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10 Iconic Structures That Might Have Looked Radically Different

by Larry Jimenez
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

We instantly recognize famous landmarks—the Great Pyramids, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Golden Gate Bridge, and other architectural and engineering marvels. They are images that come with easy familiarity. But imagine an alternate reality where the names are attached to structures that are bafflingly strange and unrecognizable. Well, let’s take a tour of such an alternate reality and look at ten well-known landmarks and structures that could have turned out quite differently.

Related: 10 Amazing Ancient Buildings Still In Use Today

10 The White House

Thomas Jefferson, architect

Washington, D.C., was a city in its infancy when George Washington launched a competition for the design of the future mansion of the U.S. President in 1792. It drew in many proposals, from professional architects and amateurs alike, with styles ranging from pre-Revolutionary War Georgian to Neoclassical. Ultimately, it was Irish-born architect James Hoban’s design, based on the Leinster House in Dublin, that was chosen.

However, in our alternate universe, let us pretend that the entry chosen was the one conceived by none other than the future third president, Thomas Jefferson, who was a fan of classical European architecture. It might have been an unfortunate clerical error that credited the anonymously submitted design to one Abraham Faws.

Jefferson’s vision for the executive mansion included a columned porch and a dome, which is a prominent feature of classical architecture. Though Jefferson’s entry didn’t quite make it, he would go on to add his own touches to the White House once he moved in: colonnades, a carriage path, and a stable.[1]

9 The Arc de Triomphe

In our alternate universe, Paris might probably be renowned for a gargantuan elephant. And it would have been called L’elephant Triomphal.

The present monument, a landmark on the Parisian landscape, was inspired by the Arch of Titus in Rome and was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte after his great victory in Austerlitz in 1805. However, 45 years earlier, an architect named Charles Ribart proposed a wackier monument on the same site on the Champs Elysees.

Ribart designed a giant elephant, hollow inside with chambers that could be accessed by a spiral staircase ascending from the entrance. The ornate, three-story beast would be large enough to hold banquets and balls. Outside, there would be a garden watered via a drainage system hidden in the elephant’s trunk.

French officials were not impressed nor amused, however, and rejected Ribart’s insane design.[2]

8 Chicago Tribune Tower

History Summarized: Chicago’s Tribune Tower

The ambitious and powerful newspaper magnate Robert McCormick wanted “the most beautiful office building in the world” to be the headquarters of his influential Chicago Tribune. To this end, he started a design competition in 1923 that would fulfill his dream. In response, 260 architects from 23 countries flooded the jury with a vast range of choices.

The winning entry, by John Howells and Raymond Hood, resulted in the Gothic skyscraper that now stands on Michigan Avenue. While the building has since earned the praise of critics, in the beginning, it was scorned by no less than the godfather of Chicago architecture himself, Louis Sullivan, who said it “evolved from dying ideas.”

In fact, many preferred the second-place design of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen over the winner. A late entry, Saarinen’s concept of a modern, minimalist tapering tower tipped the jury into a frenzy of indecision. Though it ultimately narrowly lost out to Howells and Hood, it was hailed as the herald of a new era in American architecture, one that boldly freed itself from the past. Today, buildings like Cleveland’s Key Tower and Charlotte’s Bank of America Corporate Center use elements of what might have been the Tribune Tower.[3]

7 Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House: Building an Icon

If there is anything that defines Sydney, it has to be the concrete shells of the Sydney Opera House, standing like billowing sails over Sydney Harbor. Jorn Utzon’s masterpiece was chosen out of the 200-plus entries in the competition for the building’s design. But had the second-place entry been selected, Sydney might have had a landmark that was a cross between a submarine and a seashell.

The design was conceived by seven architects called the Philadelphia Collaborative Group. Like Utzon, they took inspiration from the nearby sea to create a nautilus-like spiral structure that was praised for being “robust” and “well-suited” to the seaside location. The brutalist design also featured full-height windows and a roof of folded concrete sheathed in copper. The latest techniques in concrete technology would have been used to turn the concept into reality.[4]

6 Statue of Liberty

The Story of the Statue of Liberty – The Most Famous Statue in the World – Beyond the 7 Wonders

Had Frederic Bartholdi’s original plan carried through, the Statue of Liberty would have been a veiled Muslim woman guarding the Suez Canal rather than the Roman goddess Libertas watching over New York Harbor.

Recent research has uncovered the sculptor’s original vision for the statue, an Egyptian peasant woman (fellaha) holding a torch aloft to represent Egypt’s social and industrial progress marked by the opening of the canal. It would be 86 feet (26 meters) tall on a pedestal that was 48 feet (14.5 meters) high. “Egypt Bringing Light to Asia” would also function as a lighthouse.

