National Treasures: Top 10 U.S. Cities Where You Can Live in a Piece of History


Top 10 U.S. Cities Where You Can Live in a Piece of History

Getty Images; realtor.com



For those who love history, few experiences are more stirring than taking in the Renaissance-era monuments, grand, Gothic cathedrals, and medieval walled villages on the antique streets of Europe. But we’ve got news for you, Old World obsessives: Despite being a relatively young country, America punches way above its weight when it comes to historic cities.

In the United States, history is very much a living thing. As Shakespeare said, past is prologue: Many of those events, battles, and social movements that altered the trajectory of the nation—and sometimes the world—also shaped the homes, neighborhoods, and cities we live in today. Some of our top metros retain historic districts from their formative days, filled with beautiful, older homes that connect the present day to the past.

And that makes these places extremely attractive destinations for buyers fascinated by times gone by. Where can you find them?

The realtor.com® data team set out to find America’s most historic cities. We looked at the 500 largest urban areas, focusing on the per capita number of properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the number of National Historic Landmarks. (These are both federal destinations that deem historic sites to be preserved.) Finally, we looked at the property description of homes in these markets on realtor.com to calculate a share of historic homes.

These places include the ones you’ll remember from history class, where the Revolutionary and Civil Wars were fomented—as well as lesser known ones that nevertheless played a crucial role in this country’s past.

So what are the advantages of living in a historic place?

“Historic districts tend to hold their value better during economic downturns, and they appreciate more during upswings,” says Tom Mayes, vice president for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, DC.

Historic homes “come with a built-in character. They have a uniqueness and distinctiveness. … They give you a sense of perspective in our own lives and help us to understand where we are on that [historic] timeline,” says Mayes.

But buyers need to do their research before snagging an old home, adds Mayes, also the author of “Why Old Places Matter.” Many of these antique abodes require costly maintenance and updating. (A century-old plumbing system? Shudder.) And there are often restrictions on what sorts of changes can be made on homes in historic districts, such as the type of doors or windows that can be put in in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. This can add up to big bucks for homeowners.

OK? Let’s take a tour of America’s past. Best of all, you didn’t have to ace history to appreciate these historic cities.

America’s most historic cities

Claire Widman


1. Cambridge, MA

Median list price: $949,000 National Register–listed properties: 209 National Historic Landmarks: 19

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House in Cambridge, MA

Kirkikis/iStock


In the days of Colonial America, a handful of wealthy British aristocrats, known as Tories, built large Colonial, Queen Anne, and Italianate homes in Cambridge with the inflow of money from their plantations in the West Indies. But they didn’t keep them for long. Soon these aristocrats were driven out of the country once a band of patriots won the American Revolution.

Cambridge and its massive estates wouldn’t sit empty for long. The growing upper ranks of American society would come to occupy the city that was home to Harvard University, which was founded in 1636.

There were sections of the city that became enclaves for the working class, who toiled in nearby factories making everything from soap to machine parts. They mostly lived in multifamily homes made out of clapboard. But once World War II ended, the city went through a transformation. Industrial smokestacks would be replaced by corporate firms and startups that were sapping up grads from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also in Cambridge.

“We have strong historic preservation here,” says Charles Sullivan, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission. “We’ve had very little teardown culture. A lot of developers are focused on upgrading existing homes.”

The boxy, clapboard, three-story homes that the working class occupied have been rebuilt into upscale housing. These homes can easily exceed $1 million and attract wealthy financiers from nearby downtown Boston and affluent academics and techies from Harvard and MIT.

Architecture enthusiasts may want to check out Tory Lane, near Harvard. Built by a handful of British aristocrats in the 18th century, it consists of about a half-dozen stately, three-story Colonial estates.

2. Charleston, SC

Median list price: $305,000 National Register–listed properties: 100 National Historic Landmarks: 33

Fort Sumter in Charleston, SC, is notable for two battles of the Civil War.

ovidiuhrubaru/iStock


Charleston, founded by English colonists in the 17th century, is known to history buffs for playing a starring role in the start of the Civil War. The conflict that would divide America was ignited when secessionists attacked Fort Sumter in 1861, shortly after President Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated. Charleston had a vested interest in the outcome of the war: It’s estimated that about 40% of slaves in North America landed in the city’s port from their homelands.

After losing the war, the city was deeply hobbled. It wasn’t until the Charleston Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s that the area began seeing cultural and corporate growth again. The city’s distinct eras each had an impact on its architectural landscape, ranging from Colonial and art deco homes to Georgian and Gothic Revival residences. Today that architecture, along with the town’s beaches, seafood, and cobblestone streets, are big draws for its tourism industry.

“The residents are invested in preserving their city, so we have many zoning laws and preservation initiatives in favor of saving that historical architecture,” says Carl Borick, director of the Charleston Museum. “South of Broad Street in the historic district is our crown jewel. That was the heart of the original Charleston from all those years ago.”

But these older homes aren’t cheap—and neither is the upkeep.

3. Davenport, IA

Median list price: $139,900 National Register–listed properties: 251 National Historic Landmarks: 0

The grand clock tower in Davenport, IA

DenisTangneyJr/iStock


The most iconic building in Davenport, IA, on the Mississippi River, is its grand clock tower built in 1895 as part of City Hall. Local legend has it the roughly $90,000 price tag wasn’t paid for by the city’s most devout churchgoers, but by taxes on local brothels and saloons. Whether or not that’s true, Iowa’s third-largest city was indeed home to a plethora of rowdy speak-easies and dance halls in the Bucktown neighborhood, earning Davenport a rep as “Wickedest City in America.”

Bucktown, founded by German immigrants in the mid-1800s, has since been transformed with many of its older buildings and factories being turned into loft apartments.

But Davenport’s checkered past extends beyond speak-easies. Dredd Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom in 1846 and lost, lived for a time in a large, brick estate near downtown. The case, Dred Scott v. Sandford, led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1857 that slaves didn’t have the legal rights of American citizenship. It substantially increased tensions between the North and South leading up to the Civil War.

Those who want to own a bit of history here can purchase one of the area’s older homes dating to Davenport’s industrial roots. Among homes for sale on realtor.com, 25% in the Davenport region are at least 75 years old. Many are two-story homes with front porches and hardwood floors priced under $100,000.

4. St. Louis, MO

Median list price: $174,900 National Register–listed properties: 435 National Historic Landmarks: 17

Gateway Arch, the world’s tallest, in St. Louis, MO

DenisTangneyJr/iStock