America's Coolest Houses
Who would live behind see-through walls?
When architects Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe built their respective glass houses in the late 1940s, the idea that anyone would want to live in such structures was unheard of. But their bold experiments yielded amazing houses, and introduced us to the pleasures of floor-to-ceiling transparency.
Unfortunately, even if the walls are made of glass, houses are generally private places. (No trespassing, please!) And it’s hard to see or appreciate what’s going on behind closed doors. Some of America’s coolest houses, however, let you peek behind the curtains to inspire and satisfy your curiosity.
Cool houses are always experiments, domestic laboratories where designers, builders, and homeowners work out better ways to live.
When you think of experimental architecture, you usually think big: a museum by Santiago Calatrava or a city library by Rem Koolhaas. But the innovations that truly change our lives happen at home.
Arguably, homeowners who take risks with the way their houses look, feel, or behave are far braver than big-city developers who hire some rock star architect to built an office tower. They are tinkering with their own lives, testing just how much architecture their suburban neighbors can tolerate, or jeopardizing their personal net worth to try something that no one else quite gets.
Johnson and Mies, of course, weren’t alone. When Frank Lloyd Wright cantilevered Fallingwater over the biggest waterfall on his clients’ property, the Kaufmanns were upset that they wouldn’t be able to see it from their windows. The architect argued that they would hear the falls constantly, and it would be better to truly live with their roar all the time than look at them occasionally.
And developments like Sea Ranch, CA—built by a group of idealistic architects and landscape designers in the 1960s—profoundly influenced home-building in this country. Now these innovative homes are offered as vacation rentals, so anyone can live in a laboratory for a weekend.
America’s coolest houses may have started out as experiments, but today they’re guaranteed to be an interesting visit. Even if you can’t sip your morning coffee in the kitchen of California’s Hearst Castle, spending a little time in someone else’s pad might give you a few new ideas about your own. —Karrie Jacobs
Philip Johnson’s Glass House, New Canaan, CT
Philip Johnson’s house in the country, a floaty, 1,728-square-foot box of clear glass, completed in 1949, is everything the rest of his buildings are not: it’s straightforward, modest, and utterly gorgeous. Seeing it in person might make you truly appreciate the architect (who died in 2005 at age 98) for the very first time. And the 47-acre grounds are dotted with other eccentric buildings, including two extravagant art galleries and a Frank Gehry–inspired chain-link shed.
Secret Revealed: The Glass House has a companion building called the Brick House that contains the unsightly HVAC equipment and a very private bedroom. —Karrie Jacobs
Elvis’s Birthplace, Tupelo, MS
More revealing than where Elvis wound up—garish Graceland—is where he came from. The two-room shotgun-style house in which the King was born in 1935 was built by his father on a borrowed $180 budget, and lost two years later for nonpayment of the loan. The house, plain as it is, has been spruced up since Baby Elvis’s day; the flowered wallpaper now on the bedroom wall, for instance, was probably just newspaper when the Presleys lived there.
Birthday Party: If you visit on January 8, Elvis’s birthday, you might get a piece of cake. —Karrie Jacobs
Earthship, Taos, NM
From the back, Earthships, built primarily out of dirt and old tires, look like giant anthills. From the front, they appear more normal, with glass walls, gardens, and major appliances. Renegade architect Mike Reynolds has been building these solar-powered, rainwater-harvesting, sewage-treating houses for decades.
Get a Room: You can get intensely self-sufficient—and surprisingly cozy—in one of these for upwards of $120 a night in the Greater World Community just west of Taos. —Karrie Jacobs
Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA
Built for the Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh, this may be Frank Lloyd Wright’s most satisfying work for the casual visitor. The fact that the house appears to hover above a 30-foot-high waterfall is compelling even for those who don’t generally care about architecture. And its location in a bucolic corner of Western Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands makes the house a perfect road-trip destination.
The Budget: Completed in 1938, Fallingwater cost $155,000, including the architect’s fee ($8,000) and built-in furniture. A typical house at the time cost about $3,000. —Karrie Jacobs
Sea Ranch, Sonoma, CA
This 1960s development along the coast of northern California is revered for the way the weathered brown, shingled houses were integrated into the rugged landscape. Condominium One, a structure that inspired decades of beach-house style, is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Best of all, many of the homes in this living museum of architectural idealism are available as vacation rentals.
Prime Spot: Unit 9, the spectacular ocean-view condo that belonged to architect Charles Moore, part of the team that designed Sea Ranch, is available as a short-term rental. —Karrie Jacobs
Monticello, Charlottesville, VA
Our coolest founding father, Thomas Jefferson, built the only colonial-era house that is truly appealing to a modern sensibility. With its big windows and skylights, it’s a rebuke to the dreary houses that were common in his day. And it’s full of his projects and inventions like his revolving bookstand, his Great Clock, and his precursor to the modern platform bed, the Jeffersonian alcove bed.
Jefferson’s Retreat: You can also check out his vacation house, about 70 miles down the road in Lynchburg. The octagonal Poplar Forest House is only now being restored and is open to the public much of the year. —Karrie Jacobs
Case Study House #22, Los Angeles
You’ve surely seen the Julius Shulman photo of the girls in the white dresses seemingly floating over L.A. The glass-and-steel house in the picture, a minimalist masterpiece designed by architect Pierre Koenig, was completed in 1960 as part of the famous Case Study program sponsored by Arts and Architecture Magazine. Now the original owners, the Stahl family, have opened their icon to the public for regularly scheduled viewings.
Book Today: Viewings are on weekends. Tickets sell out quickly. Wear a white dress. —Karrie Jacobs
Hearst Castle, San Simeon, CA
We don’t have many actual castles in this country, so William Randolph Hearst’s behemoth will have to do. With 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, pools, terraces, and paths, the place is too big to be seen on one tour; you have your pick of five. And even if architect Julia Morgan’s stylistic smorgasbord—Mediterranean/Spanish/Whatever—isn’t to your taste, it’s still pretty impressive.
Understatement: In 1919, Hearst wrote to Morgan: “Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something.” —Karrie Jacobs
Maybe this is more like America’s cutest house. But Seaside, FL, 80 acres of faux-historic fantasy tightly configured into a fan-shaped expanse beside the Gulf of Mexico, is a work of genius, the original from which most of today’s New Urbanist–flavored development springs. While its sweetened aesthetic has been endlessly ridiculed—especially in The Truman Show—Seaside is actually a uniquely cool place.
Cuteness for Hire: Many of the development’s houses are available for vacation stays through Seaside’s Cottage Rental Agency. —Karrie Jacobs
Beer Can House, Houston
There is a rich tradition in this country of so-called outsider artists transforming their front yards or their entire homes into works of art—and nowhere more so than in Houston. This project began in 1968 when John Milkovisch decided that flattened beer cans were the perfect siding material. Then he kept going. Today the house is decorated with an estimated 50,000 beer cans, including strings of aluminum lids that tinkle like wind chimes.
Beer Budget: The house is open to the public most weekends. A self-guided tour of the grounds is $2. If you want to go inside, it’s $5. —Karrie Jacobs
Project Row Houses, Houston
This is a neighborhood consisting of several blocks of shotgun houses in Houston’s Third Ward, some of which are open to the public as art spaces. The rest are subsidized housing for single mothers and offices for nonprofits. The idea was to preserve a fast-disappearing, traditionally black housing type and to use it as a springboard for community development.
The Rounds: Seven of the houses are used for interactive art exhibitions or “rounds,” each lasting four months. —Karrie Jacobs
Manitoga, Garrison, NY
From the 1920s through the 1950s, housewares designer Russel Wright occupied a cultural position akin to Martha Stewart’s. He was famous for his biomorphic dishware and his theories about modern living. His estate, Manitoga, was a laboratory for those designs and ideas. For example, he believed in integrating landscape and architecture. As a result, the décor is boulder-intensive: Danish modern meets caveman.
Easier Living: If you’re inspired by Manitoga, you can pick up a reissue of Mary and Russel Wright’s 1950 classic, Guide to Easier Living, in the gift shop. —Karrie Jacobs
Farnsworth House, Plano, IL
Completed in 1951, this luminous box, hovering above the ground in a white steel I-beam frame, should have been the first glass house. However, Mies van der Rohe exhibited a model of the radically minimalist country house he’d designed for Dr. Edith Farnsworth at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1947. Philip Johnson, then a MoMA curator, took the idea and ran with it, beating Mies by two years.
