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the architourist

The Bauhaus studio building in Walter Gropius’ complex in Dessau, Germany.Thomas Meyer /Thomas Meyer

Recently, while touring a space belonging to an architect who also owns a large poster collection, I was reminded of a trip I took to Philadelphia in 2008. The poster, you see, advertised a gallery show celebrating the Swiss-American architect William Lescaze (1896 – 1969), who is credited with designing the first International Style skyscraper in the United States. The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building, which was completed in 1932 is a 36-storey beauty. It is home to the Loews Philadelphia Hotel, and the $100-million restoration – including the custom Cartier clocks on every floor – meant that staying there was one of the architectural highlights of my trip.

Which got me to thinking: While I have as much “stuff” as the next person (perhaps more), the past 20 months have shifted my focus onto what I’ve missed most, and it’s not stuff. It’s experiences.

For the architecturally inclined, the experience of staying in, or taking a tour of, a new and significant space is priceless. So, I’d like to present you with a small sampling of experiences you may want to place under the tree this year.

  • The Eppstein house in Galesburg, Michigan.Emilene Leone/Emilene Leone

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Let’s start with the master, and a place I was fortunate enough to experience for two nights in 2005. Still available for the crazy-low price of US$300 a night (Monday to Thursday), Frank Lloyd Wright’s Louis Penfield House is a 1955 Usonian house built for a 6-foot-8-inch high-school art teacher, so it sports 16 tall ribbon-windows in the unusually high-ceilinged living room. Guests of the three-bedroom house just outside of Cleveland are encouraged to use the fireplace, and the pots and pans to cook their own meals. See www.penfieldhouse.com.

There are other Wright homes available to rent. The Eppstein house in Galesburg, Mich., also features tall living room windows under an upswept roof, classic concrete block walls, oxblood-stained concrete floor and mahogany woodwork. Also in Michigan, the Palmer house in Ann Arbor is a striking combination of brick and unique glass block outside, and, inside, an original kitchen and Frank Llloyd Wright-designed built-in furniture (both are featured on Airbnb or Vrbo).

If a hotel is of interest, Wright’s only skyscraper – ironically situated in the very unskyscraper-like Bartlesville, Okla., – now features a hotel, with rates usually between C$150 and $200 a night.

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For those craving a more utilitarian experience, let’s switch to Europe. Modernists who’d like to live as Josef Albers or Marcel Breuer did in the 1920s can book a few nights at the Bauhaus studio building in Walter Gropius’s complex in Dessau, Germany. But be warned, the website states: “Washbasin (no hairdryer); Breakfast not included; No television or minibar; No lift.” And, lastly, “sanitary facilities include shower and WC on each floor, maintained in the style of the Bauhaus era.” Then again, at only 50 euros a night, there will be plenty of money left to drink fine German beer, brood, and ponder Ornament and Crime, “less is more” or “God is in the details.” Google “sleeping at the Bauhaus” and the link should come up.

Of course there are simple house tours as well, and a true architourist will alter his or her travel plans to witness something spectacular. Like the time my wife and I drove almost six hours west from Wildwood, N.J., (a delightful place with one of the highest concentrations of 1950s and 60s motels in the world) in order to tour Mr. Wright’s famous Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa., before heading home to Toronto.

The Eppstein house in Galesburg, Mich., features tall living room windows under an upswept roof.Emilene Leone /Emilene Leone

If one ever finds oneself in Indianapolis, Dayton, Cincinnati, or Louisville, a very worthwhile detour is Columbus, Ind., for a tour of the 6,800-square-foot house that Eero Saarinen designed for industrialist Joseph Irwin Miller, with interiors by Alexander Girard. In 2014, I wrote that the 1957 home “was, and still is, one of the most breathtaking examples of residential Modernism yet created.” There are other Saarinen buildings in Columbus; visit http://columbus.in.us for more information.

And, if ever in the Stamford, Conn., area, one would be remiss if they didn’t book a tour of Philip Johnson’s legendary Glass House (theglasshouse.org).

Other landmark modernist houses I have yet to visit, but are at the top of my wish list? Because I’m obsessed with plastic laminates such as Formica and Arborite, I have always wanted to visit Ralph Wilson Sr.’s long, low, 1959 ranch-style home in Temple, Tex. The founder of Wilsonart, Mr. Wilson used the private home not only as his family’s residence, but also as a living lab to test his laminates. In his coral, turquoise and lemon-yellow kitchen, an early example of a post-forming can be seen on the countertops. In the living room, not only are walls covered in laminate, the material is used for decoration as well. Now a National Historic Site, information can be found at the Wilsonart website.

The next time I’m in Los Angeles, I hope to visit three places: Richard Neutra’s VDL Studio and Residences, which was built in 1932, added to in 1940, then rebuilt with his son and partner Dion in 1963; the home featured in Julius Shulman’s most iconic 1960 photograph depicting California life, the Stahl house (Case Study House 22 by Pierre Koenig); and, lastly, the Charles and Ray Eames House in Pacific Palisades.

Houses, more than any other type of architecture, reveal who we are and what we value. So give someone the gift of leaving theirs to learn about others. And, when they return, their own abode will seem that much sweeter.

Ralph Wilson Sr.'s 1959 ranch-style home in Temple, Tex., has a coral, turquoise and lemon-yellow kitchen.Wilsonart

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