Whether it’s a schoolhouse or a soaring skyscraper, architecture shapes an urban dweller’s on-the-ground experience of their city—not to mention how the city is perceived by visitors and beyond.
The most recognizable, archetypal, or historic buildings often earn icon status, each telling its own story about the past and present of the city that surrounds it. Of course, a building doesn’t have to be centuries old to be iconic. That’s why incredible contemporary structures, such as Seattle’s Central Library, also grace this list of the most iconic buildings around the U.S.
The 14 picks below were chosen by Curbed editors across the country, who each picked just one structure to represent their cities. While no doubt many worthy contenders have been left off, this roundup does provide a compelling snapshot of some of the best architecture on offer from coast to coast.
The Texas State Capitol Building in Austin
“Opened in 1888 (it replaced a more diminutive structure destroyed by fire in 1881), the Texas Capitol was intended to make a grand statement. Modeled after the U.S. Capitol in a Neo-Renaissance style that features the domes, columns, plasterwork, and pediments often associated with classical architecture, it’s just a tad taller than the building that houses our nation’s legislature.”
But the State Capitol’s most impressive element—and why it made the list—is the striking sunset-red granite sourced from nearby Granite Mountain, close to the site of present-day Marble Falls in Burnet County. Its distinctive hue makes it among the most unique capitol buildings in the U.S.
Interested in Austin’s other iconic buildings? Check out this map.
The Chrysler Building in New York City
How do you choose one iconic building in one of the most architecturally significant cities in the country? You go with one of the most beloved structures in the city.
“If the Empire State Building is the best-known of New York City's skyscrapers, then the Chrysler Building is perhaps the city's loveliest tall tower. It was very briefly the tallest building in the world (the ESB took its crown when it opened), but the stunning Art Deco architecture is what sets it apart.
Designed by William Van Alen, the Chrysler is known for its elegant, terraced crown, with a sunburst pattern; its grand eagles, which stand sentry on the 61st floor; and the radiator caps on the 31st floor, an homage to the company whose name graces the building.”
See a more comprehensive list of iconic NYC architecture here.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston
“I.M. Pei designed the Columbia Point library and museum, which is a repository for all things JFK-related, including a permanent exhibit on his family. The complex opened in 1979 and was rededicated in 1993.
The starkly geometric design made Pei's reputation, and the building is probably the most famous in Boston south of Columbus Avenue.”
The Fisher Building in Detroit
“‘Detroit’s largest art object,’ built right before the Great Depression, continues to dazzle visitors. Albert Kahn designed the Art Deco masterpiece for the Fisher Brothers in what would be known as New Center, or a second downtown.
More than 40 different kinds of marble were used to build the Fisher Building, and the arcade is adorned with frescoes and mosaics designed by Geza R. Maroti. At night, its gold roof serves as a sort-of beacon in the skyline. We’re truly lucky to have such a work of art right in the middle of the city.”
For a tour of Detroit’s other iconic buildings, don’t miss this map.
Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles
“Once called ‘the most recognizable and beloved building in Los Angeles,’ this 80-year-old structure is named for Griffith J. Griffith, who gifted the land for his namesake park to the city.
Designed by John C. Austin and Frederick M. Ashley, the observatory has appeared in numerous films (from Rebel Without a Cause to Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle) and probably tens of millions of selfies.”
See 19 other amazing LA buildings, over here.
The Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco
“In true San Francisco fashion, the Transamerica Pyramid was reviled by many when it was completed in 1972 as the headquarters for the Transamerica Corporation (they no longer occupy it). The purpose of its tapered design is to let light onto the street below.
Back then, San Francisco Chronicle architectural critic Alan Temko called it ‘the biggest architectural dunce cap in the world.’ Now, it's one of the most beloved and recognizable buildings in the city.”
Curbed SF has mapped out 27 other awesome buildings, over here.
Independence Hall in Philadelphia
“No list of iconic Philadelphia buildings would be complete without Independence Hall, the very place where our country was founded in 1776. Master builder Edmund Woolley is considered responsible for the design of Independence Hall, which is a great example of Georgian architecture, while Andrew Hamilton oversaw the construction, which ran from 1732 to 1748.”
“Fun fact: The original designs did not include a steeple—this was added in 1750. Independence Hall (known then as the State House) served as the country’s capitol for 10 years before it moved to Washington.”
Check out 20 other iconic Philly buildings, right this way.
The James R. Thompson Center in Chicago
“Completed in 1985, Chicago’s James R. Thompson Center has been polarizing since its inception. The Helmut Jahn-designed building sports a dramatic glass atrium as a nod to turn-of-the-century civic spaces like Union Station.
Chicago’s most audacious postmodern building is also one of its most endangered. Deteriorating and facing a deferred maintenance bill of hundreds of millions of dollars, the state-owned Thompson Center has been targeted for redevelopment by Illinois lawmakers including Governor Bruce Rauner.”
Take a comprehensive look at all 27 of Chicago’s iconic buildings, right this way.
The Central Library in Seattle
The Space Needle might be the most well-known structure in Seattle, but the city’s best architecture goes well beyond a tourist attraction.
“Built in 2004, this is one of the newer buildings on the list—but the home of the downtown public library was an instant classic. Built out of concrete, steel, and glass, when you’re not seeing the sky through the soaring box of exterior windows, you feel like you’re walking through a spaceship.”
The Metro Center in Washington D.C.
In a city with the White House and the Washington Monument, it’s almost impossible to narrow down the most iconic buildings. We chose something that’s more under the radar, but no less important.
“As the central hub of the D.C. Metrorail system, it’s common for visitors to make a stop at this station, especially in search of the retailers nearby. The Metro Center boasts curving, Brutalist ceilings, which have even gotten the attention of the American Institute of Architects. This structure was designed by Chicago-based architect Harry Weese who later went on to oversee rail projects in Miami and Los Angeles.”
See 14 other iconic buildings in our nation’s capitol, right this way.
The Fontainebleau in Miami
Opening in 1954 and designed by Morris Lapidus, the massive resort has cracked many architecture lists over the years and appeared in countless films, including the likes of The Bellyboy starring Jerry Lewis and Goldfinger, a Bond classic.”
The St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans
There’s plenty of history in New Orleans, which is why we chose the St. Louis Cathedral as the most iconic building in the city. It’s not only one of the the oldest religious buildings in New Orleans, but also one of the most visited.
“The French built the original cathedral in 1718, adding on to it for nearly 70 years until it was destroyed in a fire in 1788. The current structure, designed by J. N. B. de Pouilly, dates back to 1850.”
See 23 other iconic Big Easy spots, over here.
The Montauk Lighthouse in the Hamptons
The Hamptons may be more famous for gorgeous seaside retreats than skyscrapers, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of important architecture.
“The Montauk Lighthouse, commissioned by President Washington, was the first public works project of the new United States. It was first lit in 1797 with eight whale-oil lamps. Today, erosion control of the site is still a concern.”
Here’s the full map of iconic Hamptons architecture.
The Flatiron Building in Atlanta
“Atlanta’s oldest standing skyscraper, this 11-story structure was completed in 1897. While officially known as the English-American Building, the structure is commonly referred to as the Flatiron Building, due to its distinctive wedge shape.
Recently renovated, the building predates New York City's more famous (and much taller) Flatiron Building by five years.”
See 19 other iconic Atlanta buildings, over here.