Egyptian officials, still reeling from the expenses incurred by the canal, didn’t warm up to Bartholdi’s idea. The rest is history: Bartholdi exchanged the Egyptian fellaha for a European woman and sent her to New York City, where she stands to this day—”Liberty Enlightening the World.”[5]

5 Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower: Europe’s Greatest Landmark

Quick myth-busting fact: Gustav Eiffel did not design the Eiffel Tower. Rather, he headed a construction company specializing in steel structures, which employed two brilliant engineers: Emile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin. It was Koechlin who drew up the initial plans for the curving tower that would grace the Paris Exposition of 1889 and, together with Nouguier, presented the draft to Eiffel for approval. The company’s architect, Stephen Sauvestre, further refined the plans, adding decorative touches of his own—glass rooms, arches, and stone pedestals.

One of Sauvestre’s additions, conceived when the structure was already up and proving to be a big draw, was two smaller towers on both sides of the main structure, making a segmented triad rather than the single, sweeping tower we are familiar with. The added infrastructure was meant to facilitate the movement of visitors up, down, and around the tower in response to the long queues of people waiting to ascend.

Whether these additions would have enhanced the beauty of the Eiffel Tower or made it a steel monstrosity is an open question. What do you think?[6]

4 Lincoln Memorial

Why the Lincoln Memorial was almost never built

A pyramid in Washington, D.C.? The Washington Monument was modeled after an Egyptian obelisk, so why not? Ancient Egypt would have been amply represented in the nation’s capital had John Russel Pope’s design for the proposed Lincoln Memorial been accepted in 1912. Aside from an Egyptian-style pyramid, Pope also submitted a ziggurat based on Mesopotamian antecedents

Pope, the leading American neoclassical architect, was eager to be awarded the task of designing the memorial to the 16th President. However, the Lincoln Memorial Commission was advised by the Commission of Fine Arts to choose architect Henry Bacon instead. Pope was backed by a member of the Memorial Commission, Joseph Cannon. Thus both men submitted their designs, and eventually, Bacon’s Greco-Roman edifice carried the jury.

Though Pope’s designs were consigned to the archives, they nevertheless still stir the interest and imagination of those who ponder what might have been.[7]

3 Washington Monument

Building the Washington Monument

Plans to commemorate the first president began as far back as Washington’s lifetime, but it was not until 1836 that the Washington Monument Society awarded architect Robert Mills the honor of designing the memorial. Mills’s vision featured not only the now-iconic obelisk but also a colonnade and equestrian statue.

Unfortunately, construction was stopped in 1856 when anti-Catholics protested against the use of stone donated by Pope Pius IX. The unfinished monument sat idle for twenty years when Congress approved funds to resume work. But Mill’s original design was drastically pruned, eliminating the statue and the rotunda around the base altogether. Only the central obelisk remained intact.

Thus, what we see now must look bare and naked had Mills been alive to see it.[8]

2 Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge could have looked very different

Tower Bridge is the quintessential symbol of London, even being mistakenly called London Bridge by some ( the real London Bridge is, in fact, upstream of it). It was Sir Horace Jones’s answer to the challenge of spanning the Thames for foot and vehicular traffic without disrupting boats navigating the river. The double-leaf drawbridge completed in 1894 has since attracted millions of visitors the world over with its unique Victorian Gothic towers.

But a simple drawbridge was not the only solution offered. One intriguing and futuristic design was submitted by F.J. Palmer. The plan called for the roadway at both ends of the bridge to loop. While one side of the loop slides open to let a passing boat through, the other side stays closed to accommodate wheeled transport. Once the boat has entered the loop, the road behind it is closed, and the one in front of the ship opens to let it out. It was all pretty complicated but allowed both road and river traffic to move uninterrupted.

No one was sure if the plan would work, though, and it was ultimately abandoned.[9]

1 Reichstag

Berlin, Germany: History of the Reichstag – Rick Steves’ Europe Travel Guide – Travel Bite

When Germany was unified and the Second Reich was proclaimed in 1871, a sudden flood of new lawmakers necessitated a larger building to hold the assembly. A design competition for a new Reichstag was announced in November of that year, and one of the entrants was British architect Sir Gilbert Scott. Though Scott would eventually miss out on the first prize, his submission was highly regarded by the German jury and was awarded second place.

Dominating Scott’s hybrid Gothic creation was a central dome or cupola 75 feet (23 meters) in diameter, with similar construction to the dome of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. Wings extending in four directions radiated from the dome. Obviously, Scott had a fondness for domes and insisted that the Reichstag should have one regardless of architectural style to lend it proper dignity.

Despite not winning, Scott had beaten most of the resident German architects and was justifiably proud of his achievement.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen