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5 of America’s Most Unique Buildings

America’s most unique buildings aren’t as old as their counterparts in other parts of the world.

That said, they run the gamut from relatively obscure historical mansions and state-of-the-art concert venues, to towering laboratories and iconic structures that more resemble art than inhabitable buildings. 

Some you’ve probably heard of, while others have likely slipped under the radar, unless you live nearby. 

Whatever the case, let’s take a look at 5 of America’s most unique buildings. 

1. The Gateway Arch

St Louis Gateway Arch Usa Landmark Monument City
St Louis Gateway Arch Usa Landmark Monument City

Bar none, there’s no more recognizable landmark in the American Midwest than the Gateway Arch. 

Towering 630 feet (192 m) over the Mississippi River to the east and the Great Plains to the west, it’s an iconic monument built in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the country’s westward expansion.

Though it’s a common misconception that the arch is taller than it is wide, that’s not the case. 

In fact it’s nearly identical in height and width, but since it’s rarely seen from straight on it appears particularly tall and narrow. 

Clad in reflective stainless steel, the colossal catenary arch boasts a number of distinctions. 

It’s the tallest manmade monument in the Western Hemisphere, the tallest arch in the world, and not surprisingly, the tallest accessible building in Missouri.  

Of the architects who participated in the design competition, two were Finnish-American father and son Eliel and Eero Saarinen who submitted competing bids. 

But though the son’s design won out, officials confused by their names mistakenly told the elder Eliel he’d won. 

The family was apparently in the midst of a champagne toast celebrating his victory when notification of the error came by telegram. 

Long before ground was ever broken, the project’s insurer predicted that more than a dozen workers would plummet to their deaths during construction, but the only fatality associated with the Arch was that of Kenneth Swyers, who parachuted from an airplane to the top in 1980. 

Swyers was killed shortly thereafter when his auxiliary chute malfunctioned as he base jumped to the ground more than 600 feet below. 

For the era the arch was a colossal undertaking, and many engineers were convinced that it was structurally unsound. 

But despite the naysayers construction did eventually begin in February of 1963, but not before more than three dozen St. Louis city blocks were demolished to make room for the project.

In what one engineer described as “an enforced slum-clearance program,” dozens of structures and nearly 300 businesses were razed, a controversial move since many owners strenuously objected to having their property and livelihoods taken by force. 

Many of the arch’s component parts were assembled in Pennsylvania nearly 800 miles away and shipped to Missouri via train, and when they arrived, construction on each individual “leg” got underway.  

According to engineers, the two sections wouldn’t join properly, if when they met at the top they were off by as little as 1/64th of an inch – much tighter tolerances than welders and steel hangers were used to working with.

Not only that, but across the flat Missouri landscape high winds were common, as were harsh winter weather and tornadoes during the summer.  

Nonetheless in the fall of ‘65, four years after Saarinen’s death, the two sections did meet as planned, but there were still more challenges to overcome – like how to get visitors from the ground to the top. 

Due to its curved shape standard elevators wouldn’t do, so a unique gondola-style tram was designed and built by a man with no formal training, and it’s still in use today. 

Since it officially opened, the Secret Service has prohibited presidents from ascending the Gateway Arch for security reasons, but Dwight D. Eisenhower was an exception.

In 1967 two years after it opened, former President Eisenhower, who signed the official construction order in 1954, gave a speech at the arch, after which he demanded to ride the tram to the top. 

All told the arch cost about $13 million to build, or more $105 million today when adjusted for inflation, and it recently reopened after a 5-year $300+ million renovation. 

2. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel

Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel america's unique buildings
Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel

Though it’s most well-known for turning out young pilots capable of taking the fight to the enemy in skies the world over, the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado is home to one of the country’s most impressive architectural marvels as well. 

Completed in 1962, the Cadet Chapel was designed by Chicago architect Walter Netsch, a man most commonly associated with the so-called “brutalist” style. 

Brutalist design isn’t typically applied to houses of worship and other places of peace and introspection, but with the Cadet Chapel it just works, and in dramatic fashion. 

The design was especially controversial in its day, and though the fervor has since died down its form is so groundbreaking that it’s considered innovative and striking even now. 

The structure was designed to house a number of distinct worship areas under a single roof, the largest of which is a traditional Protestant chapel on the main floor that seats about 1,200.

The nave, or central area measures 64 feet (20 m) by 168 feet (51 m) and reaches 94 feet (29 m) at its highest. 

