As much as we love the South’s quintessential clapboard churches and stately mansions, our appreciation of Southern architecture extends beyond the classics. We‘ve combed the region for noteworthy structures, from historical masterpieces like Thomas Jefferson‘s Palladian Monticello to modern marvels like the breezy, zero-energy McDonald‘s Florida flagship (yes, McDonald’s). Our final list includes small-city cathedrals whose beauty rivals those in Europe, as well as one of the largest Hindu temples in the United States, sitting like a filigreed cake in suburban Atlanta. You‘ll find distinctly Southern creations that embrace the bayous and forests around them and memorials that acknowledge the region‘s fraught past, like the somber steel pillars of Alabama‘s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Go forth and experience as many of these exquisitely designed wonders as you can.
Hale County Animal Shelter
Yes, even a humble animal shelter can be spectacular. This one by Rural Studio (Auburn University School of Architecture’s design/build program serving Alabama’s rural poor) was built in 2006 at the county’s request for a cost of $100,000 in donations. Four students constructed the modern hangar-like structure with a lamella roof—lumber crisscrossed to create an arched network—clad in aluminum and plexiglass. The open design allows for airflow and light, and radiant-heated concrete floors keep animals warm in winter.
Music City Center
For a structure so enormous (1.2 million square feet, six city blocks wide), Nashville’s decade-old downtown convention center manages a site-sensitive design on all five sides, right up to the green roof. With surprising curves and huge swaths of glass, the building (by TVS Design with local partners) interacts with each street side, creating energy where there could be a void. Inside, wood architectural details and undulating lines give the feeling of being inside an instrument.
The Hunter Museum of American Art
With mind-bending flow and tension, 100 years of architecture marry at this museum atop a limestone bluff 80 feet over the Tennessee River. First came the 1905 Georgian mansion by architect Abram Garfield, taking cues from the likes of Mount Vernon and the White House. The east wing, a 1970s brutalist block of rough concrete, rises alongside the mansion like an extension of the cliff. Completing the surprising medley: The 2005 galvanized-steel west wing, with angles askew, is cantilevered over the river like “Umbrella Rock” on nearby Lookout Mountain.
Mirror Cabins at Bolt Farm Treehouse
So-called “mirror houses” don’t blur the lines between outdoors and in—they all but eliminate them. Popularized in Europe as an immersion in nature, the two-way glass-walled cabins have started appearing in the United States, including these five tiny but luxe prefab resort cabins by Estonia-based ÖÖD Hötels. Inside, they provide unobstructed floor-to-ceiling views of the forested cliffs of Whitwell Mountain, and from the outside, they reflect it, leaving little visual footprint on the landscape.
A plaster model of the Parthenon was erected for the 1896 Centennial Exposition, but it crumbled in 1920. Nashvillians lobbied to build a permanent replica of the Greek temple on the site, now a public park. Classical local architect Russell E. Hart spent 11 years crafting a full-scale reproduction right down to the imperceptible lean of the massive Doric columns. Marble would have been prohibitively expensive; concrete with an aggregate river gravel gives it the same muddled, oxidized finish.
Main Street Station
Built as a depot and railroad office at the turn of the 20th century, the French Renaissance building, now an Amtrak station and city symbol, is easily recognizable by its Pompeian red brick, steeply pitched terracotta roof, and handsome six-story clock tower. Fanciful details like Corinthian columns and arches carved with roses stand in stark contrast to the steel-truss platform shed alongside it, still sitting on its original trestles and a marvel in its own right.
Palace of Gold
MOUNDSVILLE, WEST VIRGINIA
The gold-domed, lavishly detailed shrine is the last thing you’d expect to see on this rural West Virginia hilltop, but the area was once home to the country’s largest Hare Krishna community. From 1973 to 1979, the sect—without building experience or even blueprints— worked devotedly to create a home for their guru. When he died during construction, it became a memorial teeming with marble and onyx, carved teak, hand-stained glass, precious jewels, and painted murals. It’s now open to visitors.
Washington Dulles International Airport
As flying became more accessible in the mid-20th century—and more luxurious—Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen redefined the modern airport when he designed Dulles (completed in 1962). The graceful soaring roof evokes flight atop 65-foot, boldly tilted piers, sending a Cold War–era statement of dynamism and confidence. Inside, a groundbreaking open concept and Eames furniture created a sleek and swanky vibe. Space Age–style “mobile lounges” originally delivered passengers to planes—though that idea didn’t take off.
