The Most Beautiful Building in Every State
Our purple mountains and amber waves are nice and all, but we’ve been building fast and furiously (2 Fast, 2 Furiously?) since we landed at Plymouth Rock. And we’ve come a long way since log cabins on fruited plains. Here is the most beautiful building in every state, plus the District of Columbia.
The majestic Alabama Theatre truly is the “Showplace of the South,” from the beautifully restored gold leaf details to the bright red Crawford Special Publix One Mighty Wurlitzer Opus 1783 organ (yep, that's its full name). What was once a movie palace and host of the Alabama live Mickey Mouse Club now offers a full array of concerts, plays, and dance performances.
Museum of the North
Located on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, the Museum of the North looks like a sleek sculpture designed to blend in with the usually white and wintery landscape. The swooping geometries, evocative of the natural surroundings, transfer to the interior where you will find 1.4 million artifacts and specimens including Blue Babe, a 36,000-year-old bison mummy.
Referred to as “The Jewel of the Desert,” the Arizona Biltmore is exactly that. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Albert Chase McArthur, this grand hotel is constructed from pre-cast desert sand blocks (in 34 different patterns) giving it the signature color of the local scenery. Fun fact: every US president from Hoover to George W. Bush has been a guest here.
Eureka Springs, AR
E. Fay Jones’ masterpiece defines “little chapel in the woods” from now until the end of time. For real. The simple design features 425 windows that seamlessly integrate the forest and native flagstone outside with the carved wood inside. The American Institute of Architects considers Thorncrown Chapel to be the fourth best building of the 20th century.
San Simeon, CA
California has many iconic buildings, but opulent Hearst Castle takes the proverbial cake. Perched in the San Simeon hills, the newspaper magnate’s “modest” pad merges multiple European architecture styles into one colossal must-see landmark. Fun fact: back in its heyday, Hollywood A-listers (Chaplin, Gable, et al) often arrived via plane thanks to the estate’s airfield.
United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel
US Air Force Academy, CO
The 17 soaring spires, the complex tetrahedrons, and the floor-to-very-tall-ceiling stained-glass windows make SOM’s Cadet Chapel design a classic of modernist architecture. Completed in 1962, it was honored by the American Institute of Architects with their prestigious Twenty-Five Year Award in 1996, and the chapel became a National Historic Landmark in 2004.
The Glass House
New Canaan, CT
Widely regarded as Philip Johnson’s masterpiece, The Glass House goes for complete minimalism and transparency -- allowing nature to be the “wallpaper” when viewed from the interior. Deep, man, deep.
The Grand Opera House
Originally built as a Masonic Temple and auditorium in 1871, the majestic Grand is one of the last/best examples of 19thcentury cast iron architecture in America. Inside, the performance hall is an old-school theatre, postcard perfect with giant chandeliers, detailed frescoes, and red plush seats. Notable past performers include John Philip Sousa and “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
District of Columbia
The U.S. Capitol
Vizcaya Museum & Gardens
Sorry, little Billy, the most beautiful building in Florida is NOT Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom. It’s Vizcaya, the estate-turned-museum of James Deering, that guy who made his fortune with International Harvester. Lording over Mainland Miami, the handsome villa incorporates Tuscan Italian Renaissance and Mediterranean Revival styles with just a dash of Baroque.
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
Established by French Catholic emigres in the early 1800s, Savannah’s Cathedral of St. John the Baptist exemplifies French Gothic architecture. And then some. The graceful stone and brick exterior contains an equally graceful interior featuring gothic rib vaults, gilded decorations, and a giant rosette stained-glass window.
It’s like a little bit of the Italian Renaissance landed in the middle of Honolulu. This former seat of government for the Kingdom of Hawaii and Republic of Hawaii is now the home of the Hawaii State Supreme Court... and the building is supremely photogenic. Even though it might be more well-known for the gold leaf statue of King Kamehameha out front, Aliiolani Hale is one of the most recognizable buildings in the state.
