Anyone with a pile of money can build a big pile of a house, and back in the day, that's what you did. (See, for instance, "Downton Abbey.") But during the 20th century, a group of architects staged a controversial revolt. Why, they asked, couldn't less be as impressive as more?
Across North America, sensational — but often reasonably-sized and usually deceptively simple — homes stand as their legacy. Here are 10 of the best. All of them are open to the public, but make advance reservations.
1. Farnsworth House, Plano, Ill.
Architect Mies van der Rohe is known for putting his unique stamp on gargantuan urban renewal projects in cities like Detroit and New York, but this 1,500-square-foot jewel box nearly two hours west of Chicago's Loop, built for a friend, is perhaps one of the most Miesian structures Mies ever built, reducing the idea of architecture to, in his words, "almost nothing." Homeowner Dr. Edith Farnsworth was inclined to agree, so angered by the extreme minimalism of the house that she ended up suing her friend. She lost, retired to Italy and the two never spoke to each other again (farnsworthhouse.org).
2. Fallingwater, Mill Run, Penn.
Frank Lloyd-Wright is easily one of the most famous American architects of all time; this remarkable home in the Laurel Highlands, built for Pittsburgh retail magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann, is one of his most well-known works, notable as much for its timeless, earthy interiors as the iconic, tiered exterior. The risky design — who ever heard of building a house over a waterfall, really? — proved a headache for its caretakers from the very beginning; after a lengthy closure for restoration, it's back and looking better than ever (fallingwater.org).
3. Phillip Johnson Glass, House New Canaan, Conn.
You'd expect a man like Phillip Johnson, one-time associate of Mies van der Rohe and later an architectural legend in his own right, to live in a pretty amazing house. And he did, in a section of Connecticut's fancy-pants Fairfield County, not far from New York City. Built in the 1940s and opened to the public in 2007 following the death of David Whitney, Johnson's partner of many years, the Glass House is but one piece of architectural art standing on the 47-acre estate, which also includes art galleries, outdoor sculptures, buildings that look like sculptures and more (philipjohnsonglasshouse.org).
4. Eames House, Los Angeles
The Pacific Palisades section of Los Angeles has no shortage of envy-inducing estates, but this one — designed by furniture guru Charles Eames as a pre-fab out of industrial materials for a project sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine — stands out for its simplicity and restraint. Completed in 1949, Eames and wife Ray liked the simple, sunlit house so much that they ended up staying there until their deaths, decades later. The home's location on a cliff overlooking the Pacific could have had a little something to do with its staying power (eamesfoundation.org). (And while in L.A., don't miss Case Study House 22, designed by Pierre Koenig; stalhouse.com).
5. Miller House, Columbus, Ind.
Before he went on to design the iconic TWA Terminal at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, or St. Louis' world-famous Gateway Arch, Eero Saarinen was commissioned by industrialist J. Irwin Miller to design that's been called the most significant midcentury modern home ever built. True or not, the house is pretty darn cool — and pretty darn large, nearly 7,000 square feet of glass and steel, its presence enhanced by the equally impressive surrounding gardens. After being donated to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and undergoing a $2 million dollar renovation, it's now open for a visit (imamuseum.org).
6. Luis Barragan House, Mexico City
Mexico has no shortage of intriguing architecture, and one of its modern godfathers is Luis Barragan, who worked in the mid-20th century to translate the new style exploding around the western world to best suit the Mexican environment, so heavily influenced by Spanish colonial tradition. One of the best examples of the resulting product is the architect's colorful and striking home, in the Mexico City suburb of Tacubaya, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and open to the public for tours (casaluisbarragan.org).
7. Neutra VDL House, Los Angeles
The man that Time magazine in 1949 called second only to Frank Lloyd Wright may not have quite the name recognition today, but any West Coast architecture lover will be more than acquainted with the striking work of Richard Neutra, a midcentury-Mod icon who built — and subsequently lived and worked in — this open-to-the-light compound in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles (neutra-vdl.org).
8. Gropius House, Lincoln, Mass.
Squeezed out of Germany by the Nazis and lured to the United States by Harvard University, Bauhaus school founder Walter Gropius built this home for his family on a quiet road near Boston back in 1938. It may not appear like much today, but in its time, the use of glass block, chrome and other modern materials was considered revolutionary, particularly when you consider the location of the home, between the ye olde villages of Lexington and Concord. The dream-bigness of Gropius' long-time inspiration Frank Lloyd-Wright is present here, but so is the Bauhaus' classically German common sense, too — a rather happy hybrid (historicnewengland.org).
9. Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Ariz.
While Frank Lloyd Wright's striking Spring Green, Wis. HQ, Taliesin, certainly has its charms, they are significantly harder to nail down during a chilly Midwest winter. Beginning in the early 1930s, Wright and his crew began spending time out in Arizona during the colder months; in 1937 Wright purchased a pristine plot not far from Phoenix and embarked upon a mission to build a campus that would harmonize with the beauty of the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Night time tours, which allow participants to view the home from outside, lit up and almost sculpture-like, are a must (franklloydwright.org).
10. Sunnylands, Rancho Mirage, Calif.
There's nothing modest about this sprawling estate home built in the 1960s by Los Angeles architect A. Quincy Jones on a 200-acre spread just up the road from Palm Springs. With 11 lakes, a 9-hole golf course and a ton of other amenities, Sunnylands is more like a private resort than just another winter house. Then again, its owner, Walter Annenberg, was hardly just another snowbird. Born into a publishing family, Annenberg went on to create TV Guide and Seventeen magazine, was at one time the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom and, later in life, dedicated himself exclusively to philanthropic pursuits. Referred to as the Camp David of the West, Sunnylands has hosted seven U.S. presidents, Britain's royal family, Frank Sinatra and many more big names (sunnylands.org).
George Hobica is founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun