The strangest place in America will forever be the entirety of it all -- 3.8 million square miles of who knows what, where democracy and probably some paint fumes have given people the impression that they can chase any fever dream they choose. Over the centuries the cocktail of wide-open spaces and a cheery, grip-it-and-rip-it attitude has led Americans to design and construct some truly whacked-out structures, each one a testament to freedom. *Single tear falls, eagle screeches, sunburnt mob fires open-carry handguns into the sky, building code inspector snaps clipboard over knee*
The following entries come from the newly published Atlas Obscura, a compilation of curious geography from around the world, compiled and written by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton. You can find the book here; you can find these improbable buildings scattered around states near you.
In 1970, Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Paolo Soleri took to the Arizona desert to break ground on an experimental community designed to forge a new way of urban living. Guided by principles of eco-friendliness, waste reduction, and what he called "elegant frugality," Soleri planned a hyper-dense city: Arcosanti. The name incorporates "arcology," his concept for architecture-plus-ecology.
Intended as a test site for Soleri's urban development theories, the self-contained Arcosanti was designed to house 5,000 people. Though almost five decades have passed since the laying of the foundation stone, the city is still in its early construction stages. Lack of funding has kept Arcosanti small -- it is now home to between 50 and 150 inhabitants, depending on the season.
Over the years, thousands of volunteers have helped construct apartments, storefronts, an outdoor amphitheater, and a visitors center, all rendered in concrete with lots of arcs and semicircles. Landscaping workshops and internships are still available for people who want to be part of the urban experiment. Work at Arcosanti is funded by sales of bronze and ceramic wind chimes.
The buildings are a little rundown and shabby; Soleri passed away in 2013, so they'll likely stay that way. But Arcosanti is a fascinating look at one man's ambitious alternative to urban sprawl.
Cathedral of Junk
How would you like to go see a big pile of junk in some guy's backyard? It's more enchanting than it sounds. Established as a bunch of hubcaps on a fence in 1988, Vince Hannemann's Cathedral of Junk has become a multistory structure with endless nooks and crannies. And it's still growing.
The Cathedral is made from recycled parts and donated clutter: rotary phones, bike frames, typewriters, CDs, and rubber ducks are but a few of the building materials. Visitors bring their own junk and Hannemann adds it to the Cathedral, securing it all together with strong copper, aluminum, and brass wire.
In 2010 the Cathedral's future was thrown in doubt when city officials issued Hannemann a building permit violation. In order to comply with the codes, the junk sculptor had to remove 4 tons of material from the structure within weeks. Annoyed that the city was compromising the grandeur of his junk tower, Hannemann contemplated destroying the whole thing -- but by then the Cathedral had become so beloved that an army of volunteers showed up to help modify it. The city relented and the Cathedral lives on.
Nekoma, North Dakota
In a field behind a fence lies a 79ft-tall, sinister-looking pyramidal frustum -- a pyramid with the top cut off. This gray structure, and the clusters of exhaust towers beside it, look like an occult monument, or perhaps a bit of Egyptian architecture misplaced in the Great Plains. In fact, they are the remnants of an antimissile complex constructed during the Cold War.
The Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, as it was known, was built to house anti-ballistic missiles capable of intercepting incoming Soviet rockets. Radar inside the topless pyramid scanned the skies while 100 missiles underground sat ready to launch against a Russian attack.
Built at great expense, the Safeguard Complex was nonetheless short-lived. It became operational on October 1st, 1975 -- one day before Congress voted to end the Safeguard program and decommission the Nekoma site.
Whisper a few words while standing in the middle of the Integratron -- an acoustically perfect dome in the desert -- and you’ll feel as though your brain is talking to you via vibrations. The sensation is odd and otherworldly, much like the Integratron itself.
In 1952, former flight mechanic George Van Tassel had a life-changing experience. As he described in his 1955 book, I Rode a Flying Saucer, Tassel was sleeping when a creature from the planet Venus woke him up, took him aboard its spacecraft, and telepathically divulged the secret of eternal youth. Rejuvenation of the human body, according to the Venusian visitor, required the construction of a domed structure, built without metal and featuring time-travel and anti-gravity devices.
