Beautiful Public Buildings Preserved on the Plains

My wife and I recently took a motorcycle trip with some friends through parts of the Great Plains Region.  We saw a great deal of Nature’s beautiful handiwork from glacier-created lakes in western Iowa to the sacred pipestone quarries in western Minnesota, to sweeping expanses of grasslands that once teemed with buffalo (more correctly referred to as the American bison).  These natural wonders caused us to park the bikes and spend some time exploring.  What I didn’t expect, however, was experiencing that same sense of awe and appreciation over some man-made wonders!  Even more amazing, the buildings that gave us pause were county courthouses from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

rock county minnesota courthouse luverne minnesota

The Rock County Courthouse, Luverne, MN.

The first courthouse that pulled us in was the Rock County Courthouse in Luverne, Minnesota.  According to their website, “[This] three-story Romanesque building was built in 1888 of Sioux quartz rock mined from a quarry located in nearby Blue Mound State Park (one of the natural wonders I mentioned earlier).  It was renovated to its current condition in 1988 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.”

This beautiful building adorns a square two blocks north of the main business district.  Next to it, and also built with Sioux quartz, is the Veterans Memorial Center.  The Veterans Memorial building houses the Chamber of Commerce/Visitors’ Information Center and Brandenburg Gallery (home to many original works by National Geographic photographer and native son, Jim Brandenburg) along with a Veterans Museum (with artifacts and videos covering the Civil War to WWII).  We spent an entire morning feasting on these two beautiful architectural wonders and their historical and cultural contents.  View Slideshow of Both Buildings

Our other courthouse stop was about two hours south and east in the city of Spencer, Iowa.  The Clay County Courthouse has some similarities to Rock County’s.  Both buildings have a reddish hue, and both buildings feature a dome or tower with an open viewing area beneath their domes.  Like many buildings from this era, they also feature quality workmanship and beautiful architectural details.

Courthouse Clay County Iowa

The architectural styles, however, are different.  Clay County’s building, built twelve years later (begun in 1900), is Classic Revival while Rock County’s is Romanesque.  And unlike the Rock County Courthouse that still houses county offices, the Clay County Courthouse is only used for court cases and related judicial offices.  Since no cases were being held at the time we were there, we were able to tour the building and see the beautiful interior details such as stained glass windows, decorative ceilings, wonderful woodwork details, tile floors and other architectural touches that are often missing in today’s buildings (or are not done with the same quality of craftsmanship or materials).

There are several takeaways here.  Both these communities care about preserving the past.  Also, quality of craftsmanship, quality of design and material quality equal sustainable buildings that can still be functional and beautiful more than one hundred years later.  Finally, beautiful architecture is not confined to major metropolitan areas.  View Slideshow


Wright and the Middle Class – The Usonian Dream

For an architect of Frank Lloyd Wright’s stature and ego, to pursue affordable architecture for the average person seems out of character.  But that was the goal of his Usonian dream.  Based on the Populist and Progressive ideas of elevating the common man, Usonian (a term pulled from United States of North America) architecture sought to democratize building.  Wright’s Usonian homes were simple, one-story homes, of modest square footage, without a garage, a basement, or much storage.  They were also modest in exterior adornment.  Like the earlier Prairie School houses, the Usonian homes usually featured low roofs with large overhangs and open living areas.  Bernard Pyron wrote that for Wright, “Nature, Democracy, Spirituality, Culture and Art all became talismans that he used to promote the ideas spawned from this worldview.”  As a result, Wright came to believe that members of the middle and lower classes might be cultivated to appreciate great art and to develop as individuals in a free, democratic culture. In Frank Lloyd Wright’s mind, to accomplish this meant developing a uniquely American architecture that was affordable for all.  All these beliefs led to the development of his Usonian architecture.

Wright’s Usonian homes aimed at using as much local material as possible, a sustainable idea that Wright had long supported, and one he used in the construction of his own home, Taliesin.  Wright also wanted these homes to be compatible with their natural surroundings; to flow from them and blend naturally with the landscape.  He wanted organic structures with lots of natural materials and lots of windows that made use of natural light, and that allowed the inhabitants to experience the land around them.

My wife and I happened to stumble on an open house at one of Wright’s Usonian homes while on a motorcycle ride in southern Wisconsin this past weekend.  I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to walk around the grounds and to take pictures of the exterior of the home.  I am not going to reveal the location of this property as it is still occupied by family members of the original owner, and their privacy needs to be respected.  For that reason, I am going to be purposefully vague on certain details.

The story behind this house is a great one, and is certainly true to Wright’s goal for a democratic architectural style.  The house was built in the early 1950s by a young professional who wanted to construct a house for his family for a maximum of $15,000.  In order to accomplish this, he would act as his own general contractor, doing some of the work himself.   Two things led to Wright’s involvement with the project.  First, the owner had attended the University of Wisconsin where a professor had fostered his interest in Wright’s designs.  Second, his wife had worked for and developed a relationship with Wright’s sister, Jane.  These two bits of fate put him in touch with the architect, and Wright accepted the challenge of designing a home for under $15,000.  After all, wasn’t this perfectly aligned with his goal of affordable architecture for the masses?  (Like many of his projects, the final costs were well above the initial $15,000, but were still modest in comparison to projects done by world-renowned architects like Wright.)

