nearby town, countryside, and Wabash River. As you pass through each level, you’re drawn to experience the exhibits about New Harmony’s rich history before being led outside to continue the journey into the charming town.
The building is one of Meier’s seminal works, and its numerous accolades include the 2008 American Institute of Architects (AIA) 25 Year Award for buildings that have stood the test of time decades after completion.
6. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Named for a nearby spring and 2 signature bridge structures incorporated into its design, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art features a series of pavilions nestled around 2 spring-fed ponds. The project is another masterpiece by Moshe Safdie. Nothing less than astonishing, the skillful incorporation of nature into the design melds the northwest Arkansas landscape into the structures.
You’ll likely gaze as much at the buildings as at the world-class collection of art in the galleries. Safdie’s nature-centric architecture is a key component in Crystal Bridges’ mission to bring people, art, and nature together.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House was dismantled at its original New Jersey location and reconstructed on the museum campus. Photo by Nancy Nolan
To learn about Safdie’s design, take one of the Crystal Bridges architecture tours. Also, 5 miles of sculpture and walking trails showcase the 120-acre park, which also includes a 1954 Frank Lloyd Wright house that was transferred from New Jersey to the museum grounds and reconstructed in 2015. Museum and tour admission are free.
7. Thorncrown Chapel
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Designed by E. Fay Jones, Thorncrown Chapel has 425 windows that bring the Ozark forest into the peaceful space. Photo courtesy Whit Slemmons/Thorncrown Chapel
Stroll through the Ozark Mountains outside Eureka Springs to encounter Thorncrown Chapel. The architectural stunner blends into its forested hillside setting. With 425 windows and its signature diamond-shaped wooden trusses that soar through the trees, Thorncrown has earned numerous honors, including the AIA 1981 National Honor Award.
E. Fay Jones, an Arkansas native and Frank Lloyd Wright protége, designed the chapel and labeled its style as “Ozark Gothic.” Jones drew inspiration from Sainte Chappelle, a light-filled gothic chapel in Paris. Like in its medieval counterpart, illumination, shadows, and reflections contribute to Thorncrown’s ambience. Every hour each season, the patterns of light that filter through the trees and elaborate trusses shift, giving the magnificent yet simple structure an ever-changing appearance.
You may also like: On an Ozarks road trip, discover amazing landscapes and mountain folkways
8. The Strand Theatre
Luxurious appointments abound in the dazzling Strand Theatre, which opened in 1925. Photo by Neil Johnson Photography
Recognized as one of the glitziest theaters in the South if not the country, Shreveport’s Strand Theatre stands as an architectural jewel. A collaboration of the Saenger brothers and Ehrich brothers, the theatrical palace opened in 1925. It was the flagship of what would become the Saenger chain of 320 theaters across the South. The opera house, which had a full-time orchestra in the early days, has largely remained unaltered.
The building’s exterior features a corner entrance crowned with a cast concrete dome. The luxurious interior begins with an oval marble lobby that flows into a grand staircase. Ornate details include gilt-edged mirrors, 6 murals of “The Muses of The Strand,” and dazzling chandeliers—including the massive 14-foot-tall main fixture that hangs in the center of the theater.
9. Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art
A number of distinctive buildings designed by Frank Gehry, including these pods, make up the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art campus. Photo by Aaron Luetzen
Art and architecture are inseparable at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, thanks to legendary architect Frank Gehry. Indeed, Gehry approaches each work as a sculptural object and considers an artist and architect as one-in-the-same. This artistic mindset is illustrated in Gehry’s frequent use of bold curvilinear shapes, including those at Ohr-O’keefe.
Remarkable buildings make up the museum campus, which highlights the works of George Ohr, known as the Mad Potter of Biloxi, and a host of other art. Each museum is independent and is connected by an expansive brick plaza. As you wander through the structures, you’ll understand Gehry’s desire to enrich the human experience through his designs. Adults, $10.
10. Old State Capitol Building
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Architect James Dakin used Gothic elements to give the Old State Capitol Building a “distinctive, classic, and commanding character.” Photo by Jay Lamm
Louisiana’s Old State Capitol, which looks like a medieval fortress, has commanded attention since the mid 1800s. Perched on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River, the building is one of the country’s best surviving examples of Gothic architecture.
A magnificent stained-glass dome, added during a reconstruction in the late 1800s, rises above the rotunda. Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism
Since its completion, it has withstood political upheaval, fire, hurricanes, and neglect. Renovations helped restore and preserve intricate stained-glass ceilings and windows, as well as a grand cast-iron spiral staircase. The National Historic Landmark building now serves as a museum with a focus on state’s political history.