Not only is the midwestern United States chock full of stories about westward expansion, but the area is also home to many architectural wonders, from tall Art Deco skyscrapers in Chicago to the Usonian style of Frank Lloyd Wright and the midcentury modern designs of Eero Saarinen. Here is a handful of architectural experiences in the Midwest you won’t want to miss.
Miller House and Garden
The Miller House and Garden in Columbus, Indiana, is one of only a few midcentury modern homes designed by Saarinen. The famous architect designed only a handful of residences during his storied career. He is best known for designing the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
Dan Kiley, one of the most iconic landscape architects at the time, designed the geometric landscape, and Alexander Girard did the interior design.
“They are considered the stars of midcentury modernism,” said Erin Hawkins, director of marketing for the Columbus Area Visitors Center. “There are not a ton of projects they worked together on.”
The home was completed in 1957. It has two glass walls that completely retract to make it a seamless indoor/outdoor experience. The modular storage wall, with adjustable shelves, was a new concept when the home was built. The shelves are filled with folk art from around the world, as Girard was a great collector.
The Miller children donated the property to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, now called Newfields, after their parents passed away. It opened for public tours in 2011.
“People talk about the Miller House in the same way they talk about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater or Philip Johnson’s Glass House or the Farnsworth House near Chicago,” said Hawkins.
The Miller House is different from these other houses in that it was designed to be lived in. The others were designed as retreat homes or summer homes, she said. Only 13 people are allowed in the house at one time, so groups must be split up.
Chicago Architecture Center
The Chicago Architecture Center organizes many architectural tours around Chicago. One of its most popular is the Historic Treasures of Chicago’s Golden Age tour, which takes guests to 10 buildings in the downtown area, many of them along Michigan Avenue. Visitors see the Wrigley Building, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Palmer House Hotel and other notable buildings constructed between 1890 and 1930. The Carbide and Carbon Building is a 1920 Art Deco building that started its life as an office building. In the early 2000s, it was turned into the St. Jane Hotel. Many of the buildings on the tour have been repurposed.
“There is a lot of adaptive reuse,” said Leslie Clark Lewis, a volunteer docent who leads this and other tours for the Chicago Architecture Center. “It shows you that if you have a great building and you want to extend its life, what it can be used for.” The Chicago Cultural Center started its life as the main branch of the Chicago Public Library.
“The buildings are gorgeous and all different styles during this period of time. Architects designed a lot of historical revival-style buildings,” Clark Lewis said.
The tour is two hours and about a mile and a half of walking. Groups are invited in to see the interiors of four of the buildings.
The Guthrie Theater is a magnificent blue glass structure perched on the Mississippi River. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, the building opened in 2006.
“At night it makes the Guthrie mysterious,” said Kemi Ojelade, group sales and tour coordinator. “It disappears at sunset. As the sun lights up, it brings the Guthrie back to life. When you look at the building, it is visual arts on its own. It speaks to the mind and soul. It’s a beautiful building.”
The theater was designed with a cantilevered bridge that stretches 178 feet from the face of the building and overhangs the Mississippi River. It is called the Endless Bridge, and it connects visitors with the water of the river and St. Anthony Falls.
Nouvel loved to play with color; thus, each of the performance spaces in the building has a different color scheme. One has multicolored seating, and one theater is all red.
Groups of all sizes are invited to take tours of the building. Groups will get a history of the building as they visit the backstage area and 27,000-square-foot scene shop. There is also a costume shop, a prop shop, and rehearsal and classroom spaces. Groups will also have the chance to walk around the outside of the structure and take a walk on the Endless Bridge.
The Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park
The Frank Lloyd Wright House in Ebsworth Park, also known as the Kraus House, is a Wright-designed residence that is open to the public as a museum.
“It is a Usonian home, and what is remarkable about it is it has one of the most ambitious geometric designs, based on overlapping parallelograms,” said Kathryn Feldt, executive director of Ebsworth Park.
There are only two right angles in the house. The furniture and fabrics are all Wright-designed.
“It is a really special experience to walk into the house and see the original intent,” Feldt said. In many Wright-designed structures, many of the original furnishings were lost.
“To see everything in such beautiful shape is quite remarkable,” she said.
Russell Kraus, who owned the home with his wife, Ruth, was a mosaic and stained-glass artist. He convinced Wright to install many of his own stained-glass panels in the house. The house itself was built into a grove of persimmon trees and positioned to catch the light just right. Persimmon trees are a “unique-looking tree,” and they “introduce color and real vibrancy to the overall experience of being in the house,” Feldt said.
The red-brick structure combined with concrete, stained glass and tidewater red cypress makes for a Usonian experience not seen elsewhere.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
The Paramount Theatre opened its doors in 1928 as the Capitol Theatre. One of the great old movie palaces, the theater recently underwent a major restoration. Groups are welcome to take a guided tour of the building, beginning in the Hall of Mirrors, which is right inside the front door and gives visitors the opportunity to take in all of the little details of the building’s design. The theater has a harvest theme running throughout, with cornucopias, leaves, vines and faces that represent the goddess of harvest among the architectural details.
The ceiling of the theater is the highlight of the building, with gold, pink, blue and yellow standing out in sharp contrast to the deep-red seats below.
The colors are very vibrant, in large part because they have all been refreshed since a flood that damaged the theater in 2008.
“The flood was completely devastating to the building, but we are bigger and better than we could have ever imagined pre-2008,” said Jason Anderson, general manager of the Paramount. The building got a complete refresh, including new lighting, a sound system and the addition of two new floors. The tour takes groups to the backstage area, and they also get to hear a recording of the theater’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ.