I grew up in a small town in southern Illinois. With a population of only 1,800 residents, everyone seemed to know everyone else. There existed a local pride and few people journeyed beyond the constellation of neighboring small towns and villages scattered throughout the rural county.
With this sense of the outside world living beyond the sphere of daily consciousness, I found myself fascinated by the existence of the Stinson Memorial Library in neighboring Anna, Illinois. While Anna was the largest town in the county, with 5,000 inhabitants, it still seemed a mystery how it would come to possess such an unusual work of architecture.
The library was designed by Walter Burley Griffin in 1913, before his departure to Australia to realize his competition-winning layout of their new capital, Canberra. Prior to setting up his own firm in 1906, he had been a major figure within the Chicago office of Frank Lloyd Wright, overseeing many of the prominent buildings built during his stay.
Seventy years later, this lone gem would catch my attention. I was intrigued by its form, its raw use of material, its filtration of natural light – but more than anything, I was captivated by its otherness. This was a building that obviously did not come from within this small town. It matched nothing around it. It whispered of a world beyond, where people thought differently and strange things were possible.
Another such structure exists in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, 35 miles outside of Pittsburg. With a population of over 14,000, Greensburg may appear to be a metropolis compared with Anna, but it is a prototypical American small town. Yet, hidden amongst its vernacular architecture, sits the Tribune Review Building. This office and printing plant for the local newspaper was designed in 1958 by Louis Kahn for a relative of a staff member.
One of the greatest American architects, Louis Kahn did not gain any real fame until late in his life with his first major building being designed in his 50s. None the less, he impacted the face of modern American architecture before dying unceremoniously in a toilet stall at Penn Station traveling back from a job site.
This tucked away building contains the same design rigor and attention to detailing as his masterpieces. The expression of structure and skin, the control of light, the formal geometry – it’s all there. Yet with all that, it’s no artifact. It’s a workhorse, doing the job it was meant to do without adoration.
There are buildings like these scattered throughout the countryside, hidden away in small towns and far from major thoroughfares. While they are sometimes treasured by local residents, more often than not they are ignored or looked down upon as odd or outdated. Let me tell you, they are truly hidden gems waiting to be sought out. Their value is priceless.