16 famous buildings in the American South: Your architectural tour

 16 famous buildings in the American South: Your architectural tour

(CNN) — One way to get to know the real nature of the American South is to travel its highways and byways and view its architecture. You’ll discover a region of the United States that’s far more diverse than you might have imagined.

But first, we must define “the South.” There’s a lot of heated debate about what constitutes the South. For this round-up, we’re using the US Census Bureau’s regional divisions. So this could include a few states that might surprise you.

From historic sites and houses of worship to new marvels of commerce and entertainment, riding around the South for some building spotting is a good way to pass some travel time during the pandemic.

Most of the buildings are still open to the public for inside tours, with Covid-19 safety precautions and limitations in place. But you can still take in the outside view if they are closed to inside tours. Check with the site before you go.

To that end, here’s a round-up of famous buildings in the South in alphabetical order by state:

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Veric Lang, 19, visits the National Memorial For Peace And Justice in 2018. "It's powerful," Lang said. Conceived by the Equal Justice Initiative, the physical environment is intended to foster reflection on America's history of racial inequality.

Veric Lang, 19, visits the National Memorial For Peace And Justice in 2018. “It’s powerful,” Lang said. Conceived by the Equal Justice Initiative, the physical environment is intended to foster reflection on America’s history of racial inequality.

Bob Miller/Getty Images

Opened: 2018 | Use: Educational | Location: Montgomery, Alabama

The first building on our list is also the newest, but it’s already made a significant mark on the South and beyond.

In the capital of Alabama, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice offers a sparse, contemporary space for reflection where Americans can confront the country’s often-hidden history of lynchings.

MASS Design group built a structure for emotional impact and to carry a burden — 800 steel monuments are suspended from the ceiling, each representing counties lynchings took place.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum

The William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum has a decidedly modern look.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum has a decidedly modern look.

Christina Horsten/dpa/picture-alliance/AP

Opened: 2004 | Use: Museum and research | Location: Little Rock, Arkansas

The main building of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum is suspended above a park on the south bank of the river. The design was symbolically important to the former President, who wanted a physical representation of a bridge to the 21st century.
William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum: 1200 President Clinton Ave, Little Rock, AR 72201; +1 501-374-4242. The interior is closed because of the pandemic, but you can still view the outside and grounds, eat outside at the on-site restaurant and enter the gift shop upon request.

Nemours Estate

The Nemours Mansion in Delaware is a splendid example of the South's affinity for French elegance.

The Nemours Mansion in Delaware is a splendid example of the South’s affinity for French elegance.

John Greim/LightRocket/Getty Images

Opened: 1909-10 | Use: Former private mansion open to public | Location: Wilmington, Delaware

At the extreme northern edge of the US Census Bureau’s South region sits a grandiose mansion that would make you think you’re in aristocratic France.
Industrialist Alfred I. duPont built the estate for his second wife, Alicia. The 77-room, 47,000 square-foot mansion was designed in the 18th-century French style she liked so much.
One of the mansion’s highlights is the casually elegant Conservatory, which is flooded with sunlight and has views of the estate’s renowned gardens, which feature 157 jets at the center of a one-acre pool that shoot water 12 feet into the air.
Nemours Estate: 1600 Rockland Road, Wilmington, DE 19803; +1 302-651-6912. The mansion’s interior is closed, but you can view the exterior from the stunning formal gardens, which are open.

Cinderella Castle

Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando got a makeover in 2020.

Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando got a makeover in 2020.

Matt Stroshane/Walt Disney

Opened: 1971 | Use: Theme park centerpiece | Location: Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida

At 189 feet (almost 60 meters) in height, Cinderella Castle is the tallest structure at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and its most iconic.

The castle is an homage to French castles of the Romanesque period (11th to 13th centuries). Disney says no bricks were used in the construction; it’s made of concrete, steel, plaster and fiberglass. It took about 18 months to build.

It sports 18 towers and 13 gargoyles and was built to withstand winds of 110 mph, according to Disneyfanatic.com. (Orlando is inland but can still be reached by hurricane-force winds).

Mercer Williams House Museum

The Mercer Williams House is a lovely example of Italianate home architecture in Savannah.

The Mercer Williams House is a lovely example of Italianate home architecture in Savannah.

RWI Fine Art Photography/Alamy

Opened: 1868 | Use: Former private home open to public | Location: Savannah, Georgia

Thanks to the 1994 best-seller “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” the Mercer Williams House went from citywide to global recognition rather quickly.

The house was designed for the great-grandfather of songwriter and singer Johnny Mercer and last used as a private residence by uber-preservationist Jim Williams, a central figure in “Midnight.”

Even without the fascinating history, the Italianate villa-style house is a standout in Savannah, which is overflowing with magnificent specimens of 1800s architecture.

Its distinctive red brick exterior, double doors surrounded by four columns and large French windows with iron railings make for a memorable presentation.

Mercer Williams House Museum: 429 Bull St, Savannah, GA 31401; +1 912-236-6352 or 912-238-0208. Open for reserved tours with Covid-19 protocols in place.

Humana Building

The postmodern Humana Building inspired a generation of office buildings in the United States and Europe.

The postmodern Humana Building inspired a generation of office buildings in the United States and Europe.

4k-Clips/Alamy

Opened: 1985 | Use: Offices | Location: Louisville, Kentucky

It’s hard to overstate Michael Graves’ influence on architecture as well as product design in the late 20th century.

One of his masterpieces in the former category is the Humana Building in Kentucky’s largest city. At 26 stories, it has a pink granite facade, and each side of the building incorporates different architectural features that culminate in a sloping pyramid at the top.
The building’s postmodern features — strong colors, a mix of modern and classical elements, variations in materials and shapes — went on to influence a generation of office buildings and hotels in the United States and Europe, too. Study it closely and you’ll see plenty of features in other tall buildings of the era.

Humana Building: 500 W Main St, Louisville, KY 40202.

Mercedes-Benz Superdome

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome is where the residents of New Orleans see their beloved Saints in action.

The Mercedes-Benz Superdome is where the residents of New Orleans see their beloved Saints in action.

Aaron M. Sprecher/AP

Opened: 1975 | Use: Sports and entertainment venue | Location: New Orleans, Louisiana

Yes, NOLA and Louisiana are overflowing with amazing historical buildings, but the home of the Saints is simply not to be denied. Besides, the South is all about its football.

While impressive Saints stats come and go depending on the season, the Superdome’s building specs always score:

— It’s 237 feet (72 meters) from floor to ceiling. That’s more than tall enough to hold another beloved New Orleans building, St. Louis Cathedral.

— The Superdome website says it’s “the world’s largest entirely steel-constructed arena unobstructed by posts or columns.”

Mercedes-Benz Superdome: 1500 Sugar Bowl Dr, New Orleans, LA 70112. It’s open for football games and a few special events with Covid-19 safety protocols in place. Tours aren’t given, but visitors are welcome to walk around the exterior to take pictures.

National Aquarium

This aerial view shows the National Aquarium in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The architecture of the building is as fascinating as the aquatic creatures it holds.

This aerial view shows the National Aquarium in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The architecture of the building is as fascinating as the aquatic creatures it holds.

Steve Helber/AP

Opened: 1981 | Use: Recreation and education | Location: Baltimore, Maryland

The National Aquarium helped spark the revitalization of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor area and a national trend of building huge aquatic zoos in the center of cities.
Prolific aquarium architect Peter Chermayeff handled the design of the original structure. It’s had two additions since then, one of which was also designed by Chermayeff.
The aquarium’s striking geometric design, with sharp triangles, glass and multicolored facades, is a striking feature along the once-industrial waterfront. Chermayeff told Harvard Magazine in 1999 that his goal was the presentation of “a theater, where the players are living creatures. … That’s an emotional thing, not a science lesson.”
National Aquarium: 501 E Pratt St, Baltimore, MD 21202; +1 410-576-3800. The aquarium is open with Covid-19 safety protocols in place.

Elvis Presley Birthplace

It's perhaps the South's most humble buildings, such as Elvis Presley's  Birthplace, that tell its biggest stories.

It’s perhaps the South’s most humble buildings, such as Elvis Presley’s Birthplace, that tell its biggest stories.

