Geoffrey Baer has long explored Chicago’s extraordinary architecture—in fact, his career hosting shows on WTTW was launched as a result of giving architectural river tours as a docent for the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC). But Chicago isn’t the only place in the Midwest with exceptional architecture. Geoffrey recently built upon his Chicago on Vacation in a talk at the CAC spotlighting some trip-worthy architectural destinations within driving distance from Chicago. With the help of a small team at CAC, he chose places ranging from well-known marvels to hidden gems in unexpected places.
As a docent in the 1980s, Geoffrey and several other docents made architectural pilgrimages to the meccas of Columbus, Indiana and Taliesin in Wisconsin. With some highlights selected by him and CAC, you can take your own architectural road trip! See all their locations mapped out below.
John Deere World Headquarters in Moline, Illinois
Eero Saarinen designed the corporate headquarters of John Deere in the modernist “International Style” of steel and glass, but the building has some local elements as well. In order to reflect the farm equipment maker’s ruggedness, Saarinen used COR-TEN steel, which rusts over time. (Chicago’s Richard J. Daley Center and the Picasso sculpture in front of it are both made of COR-TEN.) The steel’s color also references the tilled soil of the region’s farmland.
Starlight Theatre in Rockford, Illinois
Moline isn’t the only small city in northern Illinois to boast impressive work by a superstar architect. Rock Valley College in Rockford has a striking performance space designed in 2003 by Chicago’s Jeanne Gang, the Starlight Theatre. Its roof that retracts like flower petals, giving a star-shaped glimpse of the sky. Gang’s firm has another project in the works that features a similar conceit: their winning design for the O’Hare expansion project includes star-shaped skylights, a reference to the stars on the Chicago flag.
Louis Sullivan’s "Jewel Box Banks"
Another high-profile architect’s work can unexpectedly be found in eight small towns scattered across the Midwest. Between 1908 and 1919, Chicago’s Louis Sullivan was desperate to take any work he could get; he was difficult and a drinker, and his modern, organic architecture was seen as outdated. Nevertheless, a banker named Carl Bennett commissioned Sullivan to design a bank in Owatonna, Minnesota, and Sullivan produced a brick box decorated with nature-inspired ornament. Similar structures, known as Sullivan’s “jewel box banks,” followed in Algona, Iowa; Newark, Ohio; Sidney, Ohio; West Lafayette, Indiana; Columbus, Wisconsin; Grinnell, Iowa (considered one of the most refined, with its rose window); and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That last one is now an upscale Italian restaurant!
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis has a remarkable collection of noteworthy architectural sites, including three that were included in Geoffrey’s 10 That Changed America series: Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building from 1891 was one of the 10 Buildings That Changed America; Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, from 1965, was one of the 10 Monuments; and engineer James B. Eads’s 1874 Eads Bridge was one of the 10 Modern Marvels.
The city has other worthwhile sites, too. The City Museum, started by artist Bob Cassilly and his then-wife Gail in 1995, is an utterly unique playground/art project constructed out of salvaged materials such as machine parts and architectural fragments, all housed in a ten-story former shoe factory and warehouse. The Pulitzer Arts Foundation was the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s first freestanding building in the United States. Bellefontaine Cemetery, opened in 1849, and the 1300-acre Forest Park, which hosted the 1904 World’s Fair, are attractive outdoor spaces, while the Lafayette Square district features Victorian Painted Ladies similar to the famous ones in San Francisco.
Ste. Genevieve, Missouri
Not far from St. Louis is one of the oldest permanent European settlements west of the Mississippi: Ste. Genevieve, founded around 1735 (or as late as 1750). It has a rare form of “French Creole Colonial” housing supported by vertical wooden posts sunk into the earth. Only five structures of this type survive in the U. S., and three are in Ste. Genevieve.
Cahokia Mounds, Illinois
For an even older site, dating from centuries before European settlers, you can visit Cahokia Mounds, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. In what we now call the 13th century, its population may have been as high as 40,000 people, larger than London at the time.
Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin
While Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked in Chicago for a major portion of his life, he was born in southwest Wisconsin. In 1911, he began building an estate and school called Taliesin near his birthplace; he then lived there on and off until his death in 1959. “Taliesin” is Welsh for “shining brow,” and Wright built his estate near the crest of a hill, as though it were a brow. He adapted the home to its landscape by using local limestone, sand, and sienna. He also had to rebuild it twice after fires: first, after a brutal murder-arson killed his mistress, her two children, and four others in 1914, and a second time in 1925, after Taliesin was struck by lightning.
