Do you dream of living in an over-the-top Victorian? Or picture yourself poolside at a midcentury modern? Here’s where to start hunting.
Let others obsess about massive square footage and the latest upgrades. For some, a home that’s frozen in time is everything, and there’s one particular era whose architecture got everything just right. Whether you’ve always seen yourself in a Revolutionary War–era Federal townhouse, a Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired Prairie School home, or a Spanish Revival—fountain and all—we’ve found old homes for sale in places where history and development aligned to deliver the style of house you’ve set your heart on.
To this day, residents of the brick row houses in the chi-chi neighborhood of Beacon Hill teeter their way over cobblestones on the way to nearby Boston Common (of Make Way for Ducklings fame). Before the American Revolution, this hill was pastureland, part of it the estate of none other than John Hancock. But by the 1790s, the gold-domed statehouse was being constructed here, and architects working in the Federalist style, the Americanized adaptation of the British Georgian style, were called in to build homes on the south slope of the hill for some of Boston’s richest families. The hill’s north slope developed later, built up in an organic fashion by a bohemian lot of poets, sailors, and former slaves.
Nearly 250 years later, the neighborhood in the heart of Boston is still defined by its symmetrical brick facades with cornices and shuttered windows. If you squint past the upscale boutiques and parking skirmishes, you can imagine yourself wandering the streets and talking politics with Paul Revere.
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This seaside resort at the very southern tip of the Jersey shore is known for its five wide beaches, Americana charm, and Victorian architecture. Its grand dames include the beautifully restored Emlen Physick Estate and the Inn Cape May, perched like a giant wedding cake on the edge of the Atlantic. Cape May—the oldest beach resort in the country—was once filled with colonial-style buildings, but after a huge fire in 1878 destroyed more than 30 blocks, the community rushed to rebuild. It filled quickly with the Queen Annes and gingerbread trim so popular at the time.
This treasure trove of Victorian architecture re-set the look of the town but faced its own threat when 20th-century developers sought to bulldoze the Victorians in favor of more modern styles. The debate was ended in 1976, when the entire town was declared a National Historic Landmark, preserving the Victorian heritage for the foreseeable future.
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Oak Park, just west of Chicago’s city limits, is known as “the largest village in the world.” It also happens to be the place where Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife settled in 1889, making it the birthplace of the Prairie School architectural style. Prairie design is known as a reaction against the frills of the Victorian era and styles adapted from Europe. It’s recognizable for its horizontal lines and lack of ornamentation.
In addition to his own home and studio, Wright designed more than 22 buildings in Oak Park, including the Unity Temple and many private homes. Other Prairie school architects of the era—most notably George W. Maher, John Van Bergen, and E.E. Roberts—also designed homes in Oak Park during its building boom in the early 20th century, when it was transitioning from a rural area into a bustling Chicago suburb. The result is a town that’s a destination for architecture buffs from around the world.
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There are great examples of Spanish Revival (also called Spanish Colonial Revival and Mission Revival) architecture throughout Florida. (It did, after all, once belong to Spain.) Jacksonville’s historic neighborhoods of Riverside and Avondale are especially rich in the style—from bungalows to stately mansions. The look of the area is due to the great fire of 1901, which destroyed much of downtown. The rebuilding that happened over the following 20 years coincided with the peak of Spanish Revival’s popularity, which meant that many homes were built with the style’s characteristic asymmetrical facades, stucco walls, tile roofs, and wrought-iron details.
In the mid-20th century, the adjoining neighborhoods were threatened by suburban flight and the demolition of their historic homes, but they have experienced a revival since becoming National Register districts in the 1980s. Together, Riverside and Avondale now form Jacksonville’s hippest area, known for their walkable streets, local eateries, boutiques, and bohemian vibe.
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The California desert town of Palm Springs, two hours east of Los Angeles, brings to mind the groovy Brat Pack swingers of the 1950s. And for good reason: Although Palm Springs was a resort destination as far back as the 1930s, it was the post-WWII boom, which happened to coincide with the advent of air conditioning, that really put the place on the map. Architects like Richard Neutra, John Lautner, and Donald Wexler populated the Palm Springs area with homes in what’s known as the Desert Modernism style, which took the hallmarks of modernism and adapted them to the sunny environment here, with deep overhangs and outdoor living spaces.
The center of Palm Springs is still filled with well-preserved homes from the 1950s. It’s considered ground zero of the midcentury modern aesthetic, an architectural destination with some of the finest examples of modernism anywhere.
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