7 Midwestern Towns for Modern Architecture Lovers

To experience some of America’s most exciting building designs, head to the heartland.

A symmetrical church interior with light yellow walls, tall wooden chairs, and geometric light fixtures

The Unity Temple is Frank Lloyd Wright’s only surviving public building from his Prairie School period.

Photo by Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

Major coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles are brimming with exciting landmarks, but architecture buffs shouldn’t write off the Midwest as mere flyover country. In fact, the region has one of the country’s most robust 20th-century architecture scenes, with award-winning, boundary-pushing buildings found everywhere from big metropolitan areas (like Minneapolis and Detroit) to creative-minded suburbs (like Oak Park) and tiny towns like Columbus, Indiana, which has more noteworthy buildings than cities 10 times its size. In these seven cities, architects from Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry to Eero Saarinen and I.M. Pei have changed the landscape of American design with their innovative homes, museums, libraries, churches, and more—with many even earning UNESCO World Heritage and National Historic Landmark status.

Columbus, Indiana, United States - March 3rd, 2021: A view of the modern North Christian Church, designed by architect Eero Saarinen and constructed in 1964.

Among Columbus, Indiana’s most impressive modern landmarks is the North Christian Church, designed by Eero Saarinen.

Photo by Ted Alexander Somerville/Shutterstock

Columbus, Indiana

Few places punch above their architectural weight class quite like this city of roughly 50,000, about 40 miles south of Indianapolis. And that’s all thanks to one man: Beginning in the 1950s, J. Irwin Miller, the CEO of Cummins (an engine-manufacturing company), offered to pay the architect fees for public buildings around town. The patronage led to buildings—churches, banks, schools, libraries, newspaper offices—by legends like Eliel (father) and Eero (son) Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, and César Pelli, earning the town the nickname “Athens on the Prairie.” Today, seven of those buildings are designated National Historic Landmarks, and the city offers a two-hour guided shuttle tour of some of the highlights ($30). Among the landmarked buildings is Miller’s own 1953 midcentury-modern residence, which features architecture by Eero Saarinen, interiors by Alexander Girard, and landscape design by Dan Kiley. After Miller’s death, the house was donated to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and visitors can learn more about one of the greatest patrons of American modernist architecture on a 90-minute tour of his house ($30).

A student walking in front of a modern building on a university campus

Wayne State University’s campus is filled with works by Minoru Yamasaki, such as the Helen L. DeRoy Auditorium.

Photo by Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock

Detroit, Michigan

Detroit’s skyline is rife with art deco skyscrapers that show off its status as an economic powerhouse in the early 20th century. The Motor City is also one of the top places to take in the works of Japanese American architect Minoru Yamasaki, best known for designing the Twin Towers. For the best introduction to his works, check out the campus of Wayne State University, home to four of his buildings: the 1958 McGregor Memorial Conference Center, known for its serene reflecting pool and geometric skylight; the 1960 College of Education building, which is lined with 120 precast concrete “trees”; the 1964 Prentis Building, designed in the international style; and the 1964 Helen L. DeRoy Auditorium, which features Gothic-inspired arches. Elsewhere around the metro area, Yamasaki’s works include One Woodward Avenue (his first skyscraper), the Federal Reserve Bank Annex, and the Temple Beth El, which features a unique shape that calls to mind the biblical Tent of Meeting.

A hedge labyrinth with a gazebo in the middle

In addition to the modern architecture found around town, you can visit a hedge labyrinth created by one of New Harmony’s earlier utopian communities.

Courtesy of Visit Indiana

New Harmony, Indiana

From 1814 to 1927, the community of New Harmony was home to two utopian communities, the Harmonists and the Owenites, and they left behind a number of 19th-century vernacular structures that, lovingly preserved, now form the New Harmony Historic District. (Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites offers tours for $12.) But New Harmony, which sits near the southern tip of Indiana along the Wabash River, isn’t stuck in the past: After marrying a descendant of one of the utopian leaders and town founders, oil heiress Jane Blaffer Owen commissioned a slew of architecture and public art projects. Among the most notable additions was the Athenaeum, a bright white visitor center with a series of ramps and an expansive viewing deck, by Richard Meier, the Pritzker Prize–winner behind Los Angeles’s Getty Center, and Philip Johnson’s Roofless Church, now a popular wedding venue. The church is part of the Jane Blaffer Owen Sanctuary, a garden and sculpture park that hosts guided tours, concerts, art workshops, and more.