Taliesin, along with seven other Wright structures around the country (including two in the Chicago area), was just added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. If you want to see more Wright in Wisconsin, you can head to Racine, where he built a headquarters and research tower for S. C. Johnson, as well as a home, called Wingspread, for the company president.
Stavkirke on Washington Island, Wisconsin
On a small island off the northern tip of Wisconsin’s Door County, you’ll find an anachronism: a traditional stave church, or stavkirke, based on one built in Borgund, Norway, in 1150 AD. Local craftspeople constructed this marvel between 1992 and 1999.
World’s Fair Homes in the Indiana Dunes
Intriguing buildings can be found in another unexpected place: the Indiana Dunes, which recently became a National Park. Deposited in the biodiverse landscape are several once-futuristic homes from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, brought across Lake Michigan on barges after the Fair by a developer to showcase a new development. Designed to demonstrate modern home technologies and building materials, they include the Wieboldt-Rostone House, clad in an experimental material; the Armco-Ferro House, a pre-fabricated, mass-produced prototype; the Florida Tropical House, which blended indoor and outdoor environments; and the House of Tomorrow, which had a garage for an airplane as well as air conditioning.
While it may not be as surprising a location for modern architecture as a National Park, the small town of Columbus, Indiana is still not where you might expect to find work by top international architects. Many of them were brought to Columbus by commissions from the Cummins Engine Company, which is headquartered there.
In the 1950s, Cummins President J. Irwin Miller commissioned Eero Saarinen to design the Irwin Union Bank (now the Irwin Conference Center); Saarinen also designed a lauded modernist home for Miller, with gardens by Dan Kiley. Kiley has more than 30 projects in Columbus, including North Christian Church, another collaboration with Saarinen. And Saarinen’s father, Eliel, designed for Columbus one of the first modernist churches in America, First Christian Church. Other notable architects whose work can be found in Columbus include I. M. Pei, Chicago’s Harry Weese and Myron Goldsmith, the post-modernist Robert Venturi, Kevin Roche, Richard Meier, and Deborah Berke.
West Baden Springs Hotel in West Baden Springs, Indiana
After you explore the incredible conglomeration of architecture in Columbus, you may as well travel a bit farther southwest, to the West Baden Springs Hotel, a massive resort from 1902 by architect Harrison Albright. Its 200-foot dome was once the largest free-spanning domed roof in the country. It eventually became a Jesuit seminary and then a private college before closing due to flooding. But Indiana Landmarks began restoration in the 1990s, and it reopened as a hotel in 2007.
Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan
Eliel Saarinen also made his mark on another small Midwestern community not far from Detroit. In the 1920s, publishing magnate George Booth and his wife Ellen wanted a boys’ choir for a church they had founded, so, drawing inspiration from British boarding schools, which always had choirs, they decided to convert their farm into a boys’ school. Eliel Saarinen built up a campus with students as laborers that features covered passages, stairways, an art museum, library, and more, all adorned with intriguing details and ingenious design. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger has called it “simply one of the greatest campuses ever created anywhere.”
The campus also eventually included a school for girls, Kingswood Academy, that has features that would become influential in later school designs, such as a low-slung roofline and protective courtyard. Almost half of the Cranbrook campus consists of gardens, and it also houses important collections of design.
For something a bit quirkier, you can head farther north in Michigan to Charlevoix, where there is a collection of unusual “mushroom houses.” Designed in the early twentieth century by Earl Young, an architecture school dropout who drew floorplans in the dirt rather than use blueprints, they incorporate stones that Young found and collected.
Legs Inn in Harbor Springs, Michigan
Even farther north up the Michigan coast you can find a perhaps even odder site: Legs Inn. While Earl Young had at least some architecture training, Stanley Smolek, the designer of the Inn, was a resort owner, not an architect. A Polish immigrant, Smolek began building his restaurant with the help of local Native Americans (he was an honorary Native American chief) in 1921, using scavenged materials such as driftwood, stones, and tree roots—or antique stove legs, which adorn the roof cornice and give the Inn its name. Smolek kept adding new decoration to Legs Inn until his death in 1968 at the age of 81.
Check out the map below to see the locations of all of these road trip-worthy destinations—red points designate all eight of Louis Sullivan’s “jewel box banks,” some of which are a bit further afield, while blue points are everything else.