Andrew Wooley/UIG/Getty Images

Opened: 1934 | Uses: Private home, museum | Location: Tupelo, Mississippi

He was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but Elvis Presley didn’t inherit a castle. No, his childhood home was something straight out of Great Depression poverty — a tiny, white wooden house supported on brick piles.

Elvis’ father, Vernon, borrowed $180 for materials to build the two-room, shotgun shack home for his family. The Presleys lived there for a few years, but it was repossessed when Vernon couldn’t pay back the loan.

Despite its small size, it contained a Southern prerequisite of the era: a front porch with a swing. In many ways, this modest little structure is the most Southern building on this list.

Elvis Presley Birthplace: 306 Elvis Presley Dr, Tupelo, MS 38801; +1 662-841-1245. The home is still open for tours with reduced hours.

Biltmore

Nestled in the mountains surrounding Asheville, Biltmore is the largest privately owned home in America.

Nestled in the mountains surrounding Asheville, Biltmore is the largest privately owned home in America.

George Rose/Getty Images

Opened: 1895 | Uses: Private chateau, public tours | Location: Asheville, North Carolina

What a contrast — we go from the impoverished simplicity of Elvis’ birthplace to one of the grandest domiciles in the South, if not the world.

Renaissance man and tycoon George Vanderbilt started construction on his palatial home, Biltmore, in 1889 with the mountains surrounding Asheville as the beautiful backdrop.

The French Renaissance chateau — there’s definitely a French vibe going on in the South — has 250 rooms. That includes 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces.

While a throwback to romantic times, it was very modern, too. It had North Carolina’s first passenger elevator and five refrigerators run on electricity. In 1930, his daughter, Cornelia, opened the home to public tours. Vanderbilt’s descendants still live there.
Biltmore: 1 Lodge St, Asheville, NC 28803; +1 00-411-3812. Biltmore House is open with Covid-19 safety protocols in place.

Price Tower

Price Tower is the only skyscraper designed by noted horizontalist Frank Lloyd Wright that was ever constructed.

Price Tower is the only skyscraper designed by noted horizontalist Frank Lloyd Wright that was ever constructed.

Jon Arnold/Alamy

Opened: 1956 | Use: Offices | Location: Bartlesville, Oklahoma

Frank Lloyd Wright’s works are not just found in Chicago and New York. One of his influential designs sits in the small city of Bartlesville, population 36,000.

Price Tower, at 221 feet (67 meters), was built as the headquarters for a pipeline construction company.

Wright actually dusted off an old design for a New York City apartment building that was never built.

The design inspiration is a tree. The “trunk” is four elevator shafts and their structural walls. They support the “branches” of concrete slabs that extend outward. And the “leaves” consist of copper panels and sun louvers.

Price Tower: 510 S. Dewey Ave., Bartlesville, OK 74005; +1 918-336-1000. It’s open for small tours and reserved guided tours with Covid-19 protocols in place.

St. Philip’s Episcopal Church

Even in a city glorified for its churches, St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Charleston is a standout. In the foreground is the Dock Street Theatre.

Even in a city glorified for its churches, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Charleston is a standout. In the foreground is the Dock Street Theatre.

Richard Ellis/Alamy

Opened: 1838 | Use: House of worship | Location: Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston is often called “The Holy City” because of its abundance of churches, whose steeples are some of the highest structures in this meticulously preserved port.

The current building is the third to house the church, which dates back to 1681. While finished in 1838, its soaring steeple wasn’t added until 1850. It’s a commanding presence with the top rising to 200 feet (61 meters). In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the steeple held a beacon to help guide ships.

At ground level, the church has three impressive Tuscan porticoes that face Church Street, which gracefully curve around the front the building.

St. Philip’s Episcopal Church: 142 Church St, Charleston, SC 29401; +1 843-722-7734. The church is open for worship services with Covid-19 safety measures in place and the exterior is a popular stop on Charleston walking tours.

Ryman Auditorium

The Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry, was originally built as a church.

The Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry, was originally built as a church.

