As the dog days of summer fade, students around the country return to university campuses in the annual back-to-school rush. To pay tribute to the beginning of the academic year, we’re turning our lens on university architecture.
And for architecture lovers everywhere, universities and colleges can be top-notch tourist destinations, home to stellar collections of buildings by well-known architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. They can also provide a perfect backdrop for a picnic, whether you’re on the south coast of California or traipsing through New England.
In fact, there are so many beautiful universities that we’ve no doubt left deserving candidates off this list, and have instead prioritized unique spots that go beyond institutions like Stanford, Harvard, and Yale.
Instead, we’ve highlighted lesser-known campuses with architecture that represents the very best of a particular style, along with campuses that have a singular, don’t-miss building that rises above the rest.
Behold, our 17 picks for the most architecturally stunning college campus across the U.S.
The flagship campus of IU’s eight locations, Indiana University Bloomington boasts the largest concentration of Indiana limestone buildings in the world. Quarried in south central Indiana, this type of limestone was such a popular choice for university and government buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that it became known as the “nation’s building stone.”
While on campus, stroll through the Old Crescent—the historic buildings in the southwest corner—and don’t miss walking through the Sample Gates and checking out buildings like Maxwell Hall, the Rose Well House, and Indiana Memorial Union.
Founded and designed by Thomas Jefferson—the third president of the United States—the University of Virginia embodies the classical style known as (surprise, surprise) Jeffersonian Architecture. Heavily influenced by the Italian Revivalist architect Andrea Palladio, Jefferson’s campus buildings used classical moldings, symmetrical wings, and plenty of portico entryways.
The iconic Rotunda (which opened in 1826) is a perfect example: Red brick, white pillars, and plenty of Romanesque symmetry create a majestic structure. View the Rotunda and the other buildings in Jefferson’s “Academical Village” on daily campus tours that are available free of charge during the academic year.
This small Methodist college may not have the name recognition of others in the United States, but it’s a don’t-miss spot for architecture lovers thanks to the largest single-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the world.
Start at the Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center—a visitors center housed in a Wright-designed Usonian original—and then head out for a tour of 10 different buildings. Wright worked with Florida Southern College from the late 1930s onward to build a “college of tomorrow” that used organic architecture to unite college buildings with their environment. Work continued for decades, and even after Wright’s death in 1959, his protege Nils Schweizer continued to design buildings for the college.
Don’t miss the Thad Buckner Building and the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, widely considered to be the most notable building Wright designed for the campus.
Located in southwestern Tennessee, Sewanee probably isn’t on the radar of most people living in big cities. But the over-the-top neo-Gothic buildings make this university worth the detour.
Check out the All Saints’ Chapel, designed by American architect Ralph Adams Cram. Originally begun in 1905 but not finished until 1959 due to financial troubles, the church looks a bit like Notre Dame in Paris: Towers are built by stone, rose windows sparkle in the light, and pointed archways are everywhere.
If white buildings and terra-cotta roofs fit your style, than a visit to the University of San Diego should be on your list of must-dos. Matching Spanish Renaissance-style buildings make this picturesque, sunny campus stand out from the towering gray Gothic campuses back east.
The highlight of campus architecture is the blue-domed Immaculata Church, which was consecrated in 1959. And while the buildings are not as historic as those at some other schools, the university’s location on a prominent hilltop provides visit-worthy views of the Pacific Ocean Mission Bay, San Diego Bay, and the surrounding mountains.
Located in the University Heights neighborhood of the Bronx, this community college is often referred to as a hidden gem of architecture in New York City. The campus is a blend of two different styles: classical revival buildings designed by Stanford White in the late 19th century and Brutalist concrete buildings designed by Marcel Breuer.
Check out the White-designed Gould Memorial Library, where you’ll find Beaux Arts brick exteriors and copper domes that merit its status as a National Historic Landmark. Then tour the five Breuer buildings on campus, like Begrisch Hall, a trapezoidal concrete structure that holds two utilitarian lecture halls.
It’s hard not to include IIT in Chicago, Illinois, when the founder and former head of the school’s architecture program was Mies van der Rohe. The iconic architect helped plan much of the campus, a project that he developed over 20 years. In total, the campus contains 20 of his works—forming the greatest concentration of Mies-designed buildings in the world—including Crown Hall, a temple to steel and glass.
Crown Hall remains the most admired building on campus; it is also a National Historic Landmark. The 1955 building doesn’t have any internal columns, instead opting for an open plan created by a suspended roof formed from four steel girders and eight external columns.
Although the University of Colorado Boulder used to have a somewhat cliche collegiate Gothic style, Philadelphia-born architect Charles Klauder transformed the campus with designs now called Tuscan Vernacular Revival. The university is known for its red-hued sandstone, limestone accents, and roofs of red tiles that can be seen from the mountaintops of the nearby Flatirons.
To see one of the university’s original structures, head to the historic Old Main. Designed by Erastus H. Dimick and completed in 1876, Old Main originally housed the university president, a library, and classrooms. The rest of the campus has grown around it.
Not many campuses boast a Frank Gehry original, but Bard College made a name for itself with the Gehry-designed Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. Also listed on our roundup of the 12 most spectacular theaters in the United States, the building comprises 107,000 square feet and is made of fir veneer, concrete, stainless steel shingles that cover the roof, and over 1,000 tons of conventional and curved steel.
The building’s most striking feature is its front facade. According to Gehry, the design represents “a theatrical mask that covers the raw face of the performance space” and prepares the visitor for the performances that occur within.
The Gehry building is without a doubt the most important structure at Bard, but a stroll around the college’s Hudson River-adjacent campus is also worth a stop.
While some no doubt prefer the picturesque buildings of nearby Harvard, we love the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for the best modern architecture in Boston. Check out the MIT Chapel, a nondenominational church designed by Eero Saarinen in 1955 with a striking skylight over a white marble altar, or Saarinen’s leaf-shaped Kresge Auditorium (also one of our favorite theaters).
If Flagler College looks more like a boutique resort than a college, that’s because it used to be the regal Hotel Ponce de Leon. Designed by John Carrère and Thomas Hastings—architects who later worked on the New York Public Library and the House and Senate Office Buildings in Washington, D.C.—the original hotel was built by railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler in 1888 in the Spanish Renaissance style.
Now listed as a National Historic Landmark, the Ponce was one of the nation’s first electrified buildings when it opened. It became a small liberal arts college in 1968.
Daily tours of Flagler College take visitors throughout the campus to explore the manicured courtyards, domed lobby, and a dining room with 79 Louis Comfort Tiffany stained-glass windows.
Readers might cry foul when they see two universities from San Diego on this list, and that’s fair. But as much as we love the Spanish style of the University of San Diego’s campus, we can’t neglect the stunning, Brutalist Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego.
One of the most beautiful libraries in the U.S., the Geisel Library was designed in the late 1960s by William Pereira as an eight-story concrete structure. It sits at the head of a canyon near the center of the campus, and the lower two stories form a pedestal for the six-story, stepped tower.
It is named in honor of Audrey and Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. The building houses 7 million volumes, including the Dr. Seuss Collection—an extensive portfolio of original drawings, sketches, proofs, notebooks, manuscript drafts, books, photos, and memorabilia.
Head over here for more info on campus walking and bus tours.
Originally located in Marion Square in downtown Charleston, the Citadel’s first structure was built in 1829 with two stories, an interior courtyard, Doric columns, and Roman arches. The building served as an arsenal until it was converted into a military academy in 1842.
The school outgrew the Old Citadel and moved onto a new campus in 1918 that is adjacent to the Ashley River. The Citadel’s new barracks and college buildings maintained the Romanesque style of architecture from the previous location, incorporating a white exterior and plenty of arches and red-and-white checkered courtyards.
The college is open year round for tours. Pro tip: go on a Friday to see the military parade.
If neo-Gothic architecture is your style of choice, head to Duke University’s West Campus in Durham, North Carolina. Towering buildings like the Duke Chapel make you feel small in comparison, especially given the pointed arches, oversized stones, and pointy spires. The chapel—and much of the campus—was designed by well-known African-American architect Julian Francis Abele and boasts a 201-foot-high tower, a 50-bell carillon, and 77 stained-glass windows.
Elsewhere on campus, don’t miss the five-mile walking path at the Duke Gardens, where you’ll also see picnic-perfect laws and an arboretum.
Oberlin College’s architecture may only be outdone by its reputation for music: It has the oldest continuously operating conservatory in the United States. Four white interconnected buildings house the music program; three of those buildings were designed in 1963 by Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki, better known for his design of the World Trade Center in New York City.
Loosely inspired by Gothic architecture, Yamasaki’s more modern take includes narrow windows and limited vistas that draw the eyes skyward. He also incorporated a Japanese-style garden that serves as a meditation spot for students at the Ohio college.
While many of the universities on this list made the cut thanks to their historic architecture, the University of Chicago’s newest library earned its spot on this list. Designed by Helmut Jahn, the Mansueto Library is a sparkling shrine to all things technology, with robots that help store and retrieve books and an underground storage system that holds 3.5 million volumes.
The building also just looks plain cool, with a glass-domed reading room and a walking bridge that mimics a futuristic space tube. Other campus highlights include the Brutalist Regenstein Library—designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—and the School of Social Service Administration, designed by Mies van der Rohe.
There’s something for everyone at the University of Pennsylvania, from midcentury modern buildings like the Louis Kahn-designed Richards Medical Research Laboratories to massive older structures like the Quadrangle.
Don’t miss the Fisher Fine Arts Library. Designed by American architect Frank Furness in 1888, the library at the University of Pennsylvania rejected the popular marble or granite designs of the late 19th century in favor of fiery red brick. The building contains a mix of towers, chimneys, and sky-lighted rooms that mimic the factories of downtown Philadelphia.