The house was designed around a core structure of limestone that juts above the main roofline.  This central structure contained the kitchen, laundry and a small bath.  To the east of this core was the master bedroom and a carport.  (The carport was later turned into more living space using a design by a Wright apprentice.  The addition blends seamlessly with Wright’s original design.)  Projecting out to the north from the core limestone tower is a hexagonal living space adorned with lots of of windows.  There is also a patio area with a partial low rock wall adjoining this portion of the house.   The bedroom wing stretches south from the hexagonal living area, and is also heavily adorned with windows on its west side.   A flower garden flows alongside the bedroom wing culminating in a man-made rock glen patio at the south end.

The stonework in the walls of the home is beautiful and intricate.  Although Usonian homes were supposed to be lacking external adornment, the walls of this house feature individual pieces of limestone that jut out creating interesting patterns and shadows, as well as lending a sense of organic construction.  Much of this limestone was actually quarried by the owner and then hauled to the building site early each day before he went to his office.

The home is a treasure, and I feel fortunate to have spent some time with it.  It blends naturally with the surroundings, and is easily missed from the street.  When first built, it had an open view overlooking a valley to the north-northwest.  Sixty years later, Nature has reclaimed much of the hilltop, but you can still see the valley through a small opening.  Wright said, “I would like to have a free architecture.  Architecture that belonged where you see it standing—and is a grace to the landscape instead of a disgrace.”  I think he and the owner succeeded here!

*The slideshow below was organized as a counter-clockwise walk around the property, beginning in the paved parking area at the front entry.  The walk goes towards the east, around the original master bedroom area, then around the family-main living area, along the bedroom wing then through the flower garden and back to the paved area in front of the house.

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Daily Dose: College Football Stadiums

Add to TwitterCollege football stadiums aren’t often lauded as great architectural achievements; still, there are a few whose designs can alter and enhance the experience of the games – for both players and spectators. Michigan’s imposing Big House, Oregon’s deafening Autzen Stadium and Florida’s challenging Swamp all deliver unique game-day conditions.

UMich brick façade renovation

The Big House (University of Michigan Stadium) could aptly be renamed the Big Brick House, thanks to recent expansions and renovations that are slated to finish up this year. Hand laid brick – 1.2 million to be precise – was used to build an extensive arcade wall and rusticated lower level that makes visual reference to the Colosseum in Rome, Italy. A blend was created specifically for Michigan’s stadium and the layout computerized by designer Dave Lacovic to ensure the bricks were placed to create the most aesthetically pleasing effect.

Michigan crowd

The $227 million renovation also included expanding the stadium’s official capacity to 109,901, though it frequently tops 111,000 with band members and stadium staff in attendance. Built in 1927, the original capacity for this “Carnegie Hall of Sports” was a more modest 72,000. Michigan continues to dream big, as they’ve left the north and south ends open for future additions.

Autzen Stadium

Oregon’s Autzen Stadium doesn’t even approach Michigan’s capacity, but it can still pack a punch. Crowd noise; attributed to steep stands, proximity to the field, an overhanging roof and rowdy fans; has been measured at 127.2 decibels. To put that in perspective, a jet take off at a distance of 100 meters merits 130 dB. The human pain threshold is 120 dB. Yep. In 2003, a Michigan columnist wrote,

Autzen’s 59,000 strong make the Big House collectively sound like a pathetic whimper. It’s louder than any place I’ve ever been, and that includes The Swamp at Florida, The Shoe in Columbus, and Death Valley at Louisiana State. Autzen Stadium is where great teams go to die.

Ouch. The noise doesn’t seem to be keeping anyone away, however. Autzen has had a solid streak of 71 ticket sell-outs since 1999.

Gator fans

Last on our list is The Swamp in Gainesville, home to the Florida Gators. It’s known as one of the most difficult places to play, with a distinct and measurable home field advantage. (The past 20 years have shown a 113-13 home record, the best in the nation). Because the stadium was built on a shallow sinkhole, the field lies slightly below ground level. This – coupled with steep stands – only augments the warmth and humidity of Florida in the fall. And though it can’t quite match Autzen’s volume, The Swamp’s noise level is certainly disrupting and can make playcalls easy to miss. Last in this lineup, but not to be underestimated!

What are your favorite stadiums for college football? Let us know!

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Masonry Edge Storypole magazine, Vol 4 No 4. “The Big Brick House.”

Daily Dose: Shipping Container Studio

Add to TwitterAs an artist, I am particularly interested in the airy, clean-cut studio space created by Maziar Behrooz of MB Architecture. The two-storey, double-wide construction offers two studios, storage and a gallery – all with superb natural lighting throughout the interior. Two shipping containers sit above ground, their floors mostly removed to reveal the foundation below. While it may not sound like the most elegant of spaces, take a look at the photos below and see how clean lines and stark walls can add a touch of class to even the most banal of beginnings.

Shipping Container Studio; Image courtesy of

Studio Interior; Image ©Maziar Behrooz

Lower Interior Studio; Image ©Maziar Behrooz

Sign me up! Next time a find a spare $60,000 (the budget Maziar Behrooz had to work with), I’ll know where to invest it… for now I’ll just look and sigh a little.

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Daily Dose: Out of the Box

Add to Twitter“Out of the Box” designed by Cadence architecture firm in Bangalore, India is well-named: it is indeed a box designed to keep the outside out. Exterior white, cast-concrete walls decorated with perforations (called “jali walls” in India) do permit limited light and air to enter the interior courtyard. However, the same windowless walls “shun” the unwelcome sight of the surrounding low-income neighborhood, creating a bright haven for the owner.

Out of the Box; Bangalore, India; Image courtesy of Clare Arni

Interior courtyard of Out of the Box; Image courtesy of Clare Arni

Despite the modern playfulness of Out of the Box’s jali walls, something rubs me the wrong way with this design. Building an expensive, highly exclusive home in a poorer neighborhood seems like a blatant accusation-of-sorts of those who cannot afford better. On the other hand, this building brings a spot of beauty to a run-down area. What are your views? Does the design of Out of the Box show disregard for the surrounding community or does its presence offer respite from an otherwise suffering cityscape? Leave a comment.

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Daily Dose: Romantic Buildings

Add to TwitterIt’s a little late this year to take your sweetheart to one of these romantic locations on Valentine’s Day, but keep these places in mind for your next outing or vacation destination – they’re sure to inspire the two of you to keep the love alive!

Empire State Building on Valentine's Day; Still image from Sleepless in Seattle

Perhaps the most obvious choice is the Empire State Building in New York City. Weddings are held year-round in a 55th floor suite of the 102-storey tower. Those wishing to marry on Valentine’s Day can apply with a creative tale of how they met and why the Empire State Building is special to them. Fourteen couples are chosen to wed on February 14th each year; during the past fifteen years, over 220 couples have married there on Valentine’s day.

Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember; Still image from film

The film industry has also made the Empire State Building a beacon of romance. Two popular movies, An Affair to Remember (1957) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), had scenes in which the lovers (Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair and Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in Sleepless) agree to meet on the top floor to affirm their commitment to one another. Misadventures ultimately keep each of the couples apart in those scenes, lending the building some poignancy in its romance.

Crim Dell Bridge in Williamsburg, VA

The brightly painted Crim Dell Bridge on the campus of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA is a whimsical means of transport across the scenic pond below. It was built in 1966 and was dedicated with a plaque showing the following quote from Pascall:

…that one may walk in beauty, discover the serenity of the quiet moment, and dispel the shadows.

Crim Dell Bridge in Williamsburg, VA; Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

It is said that if two lovers cross the bridge together and kiss at its peak, they will stay together forever. However, I beseech women to embark on such an endeavor with care. If you and your partner don’t find eternal bliss, you must throw your ex-lover off the bridge into the water to avoid perpetual spinsterhood. (Both women? Maybe it’s a race to who throws whom off first. You’re doubly warned!) And though it may look like a peaceful place to walk in solitude, beware; crossing the Crim Dell Bridge alone ensures that you will be single forever.

Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy; Image ©James Martin

Finally, the Trevi Fountain in Rome is cloaked in romantic potential – but only if you count your coins correctly. One tossed in over your shoulder ensures that you will someday return to Rome. It’s generally purported that two will lead to new romance and three will guarantee a marriage or divorce. An estimated 3,000 euros are thrown into the Trevi Fountain each day. The money is used to help fund a supermarket for low-income citizens.

I hope this post gives you refreshed inspiration for next year’s Valentine’s Day destinations. If you have your own stories about romantic buildings in your life, share them here!

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Daily Dose: Peter Eisenman Wins Wolf Prize

Add to TwitterPeter Eisenman is one of two recipients of the 2010 Wolf Prize, awarded (this year) for architectural achievements. The prize is bestowed annually in the arts – a rotation between the disciplines of architecture, music, painting and sculpture. Eisenman is being honored for his conception and design of the Holocaust Memorial located in Berlin, Germany.

Eisenman's Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany; Image ©, Adrian Hoppe

Path through Holocaust memorial; Image ©, Martin Ragg

2,711 rectangular stones, each of unique dimensions, populate the sloping ground between East and West Berlin. Bearing no inscriptions or adornment, these blocks take on the somber appearance of tombstones or coffins. Eisenman allowed for paths to wind through the blocks, recreating some of the disorientation and fear that the imprisoned Jews felt during their horrific experiences in Nazi concentration camps. Critics of Eisenman’s architectural tribute say that his approach is too abstract to convey his desired message of respect and homage, but I suspect that wandering through this maze of monuments would indeed be a sobering and chilling experience.

Individual blocks in Eisenman's Holocaust memorial; Image ©, Jon Helgason

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