Idaho State Capitol
As far as state capitol buildings go, Idaho’s government HQ stands out as one of the best in all the land. Inspired by various classical designs (i.e., St. Peter’s, the US Capitol), the architects incorporated FOUR different types of marble, adorned it with 219 pillars, and crowned it with a big-ass dome and a 5ft 7in golden eagle. ‘Nuff said.
Carbide and Carbon Building
Like chips off the old block, famed Chicago architect Danial Burnham’s sons designed this Art Deco standout clad in dark green terra cotta, polished black granite, and gold leaf. You know… for that little something extra. According to lore, they wanted it to look like a Champagne bottle.
West Baden Springs Hotel
West Baden Springs, IN
Hiding out in the Indiana cornfields is West Baden Springs Hotel, an architectural and engineering marvel that you never knew existed. Unless you're from Indiana, and even then, maybe not. It's been a resort since opening in 1902, and guests visit to enjoy its many posh amenities and ogle the famed dome atrium. And the dome is freakin’ gigantic at 200ft wide. It was the largest free-spanning dome IN THE WORLD from 1902-1913 and the largest in the US until 1955. If you’re ever in Larry Bird Country, you’ve gotta check this place out.
Iowa State Capitol
Des Moines, IA
Not to be outdone by Idaho, Iowa also boasts a duly dignified state capitol with its modified Renaissance style, deep porticoes, and 23-carat gold dome. It’s packed with other frills like a quote from “The Gettysburg Address” and Iowa limestone on the exterior, and 29 different types of marble and woodwork made from Iowa trees on the interior.
Kansas State Capitol
Because the good people of Kansas aren’t impressed when you declare a building in Kansas City, Missouri, as their state’s most beautiful, we will not mention the Nelson-Atkins Museum's Bloch Building -- even though it comprises five translucent boxes connected by green-roofed pavilions and is pretty incredible. Instead, the honor of best-looking building in the Sunflower State goes to the capitol in Topeka, which took 37 years to construct and is considered by many to be “the state's most important architectural treasure.”
The home of the Kentucky Derby is pretty much synonymous with the Bluegrass State, from the arcaded main entrance to the top of its iconic twin spires. And it’s just got that nostalgia factor courtesy of 140+ years of history. Fun fact: over 150,000 people jam in there on Derby Day.
Old State Capitol
Baton Rouge, LA
What could easily be mistaken for Camelot, Louisiana’s Old State Capitol is a Neo-Gothic medieval castle that stands guard on the Mississippi River. (No, the grail isn’t there.) The stately structure has all the fortress trimmings including crenellations and turrets outside, and dark carved wood inside. The most stunning element is the highly intricate, and very rare, stained-glass dome supported by a slender column above the main stair hall.
And you thought we would pick the Wedding Cake House in Kennebunk. Wrong! Victoria Mansion takes top prize in Vacationland as a well-appointed brownstone inspired by Italianate villas. It’s been on Danforth St since 1860 and was built with ahead-of-its-time extras like central heating, gas lighting, hot AND cold running water, and a servant call system.
The George Peabody Library
Anchoring Mount Vernon Place, The George Peabody Library is best known for its voluminous atrium/reading room with many tiers of balconies overlooking the hall. They don’t call it the “cathedral of books” for nothing.
Sorry, Boston City Hall (ahem), Trinity Church has got you beat. H.H. Richardson’s design cemented his fame and launched a style called... wait for it… Richardsonian Romanesque. The hefty building seamlessly melds large rustic stones with smaller/finer details to create a one-of-a-kind showpiece on Copley Square.
Another Art Deco skyscraper, the Fisher Building is the heart of Downtown Detroit, and therefore Michigan. Minnesota granite and Maryland marble grace its façade, while looming vaulted ceilings (complete with frescoes) trick out the indoor public spaces. And then there’s the meticulously maintained 1920s brass call stanchions on the office floors. Yeah… brass call stanchions.
