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America's Coolest Houses

No, you won’t be trespassing: America’s coolest houses welcome visitors.

By Karrie Jacobs

Who would live behind see-through walls?

When architects Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe built their respective glass houses in the late 1940s, the idea that anyone would want to live in such structures was unheard of. But their bold experiments yielded amazing houses, and introduced us to the pleasures of floor-to-ceiling transparency.

Unfortunately, even if the walls are made of glass, houses are generally private places.  (No trespassing, please!) And it’s hard to see or appreciate what’s going on behind closed doors.  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.

Arguably, homeowners who take risks with the way their houses look, feel, or behave are far braver than big-city developers who hire some rock star architect to built an office tower. They are tinkering with their own lives, testing just how much architecture their suburban neighbors can tolerate, or jeopardizing their personal net worth to try something that no one else quite gets.

Johnson and Mies, of course, weren’t alone. When Frank Lloyd Wright cantilevered Fallingwater over the biggest waterfall on his clients’ property, the Kaufmanns were upset that they wouldn’t be able to see it from their windows. The architect argued that they would hear the falls constantly, and it would be better to truly live with their roar all the time than look at them occasionally.

And developments like Sea Ranch, CA—built by a group of idealistic architects and landscape designers in the 1960s—profoundly influenced home-building in this country. Now these innovative homes are offered as vacation rentals, so anyone can live in a laboratory for a weekend.

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.

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.

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.  The house, plain as it is, has been spruced up since Baby Elvis’s day; the flowered wallpaper now on the bedroom wall, for instance, was probably just newspaper when the Presleys lived there.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Manitoga, Garrison, NY

From the 1920s through the 1950s, housewares designer Russel Wright occupied a cultural position akin to Martha Stewart’s. He was famous for his biomorphic dishware and his theories about modern living. His estate, Manitoga, was a laboratory for those designs and ideas. For example, he believed in integrating landscape and architecture. As a result, the décor is boulder-intensive: Danish modern meets caveman.

Easier Living: If you’re inspired by Manitoga, you can pick up a reissue of Mary and Russel Wright’s 1950 classic,Guide to Easier Living, in the gift shop.

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.”

Project Row Houses, Houston

This is a neighborhood consisting of several blocks of shotgun houses in Houston’s Third Ward, some of which are open to the public as art spaces. The rest are subsidized housing for single mothers and offices for nonprofits. The idea was to preserve a fast-disappearing, traditionally black housing type and to use it as a springboard for community development.

The Rounds: Seven of the houses are used for interactive art exhibitions or “rounds,” each lasting four months.

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.

Beer Can House, Houston

There is a rich tradition in this country of so-called outsider artists transforming their front yards or their entire homes into works of art—and nowhere more so than in Houston. This project began in 1968 when John Milkovisch decided that flattened beer cans were the perfect siding material. Then he kept going. Today the house is decorated with an estimated 50,000 beer cans, including strings of aluminum lids that tinkle like wind chimes.

Beer Budget: The house is open to the public most weekends. A self-guided tour of the grounds is $2. If you want to go inside, it’s $5.

Farnsworth House, Plano, IL

Completed in 1951, this luminous box, hovering above the ground in a white steel I-beam frame, should have been the first glass house. However, Mies van der Rohe exhibited a model of the radically minimalist country house he’d designed for Dr. Edith Farnsworth at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1947. Philip Johnson, then a MoMA curator, took the idea and ran with it, beating Mies by two years.

Preserved: The house is now owned and operated as a museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which bought it at auction for $7.5 million in 2003.