Armed with these instructions, Van Tassel set about building what he called the Integratron in the desert north of Joshua Tree National Park. The location was important -- Van Tassel believed the spot contained powerful geomagnetic forces that, when harnessed by the Integratron, could recharge human cells.
Using wood, fiberglass, concrete, and glass -- but no nails, screws, or any other metal -- he constructed a two-story, 38ft-high (12m) domed building. The time-travel device and anti-gravity chamber, however, never came to be -- Van Tassel died of a heart attack in 1978 with his creation incomplete.
Ozark Medieval Fortress
Lead Hill, Arkansas
The plan was ambitious: a team of medieval enthusiasts would spend 20 years building a 13th-century castle using only tools and techniques from the Dark Ages.
The Ozark Medieval Fortress was intended to attract visitors who would pay for the privilege of observing a historic construction site. Opened to the public in 2010, the fortress lasted almost two years before lack of attendance forced its closure. Even the allure of falconry demonstrations and stone-carving contests did not make up for the fact that it’s pretty dull to stand around watching people build a fortress by hand.
The castle foundations have sat idle since 2012, awaiting a medieval-obsessed investor to get the project going again. There is a precedent for success: France's Guédelon Castle, which is based on the same concept as the Ozark fort, was founded by the same group in 1997. It is scheduled for completion in the 2020s and is flourishing as a tourist destination.
Mississippi River Basin Model
In the pre-computer 1940s, when engineers needed to model a complex system, they would build an amazingly elaborate scale model.
The Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency in charge of developing and maintaining the nation's water resources, built many such models, but none were on the scale of the Mississippi River Basin Model. Made in response to a series of catastrophic river floods, it simulated the effects of weather and flooding on the more than 15,000 miles of waterways that make up the Mississippi River Basin. It was created at a scale of 1:100 vertical and 1:2,000 horizontal and covered over 200 acres of Buddy Butts Park.
Work on the model began in 1943 by Italian and German prisoners of war, who had been shipped over from North Africa. Though projected to be completed by 1948, the model took much longer than expected to build. It wasn't truly finished until 1966, a full 23 years after it was started. Six years later, it was flooded for the last time.
By the early 1970s, the push toward computer modeling had begun, and by the 1980s, the model had become a burden for the Army Corps. In 1990, the site was transferred to the city of Jackson but was too expensive for it to maintain, so the city simply abandoned it.
The river basin now sits surrounded and hidden by overgrown woods in Buddy Butts Park. It is open to the public to visit, but the tiny concrete banks of the rivers are now overgrown with comparatively giant foliage.
On the campus of Principia College is a house that looks like five buildings, from five different architectural styles, all smashed together. This is not the work of a clueless architect, but rather a talented designer conducting a few experiments.
In 1931, when architect Bernard Maybeck pondered what aesthetics and materials to use in his designs for new campus dormitories, he felt the need to try out some options. So he built an experimental, trial-and-error Sample House -- the Mistake House, as it has come to be known. The north side of the building's roof is faux thatching made from cement, while the south side is made from layered terracotta tiles. Tudor Revival eaves clash with brick doorways and stone slab walls.
Maybeck eventually used a variety of architectural styles for the dorms, drawing on what he learned during the construction of the test building. To this day, the Mistake House stands as testament to the value of thoughtful experimentation.
In 1969, at the age of 25, newly married Jim Bishop started constructing a stone cottage for his family. Over the decades, as he kept building, that stone cottage became a castle. Today it is a multilevel marvel with three towers, a grand ballroom, and a fire-breathing metal dragon guarding the main eave. And Bishop still isn't done.
The castle doesn't adhere to any building codes. There have never been any blueprints, and Bishop is quick to point out that while his father helped a tiny bit with initial construction efforts, he has done the vast majority of the work himself. (Just to make sure this point is crystal clear, the small section that his dad worked on is painted with the words "Jim started the castle, not his father, Willard.")
