Above: San Francisco de Asís Mission Church in Rancho de Taos is considered one of the finest examples of Spanish mission architecture. All photos courtesy of Road Scholar

By Peter Spiers

You’re probably staying close to home these days. Your travel plans may be on hold, but you can continue to learn about distant places (and avoid going stir crazy!) through Road Scholar’s “Armchair Explorer” series. In this article, the Armchair Explorer looks at nine buildings that tell America’s history.

The stay-at-home architectural tour starts in the Southwest and proceeds roughly counterclockwise around the country, and roughly in chronological order, ending in Los Angeles.

Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde

Our first stop is Mesa Verde in the southwest corner of Colorado. This national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site has been inhabited by humans for nearly 10,000 years, and nearly a thousand years ago Ancestral Puebloans began constructing the magnificent cliff dwelling that today draws half a million visitors a year.

The next stop is in New Mexico and celebrates Spain’s influence on the New World. The San Francisco de Asís Mission Church in Rancho de Taos — built in the late 1700s and early 1800s and, later, a favorite subject of painter Georgia O’Keeffe — is considered one of the finest examples of Spanish mission architecture. The exterior of the Mission Church is adobe and must be re-plastered every year, an event one volunteer describes as “God’s way of bringing his people together on an annual basis to work on the structure.”

Whitney blacksmith

Whitney blacksmith shop

Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, once a sugarcane plantation, is now a museum dedicated to educating visitors about slavery in the Southern United States.

America’s Founding Fathers were a bundle of contradictions, and none more so than Thomas Jefferson, Enlightenment man and slave holder. One of his great achievements was designing and building Monticello, his home in the Virginia Piedmont near Charlottesville, and a gem of Neo-classical architecture.

After the United States became an independent nation, it began to stretch westward and in the 1820s, the Greek Revival movement in architecture was an expression of the nation’s rising self-confidence. One of the greatest examples is the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia.

flatiron building

Flatiron Building

After the Civil War, steel technology, the invention of the elevator and the shift in work from farms and factories to offices gave “rise” to a new kind of building, the skyscraper. The Flatiron Building in New York City is an early example, and certainly one of the most beautiful tall buildings ever constructed.

Have you ever heard of “Nebraska marble”? While New Yorkers were growing accustomed to taking the subway to work, other Americans were forging new lives on the Great Plains in sod houses.

The flat expanse of the Great Plains was a source of inspiration to Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the greatest American architect. Wright’s Wisconsin estate — Taliesin North — is an outstanding example of Prairie School design.

Taliesin North

Taliesin North

The final stop on our architectural journey around the United States is the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, a masterpiece designed by the celebrated contemporary architect Frank Gehry.

About the Author

Peter Spiers is the Senior Vice President of Strategic Outreach at Road Scholar. He is the author of “Master Class: Living Longer, Strong, and Happier,” recently selected by The Washington Post as one of the best books to read at every age, 1 to 100. (Peter’s book was selected for age 70.)

Spiers holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and a Master of Science from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Road Scholar calls itself the nation’s largest educational travel organization for adults–a true university of the world. The not-for-profit educational organization offers 5,500 extraordinary learning adventures in 150 countries and 50 states. Road Scholar educational adventures are created by Elderhostel, the not-for-profit world leader in educational travel for adults since 1975. Learn more at RoadScholar.org.

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