Located below the Protestant Chapel, the smaller Synagogue seats approximately 500, and there are areas for Muslims and Buddhists too, as well as a “Falcon Circle” that’s popular with Cadets who most associate with Wiccans, Pagans, and yes, even Druids. 

The all-inclusive chapel is 150 feet (46 m) high, 280 feet (85 m) long, and 84 feet (26 m) wide. 

On the south side, the front façade features gold and aluminum doors, and has a wide granite stairway leading up to an expansive landing. 

Characterized by its tall triangular shape, abundant concrete, and the 17 spires that rise into the blue Colorado sky, the frame is constructed from rigid yet relatively light tubular steel. 

Of the 100 identical tetrahedrons that are the chapel’s building blocks, each is 75 feet (23 m) long, weighs five tons, and is clad in aluminum panels that were fabricated in Missouri and shipped to Colorado by rail and truck.  

Set a foot apart, the spaces between the tetrahedrons are filled with 1-inch-thick (25 mm) colored glass. 

Inside, many of the traditional adornments like pews, the organ and liturgical fittings were donated by or bought with funds from private donors and organizations all over the world. 

However due to financial shortfalls, some of Netsch’s original plans, like having a series of gutters underneath the spires, were scrapped for less expensive and more expedient options, like applying copious amounts of caulk between seams to keep excess water out. 

Though it must’ve seemed like a good idea at the time, decades of leaks have caused extensive damage to much of the structure. 

In fact in 2019, close inspection revealed that the problem was even larger than originally thought, and the chapel was closed for renovations that ended up costing nearly $160 million. 

During the project an enormous temporary canopy was built over the existing structure, after which workers removed the aluminum panels and stained glass and installed the rain gutters that should’ve been there from the get-go.  

In 2004 the chapel became an official US National Historic Landmark, and it’s still widely regarded as a prime example of American modernist architecture. 

3. The Salk Institute

The Salk Institute unique building
The Salk Institute by Codera23 is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Determined to rid the world of polio, Jonas Salk’s pioneering 1953 vaccine altered the course of modern history, but his story doesn’t end there. 

In the mid-’50s Salk conceived of a place where scientists could work together to solve the world’s most pressing science and health concerns, and his legacy lives on in the institute that now bears his name.

Working with Salk, renowned Estonian-American architect Louis Kahn produced one of the most spartan, architecturally unique and otherworldly complexes in the United States – a monument of teak, marble, steel and concrete that’s a beacon for scientists from around the world. 

Situated on nearly 30 acres of coastal bluffs with unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, California, construction of the Salk Institute began in 1962. 

One of Salk’s primary charges to Kahn was that the facility must be full of light and open spaces, that he believed would foster collaboration and breakthroughs. 

To that end, Kahn made the columnless labs 65 feet (19.8 m) wide and nearly 250 feet (76.2 m) long, and he wrapped them in double pane glass to admit natural light. 

Each laboratory features a number of individual study towers that offer stunning ocean, courtyard and fountain views. 

Two identical rectangular buildings flank the sweeping central courtyard, each of which is six stories tall with alternating levels of work and utility spaces. 

Atop most major buildings, the institute has more than 2,000 solar panels that supply renewable energy to the campus.

The “River of Life” water feature that runs through the central courtyard represents the constant flow of discoveries spilling into the greater knowledge, embodied by the vast Pacific Ocean.

First formulated by Romans, the Pozzolanic concrete Kahn used to construct most of the buildings gives them a distinctly warm pinkish hue. 

It’s also even more resistant to water and the elements than other more modern concrete mixes, but the institute’s coastal location has been tough on many of the structures. 

For example, the abundant teak panelled windows haven’t held up well against wind, weather and a mysterious fungal infection. 

In the summer of 2017, after a nearly $10 million multi-year effort to restore the teak windows and other original architectural elements, Institute staff reported that the renovations were successful, and that it’d probably be another 50 years before they’d need to consider switching to modern windows. 

4. Gillette Castle 

Gillette Castle america unique buildings
Gillette Castle by Joe Mabel is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Sitting proudly atop the southernmost in a chain of hills known locally as the Seven Sisters, the retirement estate of long-deceased director, actor and playwright William Hooker Gillette is one of Connecticut’s, and America’s most historic and interesting architectural attractions. 

The estate’s centerpiece is a 24-room mansion that’s equal parts 16th century European castle and Anasazi cliff dwelling. 

Gillette was born in nearby Hartford in 1853 to a prominent Yale-educated attorney father and a mother who traced her roots to the state’s founding family. 

There must’ve been something in Hartford’s water back then, because young Gillette’s cohorts included two childhood friends who’d go on to become titans of American literature – Samuel Clemens, later Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stow, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

For his part, Gillette was one of the most famous actors of the day, known most notably for his portrayals of Sherlock Holmes in theatrical remakes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories. 

But after a long, illustrious and often harried career, he needed a place away from the fans and limelight. 

Officially known as the Seventh Sister Estate, but commonly referred to by locals as Gillette Castle, Gillette himself apparently preferred just, “the pile of rocks.” 

The retired actor handled much of the design himself, though he hired a local contractor to build it. 

Construction began in 1914 and lasted until 1919, and when it was done, the colossal home took up more than 14,000 square feet (13,00 m2) and cost just north of $1 million, or about $15 million in today’s money. 

Work was done primarily by a team of just 20 builders, including five master carpenters who hew much of the white oak appointments by hand, and masons who fit the rough cut fieldstone, much of which was collected from the property. 

And contrary to other stately homes of the day, Gillette had the field stone left unfinished which gave the home a particularly unfinished, dramatic, and even primordial look that set it apart from its contemporaries. 

In another departure from construction norms, Gillette chose to have the frame supported by steel I-beams, and insisted that the home had every modern convenience including central heating and electricity provided by an on-site generator. 

Of the home’s several bathrooms, each had modern toilets, sinks and bathtubs with both hot and cold water, and many rooms and hallways featured hand carved light fixtures, including a few from Tiffany & Co. 

Ever the showman and eccentric, Gillette commissioned the builders to include an art gallery, greenhouse, several towers, as well as a lockable liquor cabinet that could be viewed by a network of mirrors leading to the second-floor balcony where he spent much of his time. 

When William Hooker Gillette died in 1937 at the age of 83, the home was left to relatives who tried to sell it at auction. 

Thankfully for history buffs the bids were insultingly low, and the state later bought the property and made it into a park that opened in 1944. 

5. New World Center

New World Center unique buildings in usa
New World Center by Alexf is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Canadian-American Frank Gehry is one of the world’s premier architects. 

Though he’s most well-known for designing the stunning Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, his New World Center in Miami’s South Beach made quite a splash when it opened in January of 2011. 

Taking his signature “deconstructivist” style and adding more familiar and angular shapes, the building, which houses a symphony and America’s Orchestral Academy, is comparatively simple and subdued, and therein lies much of its appeal.  

Unlike his other works, it’s generally regarded as something of a compromise, a word not often associated with Gehry. 

Situated on a 2.5 acre tract of prime Miami real estate and featuring seating for more than 750, the large white plaster and glass building looks the way it does largely because it was intended to stay well within the community’s classy and contemporary art deco envelope, among which a busy design might have seemed hopelessly out of place. 

Once inside the center’s naturally lit performance area however, the jumbled, curved, and deconstructed component shapes for which Gehry is known become evident. 

The centrally located stage is visible from 360 degrees and is surrounded by six distinct spectator areas.

And its acoustics are second to none, thanks to the center’s design and help Gehry enlisted from world renowned sound expert Yasuhisa Toyota, with whom he’d worked on the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Yet despite its abundant seating, high-tech sound system and cavernous interior, no spectator is ever more than 13 rows from the stage, and visitors frequently remark that it has a surprisingly intimate feel, which was, you guessed it, part of Gehry’s plan, because as he put it, “the audience is right in the music.”

Adding to the overall experience, performances are often enhanced with video presentations projected upon sail-like panels hanging from above. 

More than 150 individually tuned speakers augment the video presentations, and the facility features an outdoor SoundScape which allows guests to experience live “wallcasts” on a 7,000 square foot (650 m2) projection wall for an even more surreal, interactive, and sci-fi-ish experience. 

The wall is one of the largest permanent projection surfaces in North America, and during the center’s opening week more than a 1,000 visitors took in shows nightly. 

In addition to performances, the center includes areas for symphony practice, community programs and other events like art shows and fundraisers. 

Another of the center’s goals was making classical music more accessible and appealing to younger audiences, which it has largely done. 

All told, construction lasted between 2008 and 2011 and cost more than $160 million. 

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