Roadside Architectural Wonders

In this age of homogenized subdivis­ions and strip malls, rarely does a new structure induce a double-take. But things weren't always like that, especially on the American roadside. The name of the game, of course, has always been catching the tourist's eye and, in many cases, bewildering the tourist's mind.

To be sure, many Americans never wanted that cozy little house on Main Street with the white picket fence. These mavericks wanted something entirely different -- a home that doubled as an affirmation of their individuality.

Maybe they coveted an over-the-top mansion they could keep expanding for the rest of their life, a perpetual work in progress. Or their bent might have involved construction materials from which nobody in their right mind would build a house.

Or the finished product could have been a Space Age-style image of the home of the future -- usually an off-the-mark prophecy of what 21st-century housing might come to look like, but certainly hasn't yet.

Many of the oddball buildings that dot the American roadside aren't actually residences, but offices, shops, museums, or reproductions of famed edifices on the other side of the world.

The thread that ties them all together? They stand out from everything else in the immediate vicinity. No matter when they were built, and no matter what their surroundings are, these one-of-a-kind architectural anomalies generally can't be pigeonholed as part of a broader movement. These buildings are in a category all by themselves.

By and large, the minds behind these structures never received a formal education in the traditions and tenets of architecture. Their vision comes from an entirely different plane of thought that owes more to fairy tales and comic books than academia.

Their motivation is usually the result of an obsessive drive that knows no middle ground, and formal study, thus, would only get in the way.

But this doesn't mean that their creations aren't true architectural gems. They are. In some ways, they outdo the more traditional buildings now renowned for their architectural importance, as excellent representations of a given style. But the American roadside's landmark buildings are usually one-of-a-kind, or something close to it.

Plus, it takes a ton of guts to go through the pricey process of building a house shaped like an elephant or a shoe, and the bank certainly won't be inclined to sign off on a mortgage -- not to mention that resale might be a bear. And you might alienate the neighbors forever.

Also, you're going to have to personally live with what you create -- every single day.

Not that these minuscule details deterred the owners, builders, and residents of the buildings featured in this chapter. They knew what they were getting into, listened to countless people advising them not to build anything of the sort, and then dove in headfirst.

Years later, they might still be hammering away, or else working on a new addition for the umpteenth time, but one thing remains constant: They still have the most recognizable place on the block.

A wonderful example of a work in progress is Solomon's Castle in Florida. Continue reading to learn about the evolution of this unusual home made from recycled materials.

Prabhupada's Palace of Gold in New Vrindaban, West Virginia.

Solomon's Castle: Ona, Florida

Howard Solomon is a sculptor whose primary media is found and recycled objects. His biggest undertaking -- at 10,000 square feet -- is his personal residence, which he started building more than 30 years ago and kept on building for 30 years.

With a shimmering facade of recycled printing-press plates, a tower with a bed-and-breakfast suite, and numerous galleries to showcase his unusual art, the castle was on the market at the time of this writing, with an asking price of a cool $5 million.

 Georgia Guidestones: Elberton, Georgia

The Georgia Guidestones near Elberton, Georgia are a cryptic granite message-bearer influenced by Britain's Stonehenge.

The 19-foot-tall monument espouses visitors to follow ten principles carved into its surface in eight languages, including the tenet, "Avoid petty laws and useless officials."

The monument also doubles as a 19-ton clock.

Another European treasure finds a home in the U.S. On the next page, learn about Pisa, Italy's sister city and it's familiar landmark.

Tower of Pisa: Niles, Illinois

In 1934, local businessman Robert Ilg built a recreation park for his employees that consisted of two swimming pools, two cabanas, and one very unusual covering for the pools' water tank: a half-size replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa that was later dedicated to the town.

The existence of the tower made a bit more sense when Niles and Pisa consummated a sister-city relationship in 1991.

Purple Martin House: Griggsville, Illinois

Positioned in boggy terrain betwixt the Missouri and Illinois rivers, Griggsville long put up with a serious mosquito infestation until the local Jaycees became wise to the fact that purple martins are the bird world's most prolific skeeter-eaters.

To fend off the bugs, in 1962 they commissioned a manufacturer to make dream homes for the birds. These homes were positioned along Quincy Street, which is now known as Purple Martin Boulevard.

Pass the fries, and check out the worlds' largest catsup bottle on the next page.

World's Largest Catsup Bottle: Collinsville, Illinois

Dating back to 1949, this water tower was built to promote Brooks catsup.

The170-foot-tall water tower near downtown Collinsville, Illinois, enjoyed a restoration in 1995 as a result of efforts by the Catsup Bottle Preservation Group, who saved the tower from demolition and oversaw its overhaul.