Bishop sees his castle as a symbol of American freedom. Signs surrounding the building tell of the local government's unsuccessful attempts to regulate his work. "They tried but failed to oppress and control my God-given talent to hand-build this great monument to hard-working poor people," one reads (in part -- it's a long sign).
Bishop plans to keep building until he is no longer physically able. When visiting, you may see him carrying stones or making an impromptu speech from one of the towers -- he is known to unleash his political views on visitors at high volume.
The phrase "paper house" may invite images of something fragile, but the Paper House of Rockport has been standing strong since the 1920s. In 1922, mechanical engineer Elis F. Stenman started building a house with newspapers. Initially, it was a hobby. Stenman pressed the papers together to form the walls, and applied glue and varnish to make them sturdy.
When it came time to furnish the house, Stenman continued the newspaper theme, rolling papers into tiny logs, stacking them to form chairs, bookcases, and desks, and sloshing varnish on top for a lacquered wood effect.
Stenman spent summers in his newspaper house until 1930, after which the place opened to the public as a museum. Look through the layers of shellac and you'll see headlines and tales from the 1920s, including, on one desk, accounts of Charles Lindbergh's pioneering transatlantic flight.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Inside an orange pyramid, right beside the Lincoln Hwy, is a religious group willing to mummify your corpse. The religion, Summum, was founded in 1975 by Claude Nowell, who claimed to have been visited by advanced beings who revealed to him the nature of creation.
According to Summum philosophy, death does not snuff out a person's awareness or ability to feel. Though bereft of a body, our spirit, or essence, sticks around -- and gets thoroughly confused by the change in circumstances.
The solution: mummification. By preserving your body, Summum provides a "home base" for your posthumous essence. Secure in this wrapped-up, chemically preserved corpse, your essence can safely communicate and make plans to move on to its next destination.
The entire mummification process takes four to eight months and ends with your gauze-wrapped body being hermetically sealed in a sarcophagus, or "mummiform." Summum offers lots of customization options for your mummiform. You can go with a traditional golden Egyptian look featuring ankhs and scarabs, or you can choose a simple, streamlined capsule for the final send-off.
Corky Ra himself became the first Summum mummy following his death in 2008. His mummiform, and that of his cat, Oscar, are on prominent display at the pyramid.
Gold Hill, Oregon
At the slanted House of Mystery on Gold Hill, balls roll upward and brooms stand unsupported. Their apparent defiance of the laws of physics is just one of many strange phenomena one can observe at the Oregon Vortex.
The House of Mystery was once the office of a local mining company. Built in 1890, it was abandoned within 20 years, after which it slid off its foundations and landed at an odd angle. Officially, the house fell because of a mudslide. But the owners of the site have another explanation: magnetic vortex.
In 1930, the house opened to the public as part of the Fabulous Oregon Vortex, an attraction designed to demonstrate the land's alleged physics-flouting properties. In addition to seeing the mysterious balls and brooms, you can participate in height experiments: when walking from one side of a plank to the other, you appear to change size.
Guides work the vortex angle during each demonstration, throwing in the odd ghost story and paranormal explanation. It's a fun premise -- and watching someone change size before your eyes is certainly mind-bending -- but the real cause of all the weirdness is simple optical illusion.
Gold Pyramid House
Jim and Linda Onan's passion for ancient Egypt is equaled only by their passion for hyperbole. In 1977, the couple constructed a six-story golden pyramid to serve as their home. They describe it in a self-produced brochure as "one of the most awesome works of art ever created."
The 24-karat-gold-plated building is surrounded by a moat and guarded by a 64ft-tall statue of Rameses II, who reigned as pharaoh from 1279 to 1213 BCE. The pyramid is furnished to reflect, in the Onans' words, "the elegant ostentatiousness common only to the wealthy Egyptian pharaohs." Cleopatra costumes and pharaoh headwear are available in the gift shop.
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