Preserved: The house is now owned and operated as a museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which bought it at auction for $7.5 million in 2003. —Karrie Jacobs
Olson House, Cushing, ME
Subject of hundreds of works of art by Andrew Wyeth, this former 18th-century shipmaster’s home was once described by the artist’s wife, Betsy, as “looming up like a weathered ship stranded on a hilltop.” Here at this atmospheric saltwater home in 1948 Wyeth painted his most famous work, Christina’s World; the canvas depicts a young woman (wheelchair-bound Christina Olson) crawling, longingly, up a meadow hill. Now run by the Farnsworth Museum, the landmark house, which includes Wyeth’s studio, is open for seasonal tours and is preserved much as the Olsons left it. —Adrien Glover
Coral Castle, Homestead, FL
Made from 1,100 tons of limestone boulders—bigger than those at Stonehenge—this strange structure, located just south of Miami, was built from 1923 to 1951 by a single man, a tiny Latvian immigrant named Edward Leedskalnin, as his home and an homage to the love of his life who left him the night before their wedding. How did he do it? The jilted man claimed he knew the secret to the pyramids’ construction. Other details—no mortar, precise seams, physics-defying balancing acts—have also stumped scientists for decades. —Adrien Glover
Winchester Mystery House, San Jose
What do you do if you think you’ve been cursed? Sarah Winchester, the widow of rifle manufacturer William Wirt Winchester, consulted a psychic, who advised that she could placate the ghosts of people killed by guns only if she never stopped building her home. The result is the Winchester Mystery House, a jumbled maze of 160 rooms, interior windows, staircases to nowhere, 47 fireplaces, and three elevators, built continuously—24 hours a day!—between 1884 and 1922. —Ann Shields
San Francisco Plantation, Garyville, LA
Originally built in 1855 on prime riverfront land speculated by a free man of color, San Francisco Plantation is one of the grandest and most meticulously restored mansions along the fabled River Road. The house’s exterior galleries flanked by Corinthian columns, the vivid blue trim, and the lacy widow’s walk on the roof echo the wedding-cake design of the Mississippi riverboats, and inspired the architectural term Steamboat Gothic. Guides in period costume run honey-toned tours throughout the day. —Ann Shields
Biltmore, Asheville, NC
Built in the 1880s, tycoon George Vanderbilt’s 250-room country retreat remains America’s largest privately owned home and showcases the Gilded Age in all its excess. Take the 70-foot-ceilinged banquet hall—decked out with 16th-century tapestries and a pipe organ—or amenities like a 70,000-gallon indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley, exercise equipment, and elevators. It’s easy to spend a day exploring the 8,000-acre grounds, which include gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, a working farm, and a winery open for tastings. —Kate Appleton
Tenement Museum, New York City
Manhattan’s rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side was the initial home base for many immigrants, who squeezed into buildings like this five-floor landmark dating to 1863. Though not technically a house, it was home to many seeking a better life in the United States. Six apartments have been renovated to reflect the living conditions of onetime residents like the Irish-Catholic Moore and German-Jewish Gumpertz families. After hearing their sagas, make time to browse in the gift shop, a fantastic source for souvenirs and books on New York. —Kate Appleton
The Alden B. Dow Home & Studio, Midland, MI
Architect Alden B. Dow, who apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright, completed this 20,000-square-foot building in 1941—having already designed homes for many of his neighbors in the small town of Midland. Dow incorporated features like a vaulted ceiling, floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and a terrace to create an airy structure that would blend in seamlessly with the surrounding woodland and pond. Stepping-stones are made of the same square unit blocks that support the walls. —Kate Appleton
Shangri La, Honolulu
Originally built as a vacation home for tobacco heiress Doris Duke in 1935, Shangri La is a reflection of her fascination with the various Muslim countries she toured during her honeymoon. Inside, visitors can marvel at the vast Islamic art collection Duke amassed over a span of some 60 years. —Joshua Pramis
Moss Mansion, Billings, MT
Built in 1902 for Preston Boyd Moss, a prominent entrepreneur, this 28-room red sandstone mansion was designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, who was also responsible for the original Waldorf Astoria and Plaza Hotel, among other famous hotels. Visitors can stop by for a one-hour tour of the home’s opulent turn-of-the-century interiors, which are still decorated with the original furniture, drapes, fixtures, and Persian carpets. —Joshua Pramis
The Minister’s Tree House, Crossville, TN
Off of Exit 320 on I-40, between Knoxville and Nashville, lies what may be the world’s largest treehouse. Local Horace Burgess began building this 97-foot-tall tower out of recycled lumber in 1993, inspired by a “vision from God.” The 10-story structure is supported by a massive white oak tree and includes a chapel and a basketball court inside. Though it’s open to the public during the day, be aware that the structure wasn’t built to code and has been vandalized over the years. Enter at your own risk. —Lyndsey Matthews
White House, Washington, D.C.
Though the President of the United States has called the 132-room Neoclassical mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. home since John Adams moved in in 1800, it wasn’t called the White House until 1901. With five full-time chefs, 28 fireplaces, and a movie theater, you’ll never be hungry, cold, or bored in this house. New presidents are allotted $100,000 to redecorate the living quarters and the Oval Office, yet when the Obamas revamped the Oval Office in 2010 (and not at taxpayers’ expense) they were still criticized for doing it when the country was facing severe budget issues. It’s the only private home of a head of state that is open to the public for free. —Lyndsey Matthews
Taos Pueblo, Taos, NM
At the base of the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains, this multistoried compound, a National Historic Landmark, is one of the country’s best-preserved (and continuously inhabited) Pueblo Indian settlements, built before 1400. Its ceremonial buildings and individual homes are built from adobe—bricks made from earth mixed with straw and water—and connected as if a single dwelling. While the homes share walls, they are not connected on the interior, and per tribal tradition, do not have electricity or running water. —Lyndsey Matthews