The Most Impressive Buildings in California

The Wayfarers Chapel
The Wayfarers Chapel | © Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress
Gwen Purdom

William Pereira’s sharp spire, Julia Morgan’s attention to grand detail, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s dramatic archways. California’s list of architectural achievements is long and diverse. And while many structures have played important parts in the Golden State’s built history, a handful stick out for the sheer awe they inspire.

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Hearst Castle

Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst called his sprawling San Simeon, California estate “La Cuesta Encantada,” or “Enchanted Hill.” The elaborate mansion he commissioned architect Julia Morgan to design, encompassed 165 rooms, as well as walkways, pools, and terraces by 1947 when Hearst had to leave the property for health reasons. Highlights of the unfinished but epic grounds of Hearst Castle include the Gothic library, lush gardens, a no longer functional private zoo, and Hearst’s storied art collection.

Transamerica Pyramid

Architect William Pereira completed San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid building in 1972 as the headquarters for the Transamerica Corporation. When plans for the building were unveiled in 1968, the public wasn’t feeling it. Critics claimed it didn’t fit with the skyline. Today, the 48-floor geometric tower—which is no longer home to the Transamerica Corporation—is a beloved centerpiece to the cityscape. The top of the tower isn’t open to the public, but the building’s Visitor Center features a livefeed of the view, plus other history, photographs, and information about the pyramid.

The Getty Center

The curving exteriors of Los Angeles’ Getty Center are an artistic precursor to the expansive collection inside. Designed by architect Richard Meier, the building is home to a permanent treasure trove of art that spans from European paintings and illuminated manuscripts to contemporary sculpture and photography, plus regular rotating exhibitions. It’s also a place to take in the Central Garden and its more than 500 varieties of plants, one-of-a-kind views of Los Angeles, and the 1.2 million square feet of travertine stone that makes up the center.

Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá

California’s first Mission Church was established way back in 1769, and though the simple white building that now stands on the San Diego grounds was actually rebuilt in 1931 according to historical research of an earlier structure, the church and its setting have a deeply-rooted history—it’s even been called the Plymouth Rock of the West Coast. The Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá gets its name from Spanish explorers who traveled to what would become California in the late 18th century. Today, the Mission serves as an active Catholic parish.

Wayfarers Chapel

The Wayfarers Chapel

Tucked into a cove of redwoods, the stone and glass chapel Frank Lloyd Wright’s son Lloyd Wright built on a bluff in Palos Verdes, California is a popular destination for weddings. The Wayfarers Chapel is an example of organic architecture that aims to include nature in its essence and sees its spaces as sacred. The younger Wright designed the place of worship for the members of the Swedenborgian Church and it was officially dedicated in 1951. The chapel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Marin County Civic Center

The national and state-designated historical landmark, Marin County Civic Center, sits across three separate hills in San Rafael, California. Designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the massive building is lined with circular cut-outs and exterior balconies, dotted with gold spheres along its rooflines, and includes a substantial pre-cast concrete barrel-arched roof. The site is still the seat of Marin County civic affairs. Wright, unfortunately, didn’t live to see the project completed in the 1960s. “We know that the good building is not the one that hurts the landscape, but is one that makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before that building was built. In Marin County you have one of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen, and I am proud to make the buildings of this County characteristic of the beauty of the County,” Wright said while working on the building.

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