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest Visitor Center
This elegant but simple grid of glass and warm woods frames the forested landscape, yet also feels enveloped by it, expanding outward with pergolas that invite climbing vines and a green roof on top, like an enchanted treehouse. Designed by environmental architect William McDonough, the 2005 LEED Platinum building incorporates native, recycled woods (some from Kentucky bourbon barrels) and fly ash (waste residue from local coal production).
Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame
In the oldest permanent settlement in the state, dating to 1714, stands this distinctly modernist interpretation of its surroundings. New Orleans–based Trahan Architects devised computer-milled, undulating cast-stone panels that lock together like a 3-D sculpture, leading visitors through its exhibits like a meandering bayou river. Copper louvers create a ventilated box around the exterior, reminiscent of historic porches.
Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art
Dedicated to George Ohr, the early 20th-century “mad potter of Biloxi,” this museum complex is one of legendary architect Frank Gehry’s only designs in the South. The six buildings’ twisted and folded lines (constructed of Gehry’s signature stainless-steel panels) mimic the shapes of Ohr’s ceramics and glitter alongside the Gulf Coast, “dancing” with the live oaks around them.
Also known as Nutt’s Folly, Longwood is considered the largest and most elaborate octagonal house in America—although it was never finished. Work began in 1861, commissioned by cotton planter Haller Nutt, with a largely enslaved or Northern- based workforce. The brick exterior, with its ornate cypress columns and trim along with the grand, Moorish-inspired cupola, was completed, but the Civil War caused workers to lay down their tools inside, where they remain preserved today.
New River Gorge Bridge
FAYETTEVILLE, WEST VIRGINIA
The longest steel arch bridge in the country spans more than 3,000 feet across a rugged canyon, its elegant, russet corten-steel frame blending into the deeply forested terrain. The bridge took Michael Baker International 10 years to build and was finally completed in 1977. Deemed “exceptionally important” for its engineering and transportation significance, the bridge landed on the National Register for Historic Places 14 years before hitting the customary 50-year eligibility mark.
There had never been a grand neoclassical building in America until Thomas Jefferson designed his perfectly symmetrical Palladian plantation home. A self-taught architect, he remodeled and tweaked his abode from the 1760s until his death in 1826, topping it with its signature octagonal dome. Built by both paid laborers and enslaved people (Jefferson owned 200), the house is a study of the inner workings of the former president’s mind, featuring innovative details ahead of his time like alcoved beds, indoor privies, and skylights.
Duke University Chapel
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA
The English Gothic tower, designed in 1930 by African American architect Julian Abele of Horace Trumbauer in Philadelphia, rises 210 feet—a dramatic height for a structure only 38 feet square. A railroad spur was built to carry the bluestone from a quarry 12 miles outside Durham. Seventy-seven stained-glass windows bathe the long, cavernous nave in a colorful glow.
National Memorial for Peace and Justice
At this sobering memorial by the Equal Justice Institute, 800 massive corten-steel pillars hang like bodies suspended in a pavilion, representing the 800 counties where thousands were killed by lynching between 1877 and 1950. The structure, designed by MASS Design Group and erected in 2018, insists that we confront the country’s tragic and brutal legacy of slavery, segregation, and racial terror.
St. Philip’s Church
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
The 1838 church, ornamented with three pedimented Tuscan porticoes outside and high Corinthian arcades inside, extends into the center of Church Street. (This forces the road to wrap around it, as was common for English churches of the time.) If the 200-foot octagonal steeple, with its circular windows that once served as a lighthouse, looks a tad off-kilter, that’s because it is, owing to the earthquake of 1886, one of the most damaging to ever hit the East Coast.
St. Louis Cathedral
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
The steep triple-spired cathedral facing Jackson Square has welcomed travelers to New Orleans since steamboat days. The 1851 design by French architect J.N.B. de Pouilly is the cathedral’s third (and current) iteration, with only the lower facade remaining from the second, dating to 1794. (The original 1727 church burned in 1788, and the second was mostly demolished by an expansion.) Its towering verticality and stark white exterior, combined with moldings, arches, and pedimented windows in low relief, make the church appear curiously two-dimensional, like an elevation drawing.
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
Considered the earliest and finest example of Palladian architecture in the United States, Drayton Hall was constructed between 1738 and 1742 as a commercial building for South Carolina Governor John Drayton’s more than 100 plantations. The Georgian mansion, with its cubic proportions and hand-carved plaster ceilings, was stabilized in its 1974 state when it was purchased by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and it is considered unrestored, showcasing layers of history. Twice-daily talks educate visitors about the lives of the family and the enslaved people who built Drayton Hall and labored on Drayton land.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House
This low-slung cypress-and-brick beauty, with its horizontal lines, cantilevered roofs, and copious use of glass, may be one of the purest examples of Wright’s Usonian style. Commissioned by the Rosenbaum family in 1939, the home (now a museum) maintains original details like built-ins for 5,000 books, iconic Cherokee-red concrete floors, and Wright’s custom wood furniture.
Reynolds Building/Kimpton Cardinal Hotel
WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA
An inspiration for the Empire State Building, this 22-story art deco building was designed by New York architects Shreve & Lamb and completed in 1929, two years before the firm embarked on the famed skyscraper. Constructed as the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company headquarters, it climbs straight up until jogging in a ziggurat shape at the top. Now home to the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel, the building maintains glamorous deco details, like the lobby’s gold-and silver-leaf ceiling and gleaming brass accents, including stylized tobacco leaves.
ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
The largest private home ever built in the United States, George Vanderbilt’s country estate is a study in grandiose Gilded Age excess. Completed in 1895 and open to the public since 1930, the chateau-esque mansion by Richard Morris Hunt takes its cues from the French castles of the Loire Valley. The limestone facade, topped with a dramatically pitched slate roof, drips with spires, gargoyles, finials, and pinnacles. The 250 rooms, including a grand banquet hall, library, and tapestry gallery, recall a bygone opulent lifestyle. Mountain vistas beckon from the sublime landscapes of Frederick Law Olmsted.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Built atop a creek in a forested ravine, these arched timber-and-glass art pavilions serve as dams that form two spring-fed ponds, reflecting the Ozark landscape all around. Roam 120 acres of sculpture gardens and trails, and stumble upon a 50-foot dome by none other than Buckminster Fuller. The museum, commissioned by Walmart heiress Alice Walton and designed by Moshe Safdie, is currently undergoing a major expansion, scheduled for completion in 2024.
Pérez Art Museum
An extension of the newly redeveloped waterfront park around it, the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) was designed by Christine Binswanger of Herzog & de Meuron for openness and connection—philosophically and structurally. Extensive canopies and tropical vegetation create shade, protection for the international contemporary art collection, and organically blurred lines between indoors and out. Abundant timber and glass bring warmth and light to the rough concrete frame, which elevates the exhibition spaces above storm-surge height.
McDonald’s Global Flagship at Walt Disney World
Fast-food drive-thrus are notorious energy hogs—but not this one. In 2020, Ross-Barney Architects devised a McDonald’s flagship that would embrace the Florida sun and heat, consuming net-zero energy. Natural ventilation through louvered walls and windows creates an indoor/outdoor environment reminiscent of Old Florida architecture and lanais, while a huge canopy of photovoltaic panels plants this building firmly in the future.
High Museum of Art
The High’s three-story, light-filled atrium designed by Richard Meier in 1983 is a postmodern triumph, with its curvaceous white-enamel facade and coiling interior ramp inspired by the Guggenheim. The 2005 additions by Renzo Piano (with Lord Aeck Sargent) include three new buildings illuminated by sculptural skylights (“light scoops”) and a central piazza that prompts pedestrians to linger.
Flagler College Ponce de Leon Hall
ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA
Built in 1887 by industrialist Henry M. Flagler as the opulent Ponce de Leon Hotel, the red-roofed campus centerpiece epitomizes Spanish Revival style. Now a dormitory open for tours, this Gilded Age masterpiece by famed architects Carrère and Hastings employs Moorish elements like sculpted crenellations and a central dome. It brims with ornate mosaics, gold-leafed murals, and Tiffany stained glass.
MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA
One of the most architecturally significant hotels in the world, Fontainebleau is considered an icon of Miami modernism. It’s also a beacon of fun and experimentation, with its groundbreaking sweeping curve setting the scene for hedonist style. (The lobby’s “staircase to nowhere” was created explicitly for fashionable guests to strut.) Designed by Morris Lapidus in 1954, it remains a landmark of beachfront glamour.
EUREKA SPRINGS, ARKANSAS
With its towering open trusses, glass walls, and bouncing light and shadows, this simple sanctuary in the woods (open to the public daily, plus Sunday services) is transcendent. Architect E. Fay Jones was inspired by Sainte-Chapelle, the luminous 13th-century Paris cathedral. Jones dubbed the style “Ozark Gothic” for its dramatic proportions (24 feet wide and 48 feet tall with 425 windows) and Arkansas vernacular, such as the native flagstone floors and local pine trusses that mimic the forest.
The Dalí Museum
ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA
This stoic concrete “box” appears to ooze with two glittering, undulating glass domes—a push-pull dynamic between reason and surprise, a perpetual theme of Salvador Dalí’s work. Designed by HOK in 2011, the building and grounds overlooking Tampa Bay embrace the theatrics of the Spanish surrealist, featuring a dramatic concrete helical staircase (he loved spirals), a mathematical garden (think labyrinths), and more than 2,000 of his works.
Churchill Downs’ iconic twin spires came about as an exuberant afterthought. Joseph Dominic Baldez, just 24 when he designed the storied racing complex in 1895, added the hexagonal towers atop his original stately design, believing at the last minute it needed something dramatic and grand. Sitting like fanciful church steeples above the long, slate-roofed grandstand with graceful Italianate arches, the spires have served as symbols of Louisville for more than 100 years, despite being dwarfed by more recent additions and expansions to the famed sporting venue.
BUENA VISTA, GEORGIA
Fortune teller and renegade folk artist St. EOM, born as Eddie Owens Martin, worked on this, his spiritual utopia, for 30 years. Beginning in the 1950s, he created a wildly colorful artscape inspired by the sacred art of Buddhism, Hinduism, and several African, Polynesian, and American Indian cultures. Six major structures and 900 feet of intricate masonry wall depict a menagerie of mandalas, faces, and patterns from nature. St. EOM created his own religion, Pasaquoyanism, before dying by suicide in 1986; his site is now maintained by Columbus State University.
Said to be the largest timber-framed structure in the world, the jaw-dropping 2016 replica of Noah’s ark was built according to the dimensions in the Bible: 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 51 feet tall. Designed by Amish architect LeRoy Troyer as the primary attraction at the Creationist amusement park, the unseaworthy ship is an engineering marvel in a labyrinth of wood—four-foot-wide Engelmann spruce logs, 20-inch-square Douglas fir posts, and smooth Accoya pine cladding.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
More than 34,000 blocks of Turkish limestone, Italian marble, and Indian pink sandstone were pre-cut and carved in India before being shipped to Georgia to be assembled—by barcode and written instruction— into one of the largest Hindu temples in the United States. Like a lacy, filigreed cake, the awe-inspiring mandir features five pinnacles and 116 arches with dainty etched rosettes, feathers, and leaves. Completed in 2007, it has been ensnared in labor disputes over workers from India for more than a decade.
St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption
St. Mary’s might be technically unfinished, but it doesn’t feel like you’re missing anything. Begun in 1892 by Detroit architect Leon Coquard, the interior was inspired by Paris’s Saint-Denis, with an expansive nave and ribbed vaults in ornate plaster. The exterior bears more than a passing resemblance to Notre Dame, featuring flying buttresses and chilling gargoyles. Sparkling stained-glass windows, handmade in Germany, abound—including the largest found in any church in the world (67 by 27 feet). St. Mary’s was never finished due
to cost, so it stands without the dramatic towers called for in the original design.
William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum
LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS
Evoking a bridge across the Arkansas River—and Clinton’s “bridge to the 21st century” campaign—the 420-foot-long cantilevered box has been criticized for resembling a shipping container or a mobile home. But for Ennead Architects, the accessibility symbolizes democracy. Clad in glass and aluminum, the sleek LEED Platinum building engages with the site’s old railroad trestle, now a pedestrian bridge to North Little Rock.
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Southbound.