5 Towns That Are Hidden Architectural Gems

published Jul 29, 2018
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The architecture of a city so often becomes an integral part of its branding and identity. The distinguishing image of Paris is the Eiffel Tower and Haussmann apartments. San Francisco has the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, of course. And New York has lofts, brownstones, impressive skyscrapers like the Empire State Building, and quirky modern residences designed by big names like Zaha Hadid and Bjarke Ingels. But you don’t always need to live in a city with exorbitant rents to enjoy beautiful architecture. In fact, some of the country’s best architecture lies just outside city lines—meaning one of these unexpectedly architectural cities probably isn’t too far from you (and it might even be surprisingly affordable). Here, five unique towns:

New Canaan, Connecticut

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Median Home Value: $1,297,100, according to Zillow.
Homes for sale (as of writing): 366
What’s so cool about it: After fleeing Germany, Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus movement, took a position at the Harvard Graduate School of Design between 1937 and 1946. Then, in 1948, he and a group of architects now famously known as the “Harvard Five”—Eliot Noyes, Philip Johnson, Landis Gores, John M. Johansen, and Marcel Breuer—took over New Canaan as a modernist incubator and built several landmarks. The most famous building here is Philip Johnson’s iconic Glass House, a transparent, 1,800 square-foot glass box built in 1949. It houses a permanent collection of 20th century paintings and sculptures and temporary exhibitions and installations by artists. Other landmarks include SANAA’s Grace Farms and the 1960 Gores Pavilion. Just two months ago, the town of New Canaan played host to the annual Iconic Houses Conference. Conference participants from all around the world came to New Canaan to survey the landmark modernist icons.

Your cool house options: Philip Johnson’s Wiley House is on the market, but it’s going to cost you a cool $8.5 million. At $879,000, this mid-century modern beauty is a less-pricey option that still maintains the town’s signature style.

Columbus, Indiana

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Median Home Value: $146,300, according to Zillow.
Homes for sale (as of writing): 292
What’s so cool about it: Columbus architecture was brought under the spotlight when the 2017 movie Columbus featured a backdrop of the town’s modernist buildings, like the Cleo Rogers Memorial Library by I. M. Pei. Pritzker Architecture Prize winners Robert Venturi and Richard Meier have also developed projects here.

The city’s official center maintains a list of 75 notable architectural projects. Of these, seven have since been designated as national historical landmarks: the First Christian Church by Eliel Saarinen (1942); Irwin Conference Center (1954), Miller House and Garden (1957), and North Christian Church (1964) by Eero Saarinen; Mabel McDowell Adult Education Center by John Carl Warnecke (1960), First Baptist Church by Harry Weese (1965), and The Republic by Myron Goldsmith (1971).

Your cool house options: Though many of the city’s fabulous architecture is public facing, there are some private Modernist-inspired options, too. For example, this 1960s brick home built by architect Harry Weese is on the market for $686,400. Into older homes? This charming 1920s home (complete with a claw-footed tub) is on sale for $165,000.

Taos, New Mexico

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Median Home Value: $384,000, according to Zillow.
Homes for sale (as of writing): 436
What’s so cool about it: Taos is a town in the far north of New Mexico, away from the main draws of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. It is an architectural town in its own right with historic adobe complexes such as the Taos Pueblo, a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark, as well as many galleries and museums in Pueblo Revival or Mission Revival architectural styles.
One of these is the Taos Art Museum, a museum in the former home of Russian artist Nicolai Fechin.

Other buildings of architectural importance include Spanish Colonial buildings such as the Kit Carson Home and Museum and Hacienda de los Martinez, and grand bridges such as the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Taos is also a great place to see unique Earthship biotecture.

Your cool house options: There are plenty of Pueblo-style homes on the market, like this two-bed, three-bath home with mountain views for $540,000, and this curvy adobe and wood style for $699,000

Knoxville, Tennessee

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Median Home Value: $160,000, according to Zillow.
Homes for sale (as of writing): 2,573
What’s so cool about it: The city of Knoxville, Tennessee, is less than an hour away from the Smoky Mountains National Park. But it holds its own as an architectural beauty for visitors that pass through. For starters, there’s the huge Sunsphere, a 266-feet high hexagonal steel structure with a 75-foot golden orb at the top. It was the symbol for the 1982 World’s Fair and has become an unmistakable Knoxville icon. But there are other highlights, too, such as the Tennessee Theatre, a 1920s “entertainment palace” that features a Spanish-Moorish style interior, Czechoslovakian crystals, French-style chandeliers, and Italian terrazzo flooring.

Many of the homes in Knoxville are also on the National Register of Historic Places for their trademark architectural styles. These include the Benjamin Morton House (Colonial Revival), Central United Methodist Church (Gothic Revival), The Robert Daniel House (Streamline Moderne), Greystone (Romanesque), and the Ivan Racheff House & Gardens (American Craftsman).

Your cool house options: This colorful and affordable Queen Anne Victorian is going for $335,000. There’s also a $99,900 Craftsman-Style home ripe for a renovation.

Wilmington, North Carolina

Median Home Value: $216,200 according to Zillow.
Homes for sale (as of writing): 2,573
What’s so cool about it: Wilmington—like Knoxville—has an eclectic mix of architecture within its residential neighborhoods. And location scouts love it! Known by some as the “Hollywood of the East,” Wilmington has been featured in “Dawson’s Creek,” “One Tree Hill,” “A Walk to Remember,” and “Iron Man 3.” Apart from great examples of American Craftsman, Colonial Revival, and Queen Anne architecture, there are also the Antebellum mansions. Though these are often spaces with sordid pasts, there are spaces like the Bellamy Mansion Museum, which not only acknowledges the beauty of the house, but more importantly pays deference to the enslaved people who spent their lives working in these homes.

Your cool house options: The perfectly purple Smith-Willoughby home by Burett H. Stephens is on the market for $319,000. Or if you desire something more grandiose (and have $2.5 million to spare), you can pick up The Graystone Inn, a Neo-Classical Revival home designed by architect Charles MacMillen.