This week—and perhaps for several weeks to come—you’ll probably stay close to home. Your plans for travel with Road Scholar are on hold, but your dreams are still very much alive; we’re here to help you continue to learn (and avoid going stir crazy!) with Road Scholar’s Armchair Explorer blog series.
One terrific way to understand a nation’s history is through its architecture, and that’s as true for the United States as it is for England or China. The internet has a wealth of resources for exploring architecture, and we’ve scoured dozens of websites to create an informative and immersive virtual architecture tour for you. It’s not the same as being there in person, but we think you’ll enjoy it! Our virtual architectural tour starts in the Southwest and proceeds roughly counterclockwise around the country, and roughly in chronological order, ending in Los Angeles. Are you ready to go?
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. This essay by Dr. Lauren G. Kilroy-Ewbank of Pepperdine University provides additional historical background on Mesa Verde, and includes two informative short videos. Ready for a closer look? Tag along with Ranger Mike for a 38-minute guided walk through the Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. If you want to go a little deeper, listen to an episode or two of Mesa Verde Voices, a podcast that “connects the past with the present through stories about people, places, and agriculture in the American Southwest.” Episode 4 of Season 1—Ancient Corn, Modern Questions—explores how studying corn found at Mesa Verde is informing modern farming practices.
Our 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. See pictures, study the mission’s floor plan and learn about additional reading materials before walking into and around the church in this four-minute video. The exterior of the Mission Church is adobe and must be re-plastered every year, an event one volunteer in this video describes as “God’s way of bringing his people together on an annual basis to work on the structure.”
Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, once a sugarcane plantation, is now a museum dedicated to educating visitors about slavery in the Southern United States. This New Yorker video explains how the museum came to be and features an extensive interview with Senegal-born Ibrahima Seck, the plantation’s director of research. Take a walk through the Whitney Plantation with Dr. Seck as your guide, ending with a grim look into the rough dwellings where enslaved people lived.
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. This Khan Academy essay provides additional background on Jefferson’s architectural influences and intentions. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns Monticello, has created a truly immersive augmented 360-degree tour of the building (and the Hemmings cabin). Use your mouse or track pad for a full virtual tour of Monticello, and click on the icon for additional information in text or short videos. You could get lost for hours exploring this virtual world, so take a break for a two-minute video of Monticello’s gardens.
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. Learn more about the building here, and then watch this short video about the conflict between President Andrew Jackson and bank president Nicholas Biddle, a confrontation with echoes in today’s cultural conflicts.
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. Study the building’s architectural detail here before viewing this student video that puts The Flatiron Building into social and economic context.
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. Learn about the Homestead Act, the land rush, and building houses from Nebraska marble here, then tour a sod house at the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Sod House Museum. Here’s a folk song I’ll bet you’ve never heard: “Little Old Sod Shanty on My Claim.”
The flat expanse of the Great Plains was a source of inspiration to Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the greatest of all American architects. Wright’s Wisconsin estate—Taliesin North—is an outstanding example of Prairie School design, and this virtual architecture tour provides lush views of the building inside and out, with lots of augmented information and expert narration by Keiran Murphy, staff historian at Taliesin Preservation, Inc. Use your cursor for a 360-degree view, and check out the stunning carpets in the Formal Living Room and Blue Loggia! This page from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation website presents an excellent short biography of Wright.
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. Study the building’s architectural significance here, and then take a virtual tour of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in one, two, three, four, five short videos, each less than three minutes long.
Did you enjoy our virtual architecture tour, and want to take an even deeper dive into the subject? Sign up for the EdX course called “The Architectural Imagination,” taught by K. Michael Hays of the Harvard Graduate School of Design. You’ll have to register with EdX, but it’s free to audit this course.
Want the key to the world’s greatest homes and gardens? Browse Road Scholar’s preeminent collection of Home & Garden learning adventures!
About the AuthorPeter 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.
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