Dorothy's House: Liberal, Kansas

"There's no place like home," chanted The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy Gale as she clicked her ruby slipper-clad feet together.

Well, in 1981 the good folk of Liberal, Kansas, took it upon themselves to designate a house from 1907 as Miss Gale's official residence, and the place now serves as the gateway to an animatronic attraction dubbed the Land of Oz

 Lucy the Elephant: Margate, New Jersey

Looming 65 feet over the Margate beach in New Jersey, Lucy the Elephant is the only example of "zoomorphic architecture" left in the United States, with staircases in her legs leading to rooms inside.

The big girl was originally built as a real estate promotion, and she has since served as summer home, tavern, hotel, and tourist attraction.

A 1970 relocation spared Lucy from the wrecking ball; preservationists completed a loving restoration in 2000.

Big Duck: Flanders, New York

Conceived by "duck rancher" Martin Maurer and his wife, Jeule, as a means of selling the Peking ducks they raised, Long Island, New York's Big Duck was built in Riverhead in 1931 and relocated to Flanders in 1936.

After development threatened the Big Duck in 1987, the owners donated the building to Suffolk County, and it was relocated to a park, where it now serves as a gift shop and tourist information center.

Cubes: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

In 1996, architect Clive Levitt melded sculpture and structure in this most unusual apartment/office building surrounded by freeways and industry.

Consisting of three interconnected cubes -- measuring 24 feet on a side and turned on their points -- the entire structure is suspended atop a single 15-foot column

Eiffel Tower Replica: Paris, Tennessee

Originally masterminded in 1993 by members of the engineering department at Christian Brothers University (CBU) in Memphis, Tennessee, this 60-foot Eiffel Tower consists of 500 pieces of Douglas fir, 6,000 steel rods and 10,000 hours of volunteer labor.

The university donated it to Paris, Tennessee, after the city organized a "Paris U.S.A." promotion 1991 in conjunction with the 14 other U.S. cities named Paris.

The tower was dismantled at the CBU campus, transported to Paris, and reassembled there for a dedication in 1993

Nashville Parthenon: Nashville, Tennessee

This impressive edifice was flimsily built for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897. Restored in the 1920s and again in the 1990s, it is a reminder of the Music City's reputation as the Athens of the South.

Inside the majestic facade is a 42-foot-tall statue of Greek goddess Athena, said to be the largest indoor statue in the western hemisphere.

The Globe Theatre: Odessa, Texas

The idea for an authentic replica of William Shakespeare's Globe Theatre first arose circa 1948, in English teacher Marjorie Morris's high school classroom. Morris later became a professor at Morris College, deep in the heart of Texas oil country.

She pushed for the construction of The Globe facsimile, which, after extensive research, was built in 1961. It is affectionately known as The Globe of the Great Southwest.

Leaning Tower of Texas: Groom, Texas

A leftover from the glory days of Route 66, the long-closed Tower Fuel Stop installed this otherwise nondescript water tower as an advertising ploy.

It was labeled "Britten, U.S.A." by proprietor Ralph Britten, who intentionally shortened the legs on one side during the 1950s for the eye-catching lean.

 Orange Show Monument: Houston, Texas

The handiwork of postal worker Jefferson Davis McKissack, this east Houston landmark was built between 1956 and 1979 out of everything from bricks to mannequins to wagon wheels.

Sporting an orange-and-white color scheme, the Orange Show Monument is a tribute of sorts to the nutritional value of its creator's favorite fruit -- the orange.

Prabhupada's Palace of Gold: New Vrindaban, West Virginia

This is the former temple of the late Srila Prabhupada, who spread the philosophy of Krishna consciousness through the West after leaving his native India in 1965.

He first stayed in a shack in New Vrindaban, West Virginia, in 1969, and his followers later spent seven years building this magnificent golden palace.

House on the Rock: Spring Green, Wisconsin

Capping a 60-foot geological formation named Deer Shelter Rock is one of the best-known architectural oddities in the United States.

The House on the Rock (a parody of Frank Lloyd Wright's work) is the creation of Alex Jordan, who started building it in the 1940s as a vacation home near Spring Green, Wisconsin.

He just kept on building, furnishing it with Oriental art, a three-story bookcase, and anything else that captured his fevered imagination. He soon realized the place could lure tourists by the carload and started charging 50 cents for tours.

Jordan sold the house in the late 1980s, but the place just keeps getting bigger and stranger by the year.

With 14 unique and lavishly decorated rooms -- including the Infinity Room, with 3,264 windows -- and a surrounding complex that houses a miniature circus, the world's largest carousel, and a full-fledged destination resort, the House on the Rock is at once wacky, tacky, innovative, and elegant.

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