Radharc Images/Alamy

Opened: 1892 | Uses: Religious hall, entertainment venue | Location: Nashville, Tennessee

For country music fans, a pilgrimage to Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville is something akin to a worship service. And that’s quite apropos, as the building began life as a church.

Inspired by a revival service, river boat Capt. Thomas Ryman helped spearhead the building of the Union Gospel Tabernacle, as it was then known. Besides hosting choirs and religious conventions, the likes of Booker T. Washington, Susan B. Anthony and former President Theodore Roosevelt gave lectures there.

It wasn’t until 1943 that the producers of the Grand Ole Opry radio show moved in.

The show hosted country music legends including Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Charley Pride. The last broadcast was made in 1974 from the Ryman, when the Opry show moved to a new facility in Opryland USA, a Tennessee amusement park. While the park has since closed down, the show still goes on at the Grand Ole Opry House, even during the pandemic.

The Ryman Auditorium is two and half stories tall. It’s made with load-bearing brick embellished with limestone trim and features distinctive, pointed-arched windows.
It still hosts performances and memorials, with seating for up to 2,362 people.

The Alamo

For Texans, the Alamo is their ultimate symbol of independence and perseverance.

For Texans, the Alamo is their ultimate symbol of independence and perseverance.

Shutterstock

Opened: 1755 | Uses: Catholic mission, military compound, tourist attraction | Location: San Antonio, Texas

Famed as a battle site, you may not realize the Alamo was the first of five Spanish religious missions built in what is now the San Antonio metro area. It even had a different name: Mission San Antonio de Valero.

By the 1790s, it was converted to secular and military use, first by Spain and then by Mexico. The Battle of the Alamo in 1836, which Texans lost by the way, became a rallying cry in their revolution to create their own country.

If you study it, you can see how the main building at the Alamo compound in downtown San Antonio looks more like a church than a traditional military fort.

It’s made of Texas limestone taken from local quarries and was designed to have a domed roof and two bell towers. All but the outer walls collapsed during construction and those features were never added.
The Alamo: 300 Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, TX 78205; +1 210-225-1391. It’s open with Covid-19 safety measures in place.

Monticello

Thomas Jefferson's domed Monticello was built to be an architectural expression of his views on the Enlightenment and democracy.

Thomas Jefferson’s domed Monticello was built to be an architectural expression of his views on the Enlightenment and democracy.

Jose Fuste Raga/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Opened: 1770 | Uses: Private home, historical museum | Location: Charlottesville, Virginia

Thomas Jefferson, the third US President, was excellent at things besides revolutions, purchases and politics. He was also a superb architect, though he had no formal training. Exhibit A is his home Monticello (“Little Mountain.”)
With its emphasis on symmetry, proportion and temple-like qualities, Monticello is a masterful interpretation of Palladianism, a style popular in the British colonies during his time.

Monticello contains 33 rooms on four floors, counting the cellar. The home has lots of clever Jefferson touches, including 13 skylights. Bricks were made on site and the structural lumber came from Jefferson’s lands.

Monticello: 931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy, Charlottesville, VA 22902; +1 434-984-9800. The home and grounds are open with Covid-19 protocols in place.

The Greenbrier

The Greenbrier Hotel opened in 1913.

The Greenbrier Hotel opened in 1913.

Shutterstock

Opened: 1913 | Use: Luxury resort hotel | Location: White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia

As far back as the 1770s, people would come to White Sulphur Springs to restore their health. Eventually, a resort grew up around it.

It wasn’t until 1913 that the central portion of today’s Greenbrier Hotel, the grand signature building of the resort, was built.

The brilliantly white facade — with its Neoclassical influence and memorable columned porticoes — earned it the moniker “The Old White.” It has hundreds of rooms and during World War II, the building was taken over by the federal government for use as a hospital.

But, perhaps what’s most interesting about this building lies beneath it. For 30 years, it hid a secret that was only revealed in 1992.

Under the West Virginia Wing is a massive bunker carved 720 feet (220 meters) into the mountain that was to be used as an emergency Cold War fallout shelter. It was maintained until the government ended the lease agreement in 1995.
The Greenbrier: 101 W Main St, White Sulphur Springs, WV 24986; +1 844-837-2466. The Greenbrier is open with enhanced safety measures.

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