Cathedral of St. Paul
St. Paul, MN
St. Paul is a church so monumental that they named the hill it sits on after it. (That’s Cathedral Hill, if you’re taking notes.) This French Beaux-Arts stunner gets you right away with its copper-clad dome, followed immediately by the Rockville granite masonry and the 24 stained-glass windows. And to boot, the United States Council of Bishops declared it as the National Shrine of Apostle Paul.
Before “The Octagon” meant something else, Longwood (ca. 1860s) sported an octagonal plan, and it’s still the largest octagonal house in America. The historic antebellum mansion has killer brickwork, an ornately finished first floor, and a Byzantine onion dome for good measure. (True Blood fans will recognize it as Russell Edgington’s house.)
St. Louis, MO
OK, some folks might argue that this isn’t a building. It is. It’s one with a really long elevator ride to one single room at the top. But you must admit that Eero Saarinen’s stainless steel opus is just plain cool.
Copper King Mansion
There aren’t that many buildings in Montana, and we’re going straight to the king. As in, The Copper King. For starters, great name. Built for W. A. Clark (totally into copper), the Romanesque Revival Victorian is a beauty with its parquet wood floors, gas chandeliers, hard-carved fireplaces, and stained-glass windows. Bonus: it’s a B&B, so you can spend the night!
Now home to The Durham Museum, this once-bustling train depot is all Art Deco, all the time, no exceptions. From the prominent façade geometries to the cavernous main hall, Omaha’s Union Station takes you back to the days of steamer trunks and actually taking the train somewhere exotic, like Lincoln.
Clark County, NV
Also not quite a building, Hoover Dam is a mighty beast that’s been holding back the Colorado River since 1936. The 726.4ft-high edifice looks like a fortification jammed between two mountains. Yeah, this is more impressive than any casino in Vegas. (Sorry, Bellagio.)
Omni Mount Washington Resort
Bretton Woods, NH
Wealthy coal broker Joseph Stickney had a vision for his grand resort back in 1881, and it included 250(+/-) Italian masons to handle the elaborate exterior. And they did a fine job. The hotel appears humongous even next to the nearby White Mountains, but that’s nothing compared to the lavish interior décor. Settle into The Cave, a brick, stone, and wood speakeasy; sit on the veranda; or check into any of the sweet guest rooms and you’ll know why we made this pick.
The Landmark Loew's Jersey Theatre
Jersey City, NJ
We know what you're thinking, "A movie theater? Most beautiful in the WHOLE state?" But yeah, the Landmark is truly a movie palace and was one of five “Loew’s Wonder Theatres” that opened in 1929 and 1930. The Baroque/Rococo ornamentation steals the show, and includes significant chandeliers, terra cotta tiles, and a Seth Thomas clock with a moving dragon. Yep. There be dragons.
Sante Fe, NM
Famous for the “Miraculous Staircase,” quaint Loretto Chapel is a Gothic Revival-style gem completed in 1878. But you’re really there to see the baffling spiral staircase, a wooden marvel that seemingly floats from the floor up to the choir loft. Local legend says a mysterious stranger arrived to build the stairs, and left three days later after they were completed.
Empire State Building
New York, NY
C’mon... what other building could it be?
One of the last still-privately-owned Gilded Age mansions, the Biltmore Estate clearly demonstrates what a Gilded Age mansion should be. The Vanderbilts went all out on their oversized chateau with endless hand-carved details, ceramic tile vaults, 65 fireplaces, and a bowling alley. Oh, and also a banquet hall with a 70ft ceiling. (Take that Rockefellers!)
North Dakota Heritage Center
After getting a facelift and expansion in 2014, the North Dakota Heritage Center is ready to take the Roughrider State into the 21st century. The glass-cube atrium and simple geometric forms contain an additional 97,000ft of space for items of North Dakota heritage. Like that bitchin’ mastodon in the Corridor of History.
Don’t be mad that we didn’t choose the Christmas Story house. The Arcade, built in 1890, is an intricate five-story iron and glass atrium that was once known as “Cleveland’s Crystal Palace.” The crowning glory is the extravagant skylight that lets the sunshine pour in.