A brick and wood home with statues, eaves, a chimney, and multiple levels

Many travelers begin their exploration of Frank Lloyd Wright works in Oak Park with a stop at his home and studio.

Photo by littlenySTOCK/Shutterstock

Oak Park, Illinois

For a primer on the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, there’s no denser concentration of his works than Oak Park, a genteel suburb about nine miles due west of downtown Chicago. Before he became America’s most famous architect, Wright lived and worked here from 1889 to 1909, and Oak Park is now home to nearly 30 buildings that he designed or remodeled. Begin your visit at Wright’s Home and Studio ($20 for a guided interior tour), where he helped refine the Prairie School style, and marvel at his obsessive perfectionism: He famously designed most of the furniture and textiles throughout the property. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust also offers a small-group guided neighborhood walk ($65), which includes stops at 10 Wright-designed residences, or a tour of the strikingly modern Unity Temple ($15 for self-guided, $40 for guided), a Unitarian-Universalist church that’s his only surviving public building from the Prairie period.

A corn field with modern buildings behind it

Frank Lloyd Wright created his dream estate, Taliesin, not far from his Wisconsin birthplace.

Photo by Aaron of L.A. Photography/Shutterstock

Spring Green, Wisconsin

About 20 minutes away from Wright’s birthplace in Richmond Center, the village of Spring Green is home to one of his most iconic creations, the 1911-built estate, studio, and school, Taliesin. Wright drew on the flat terrain of the surrounding Driftless Area for the design of this gorgeous example of Prairie School architecture, which takes its name from the Welsh word for “shining brow,” due to its location on the top of a ridge. Taliesin Preservation offers a number of themed tours at different durations and price points, but true FLW fanatics should splurge on the four-hour Estate Tour ($98), which also includes stops at the 1902 Hillside Home School, which he designed for his aunts; Tan-y-Deri, the home he built for his sister Jane; the reconstructed Romeo and Juliet Windmill Tower; and the Midway Barn. Taliesin is one of eight Wright-designed buildings that were jointly named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2019, and this February, the on-site Riverview Terrace Café was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

A sprawling room with yellow glass looking out over a river with bridges and mill buildings

The amber glass in the Guthrie Theater’s cantilevered Pohlad Lobby completely shifts your view of the Mississippi River outside.

Photo by Spencer Bergen/Unsplash

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Over the past few decades, notable starchitects have used Minneapolis as a laboratory for experimentation. Take, for instance, Frank Gehry, who honed his trademark deconstructivist style at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum. Comprising curving sheets of brushed steel, the museum sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and is inspired by the abstracted form of a fish swimming in a waterfall; it also served as a preview of things to come through his Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Across town, French architect Jean Nouvel drew on the shapes of the adjacent grain mills for the Guthrie Theater, which features a 178-foot cantilever bridge jutting out over the highway; if you happen to be in town on the fourth Saturday of the month, the Guthrie offers an architecture-themed tour ($18). Other highlights around the city include the Walker Art Center, which features a sculptural annex by Herzog & de Meuron; César Pelli’s Minneapolis Central Library; and even the LEED Gold–certified U.S. Bank Stadium—the home of the Minnesota Vikings—which is inspired by ice formations on the nearby St. Anthony’s Falls and, appropriately, Viking longboats.

A modern building that's shaped by a white spiral surrounded by grass

The National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus is a strikingly modern building that ignores the usual neoclassical cliches.

Photo by 4kclips/Shutterstock

Columbus, Ohio

The Buckeye State is filled with architectural gems, including Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and I.M. Pei’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, but the capital city is home to some particularly thought-provoking pieces. On the Ohio State University campus, the Wexner Center for the Arts was one of the first deconstructivist buildings, opened in 1989 and designed by Peter Eisenman, who would go on to create the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Across town, a much newer icon is the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, one of the most strikingly modern memorials in the country, which opened in 2018. Allied Works Architecture designed the minimalist building, which comprises criss-crossing rings of concrete with colorful vertical windows that resemble military ribbons.

This story is part of our Meet Me in the Middle series, which celebrates the singular towns, cities, and outdoor spaces that lie in wait for travelers between America’s well-trodden coasts. Read more from Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin.

Nicholas DeRenzo is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Brooklyn. A graduate of NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, he worked as an editor at Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel and, most recently, as executive editor at Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York, Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Sunset, Wine Enthusiast, and more.
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