10 Architectural Marvels to Marvel at in Virginia 

By Aila Boyd

January 23, 2023

Virginia, like most states, has its fair share of architecturally interesting structures. Some of the commonwealth’s more unique structures are breathtaking, while others are simply odd looking.

To find out what architectural marvels are near you, check out these 10 structures. 

Marine Observation Tower

Location: Norfolk

The Marine Observation Tower, which is also called the Taiwanese Pagoda, is a two-story structure that embodies Chinese architecture and ornamentation. The octagonal structure is located on the concrete foundation of an old molasses tank on the waterfront of the Freemason Harbor, surrounded by an oriental garden.

A 1989 gift from Taiwan to the commonwealth and Norfolk, the pagoda represents the links they have due to trading ties.

According to Friends of the Pagoda & Oriental Garden Foundation, materials used for the tower “were manufactured in Taiwan and shipped to Norfolk where the Pagoda was meticulously assembled by artisans from Taiwan.” 

Memorial Amphitheater

10 Architectural Marvels to Marvel at in Virginia
Karen Durham Aguilera executive director Office of Army Cemeteries and Army National Military Cemeteries speaks during the 69th National Veterans Day Observance in the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery Arlington Virginia Nov 11 2022 US Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser Arlington National Cemetery released

Location: Arlington 

The more than a century old Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery is perhaps best known for its Memorial Day ceremonies. 

A unique design aspect of the amphitheater is the colonnade—the sequence of columns—that is primarily made from Danby marble from Vermont. It was designed by well-known architect Thomas Hastings, who also designed the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in New York.

The interior includes the Memorial Chapel and Memorial Display Room, which houses exhibits on the cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 

There are a number of inscriptions on the structure, including a list of battles fought by the military, the names of Army and Navy officers and quotes from George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Horace. 

Markel Building 

Location: Richmond

The Markel Building is a Neo-Expressionist structure that the Virginia Department of Historic Resources describes as “one of the most unusual office buildings in Virginia.” 

Completed in 1966, the building was designed by Haigh Jamgochian for the two brothers who ran the Markel Insurance Corporation. The building is one of only two Jamgochian designs that were ever built. 

The structure, which is covered in sheets of crimpled aluminum, “rises three cantilevered stories above an open ground-level oval parking deck.” 

Bacon’s Castle

10 Architectural Marvels to Marvel at in Virginia
Courtesy of Preservation Virginia

Location: Surry County

Bacon’s Castle is the oldest brick dwelling in North America, having been built in 1665. The example of High Jacobean architecture received its name after “several of Nathaniel Bacon’s men occupied the home for four months during the uprising that became known as Bacon’s Rebellion.”

In addition to the castle, the grounds include a reconstructed 17th century English formal garden and several outbuildings. 

If you plan to visit the castle, you can go on one of the three tours—self-guided cellphone tour, guided exterior walking tour and guided interior tour— that are offered.

J. Sidna Allen House

10 Architectural Marvels to Marvel at in Virginia
Courtesy of Carroll County Historical Society and Museum

Location: Fancy Gap

If you’re looking for an example of Queen Anne style architecture, look no further than the J. Sidna Allen House. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources refers to the house as a “capricious, if provincial” expression of the style. 

Despite its architectural charm, the house is better known for its most famous resident—Sidna Allen. He is known for his involvement in the so-called “Hillsville Massacre” of 1912, in which he and his relatives shot up the Carroll County Courthouse, killing five people. 

Following Allen’s conviction, the house which he designed and help build, was confiscated by the state. 

Today, the house is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Brock Environmental Center

Location: Virginia Beach

The Brock Environmental Center is an “innovative example of environmentally sensitive and smart building.” 

The structure—dubbed “one of the world’s greenest buildings”— is one of the first in the nation to embrace energy and water independence. Additionally, it was designed with climate change in mind, clocking in at 14 feet above sea level. 

Part of The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the center is used to inform the public about the environment and boost engagement in efforts to conserve the bay.

Blackfriars Playhouse 

10 Architectural Marvels to Marvel at in Virginia
Courtesy of Lauren Rogers Parker

Location: Staunton

Shakespeare lovers will surely want to make a pilgrimage to the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse. 

Although built in 2001 for $3.7 million, the structure was designed with the original Blackfriars Theatre that Shakespeare’s company performed at in the early 17th century in mind, specifically its overall size, orientation, internal organization, scale, materials and textures. 

It was designed by the late Richmond architect Tom McLaughlin with input from officials from Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Light of Truth Universal Shrine

10 Architectural Marvels to Marvel at in Virginia
Courtesy of Satchidananda AshramYogaville Inc

Location: Buckingham County

The Light of Truth Universal Shrine is the brainchild of its founder, Sri Swami Satchidananda. 

Over the course of four years in the 1980s, the striking shrine—designed to look like a lotus petal—was constructed in rural Central Virginia. 

The shrine was built to utilize “the universal symbol of light as a symbol of the Divine.” It includes alters for every major faith, in addition to less well-known faiths.

Notable design features include the use of 1.6 million mosaic tiles, the grand archway and the copper and gold-plated spire that sits atop the nickel-plated copper cupola that is embossed with gold plated garlands, both of which are from India. 

A 170-foot-long reflecting pond stretches out from in front of the shrine. 

A virtual tour of the shrine can be taken online. 

Taubman Museum of Art

10 Architectural Marvels to Marvel at in Virginia
Courtesy of Aila Boyd

Location: Roanoke

The Taubman Museum of Art building stands out from Roanoke’s cityscape due to its futuristic design. Dreamed up by the late architect Randall Stout, the structure was designed to “honor naturalistic elements of the Roanoke region.” 

Stout purposefully made architectural decisions and selected materials that reflect the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. An example of a design decision is the 77-foot glass peak in the atrium, which “recalls the point of the Roanoke Star.”

Egyptian Building

10 Architectural Marvels to Marvel at in Virginia
High Angle Shots of the Egyptian Building and Kontos Medical Sciences Building from the Roof of the Goodwin Building<br>Courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University

Location: Richmond

To get a glimpse at Egyptian architecture you don’t have to travel across the Atlantic because Virginia Commonwealth University’s Egyptian Building is located in Richmond.

In fact, according to the university, it is “considered one of the nation’s best examples of the Egyptian Revival style.” 

The circa 1846 building now houses the offices of the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 

  • Aila Boyd

    Aila Boyd is a Virginia-based educator and journalist. She received her MFA in writing from Lindenwood University.

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