First National Center
Oklahoma City, OK
Art Deco + Neoclassical flourishes = instant classic. First National Center has such goods as a signature polished aluminum roof, granite, marble, and even more polished aluminum. And yes, it does look a bit the Empire State Building.
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art
Tucked away at the University of Oregon sits the warm and inviting JSMA, a 1933 throwback to how they built museums in the olden days. With serious stone. The sophisticated masonry patterns are tops, and the colonnaded courtyard with reflecting pool seals the deal.
Bear Run, PA
Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterwork. Duh.
Another Gilded Age wonder, The Breakers propels “luxurious” to a whole new level. Imported marble: check. Rare woods and mosaics: check. Architectural elements purchased from a French chateau: check. And it’s on the famed Cliff Walk. Done.
Dock Street Theatre
Charleston has a French Quarter, and its centerpiece is Dock Street Theatre. The wrought iron balconies and sandstone columns make the opening statement, and then the grand foyer and main hall go over the top with native black cypress woodwork.
It’s a palace made of corn, people. That’s just beautiful in concept. It also happens to be (expletive) amazing.
Back when trains were a thing, Union Station was one of the most grandiose stops of them all. Still is. This hulk of a building is Victorian Romanesque Revival, but tilts Gothic with many castle-like elements. The 65ft barrel-vaulted lobby ceiling supports 100-year-old Luminous Prism stained glass, and there are marble floors throughout. Plus good old-fashioned Southern charm.
Kimbell Art Museum
Fort Worth, TX
Gotta give the nod here to Louis Kahn’s 1972 game-changing art museum. The long linear galleries with ingenious natural lighting (hidden in the vaulted ceiling) changed how art museums were designed. Forever.
Salt Lake Tabernacle
Salt Lake City, UT
From the outside, it’s an odd, flattened metal bean. But it’s what's inside that matters. The home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a concert hall like no other. The auditorium is dominated by the enormous dome above… and also the enormous pipe organ. When it’s show time, theatrical lighting plays off the surfaces to create effects special to the space.
Although it's a mishmash of four different styles (including Scottish Baronial!), the 19th-century Wilson Castle shines with English brick and marble and two terrific turrets. Eighty-four stained-glass windows, 13 bronze-clad fireplaces, and 32 rooms filled with antiques add up to one fancy estate. Well played, Wilson family. Well played.
The Brits built Governor’s Palace back in the day, but it’s ours now. It’s a not-modest “house” complete with wrought iron railings, gold leaf decorations, miles of rooms, and major, major grandeur. A Herculean restoration effort in the early ‘80s preserved this historic icon for years to come.
The Smith Tower, a fortress-like neoclassical skyscraper, has stood watch over Pioneer Square for over 100 years, and it’s still the boss. The façade is a mix of granite at the base, followed by terra cotta panels that stretch all the way to the sky. But you’ve gotta check out the Chinese Room on the 35th floor. It’s bedazzled with furniture and hand-carved woodwork that were gifts from Cixi, the Empress of China.
Palace of Gold
Constructed by enthusiastic amateur builders, the Palace of Gold looks perfectly royal with marble, hand-carved teak wood, and gold. Who knew there was a bit of India hanging out in West Virginia? You do now, and you should join the other 50,000 annual visitors who don’t believe it either.
Green Bay, WI
If you’re not from Wisconsin, you just won’t get it.
Cheyenne Depot Museum
In its prime (ca. late 1800s), the Cheyenne Depot was a gateway to the West and considered to be one of the most beautiful railroad stations in America. The long front elevation with pristine sandstone masonry straight up says, “I’m a beautiful railroad station.” And it was designed by hot shot Henry van Brunt.
Correction: No, we did not fail geography class in school. But yes, the original version of this story did name the Nelson-Atkins Museum's Bloch Building in Kansas City, MO, as the most beautiful building in all of Kansas. And for that, we apologize. Go Jayhawks!
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Erik Christensen is a freelance writer and a senior project designer at an architecture firm in Boston, with over 17 years of experience in the industry. He also has over 17 years of experience in deadlines, late nights, and strong coffee.