9 American houses that will amaze you

11.04.2011 In: Travel destinations

Houses are generally private places. (No trespassing, please!) Some of America’s coolest houses, however, let you peek behind the curtains to inspire and satisfy your curiosity. Cool houses are always experiments, domestic laboratories where designers, builders, and homeowners work out better ways to live.

When you think of experimental architecture, you usually think big: a museum by Santiago Calatrava or a city library by Rem Koolhaas. But the innovations that truly change our lives happen at home. America’s coolest houses may have started out as experiments, but today they’re guaranteed to be an interesting visit. Even if you can’t sip your morning coffee in the kitchen of California’s Hearst Castle, spending a little time in someone else’s pad might give you a few new ideas about your own.

1. Case Study House #22, Los Angeles

You’ve surely seen the Julius Shulman photo of the girls in the white dresses seemingly floating over L.A. The glass-and-steel house in the picture, a minimalist masterpiece designed by architect Pierre Koenig, was completed in 1960 as part of the famous Case Study program sponsored by Arts and Architecture Magazine. Now the original owners, the Stahl family, have opened their icon to the public for regularly scheduled viewings.

Book Today: Viewings are on weekends. Tickets sell out quickly. Wear a white dress.

2. Elvis’s Birthplace, Tupelo, MS

More revealing than where Elvis wound up—garish Graceland—is where he came from. The two-room shotgun-style house in which the King was born in 1935 was built by his father on a borrowed $180 budget, and lost two years later for nonpayment of the loan.

Birthday Party: If you visit on January 8, Elvis’s birthday, you might get a piece of cake.

3. Earthship, Taos, NM

From the back, Earthships, built primarily out of dirt and old tires, look like giant anthills. From the front, they appear more normal, with glass walls, gardens, and major appliances. Renegade architect Mike Reynolds has been building these solar-powered, rainwater-harvesting, sewage-treating houses for decades.

Get a Room: You can get intensely self-sufficient—and surprisingly cozy—in one of these for upwards of $120 a night in the Greater World Community just west of Taos.

4. Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA

Built for the Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh, this may be Frank Lloyd Wright’s most satisfying work for the casual visitor. The fact that the house appears to hover above a 30-foot-high waterfall is compelling even for those who don’t generally care about architecture. And its location in a bucolic corner of Western Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands makes the house a perfect road-trip destination. The Budget: Completed in 1938, Fallingwater cost $155,000, including the architect’s fee ($8,000) and built-in furniture. A typical house at the time cost about $3,000

5. Sea Ranch, Sonoma, CA

This 1960s development along the coast of northern California is revered for the way the weathered brown, shingled houses were integrated into the rugged landscape. Condominium One, a structure that inspired decades of beach-house style, is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Best of all, many of the homes in this living museum of architectural idealism are available as vacation rentals.

Prime Spot: Unit 9, the spectacular ocean-view condo that belonged to architect Charles Moore, part of the team that designed Sea Ranch, is available as a short-term rental.

6. Monticello, Charlottesville, VA

Our coolest founding father, Thomas Jefferson, built the only colonial-era house that is truly appealing to a modern sensibility. With its big windows and skylights, it’s a rebuke to the dreary houses that were common in his day. And it’s full of his projects and inventions like his revolving bookstand, his Great Clock, and his precursor to the modern platform bed, the Jeffersonian alcove bed.

Jefferson’s Retreat: You can also check out his vacation house, about 70 miles down the road in Lynchburg. The octagonal Poplar Forest House is only now being restored and is open to the public much of the year.

7. Hearst Castle, San Simeon, CA

We don’t have many actual castles in this country, so William Randolph Hearst’s behemoth will have to do. With 165 rooms and 127 acres of gardens, pools, terraces, and paths, the place is too big to be seen on one tour; you have your pick of five. And even if architect Julia Morgan’s stylistic smorgasbord— Mediterranean/Spanish/Whatever—isn’t to your taste, it’s still pretty impressive.

Understatement: In 1919, Hearst wrote to Morgan: “Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something.”

8. Seaside, FL

Maybe this is more like America’s cutest house. But Seaside, FL, 80 acres of faux-historic fantasy tightly configured into a fan-shaped expanse beside the Gulf of Mexico, is a work of genius, the original from which most of today’s New Urbanist–flavored development springs. While its sweetened aesthetic has been endlessly ridiculed—especially in The Truman Show—Seaside is actually a uniquely cool place.

Cuteness for Hire: Many of the development’s houses are available for vacation stays through Seaside’s Cottage Rental Agency.

9. Philip Johnson’s Glass House, New Canaan, CT

Philip Johnson’s house in the country, a floaty, 1,728-square-foot box of clear glass, completed in 1949, is everything the rest of his buildings are not: it’s straightforward, modest, and utterly gorgeous.

Seeing it in person might make you truly appreciate the architect (who died in 2005 at age 98) for the very first time. And the 47-acre grounds are dotted with other eccentric buildings, including two extravagant art galleries and a Frank Gehry–inspired chain-link shed.

Secret Revealed: The Glass House has a companion building called the Brick House that contains the unsightly HVAC equipment and a very private bedroom.