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
Median list price: $949,000 National Register–listed properties: 209 National Historic Landmarks: 19
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House in Cambridge, MA
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.
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.
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.
Median list price: $139,900 National Register–listed properties: 251 National Historic Landmarks: 0
The grand clock tower in Davenport, IA
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.
Median list price: $174,900 National Register–listed properties: 435 National Historic Landmarks: 17
Gateway Arch, the world’s tallest, in St. Louis, MO
Many Americans aren’t aware of the rich history of St. Louis. In summer 1904, athletes from around the world ascended on St. Louis for the third-ever Olympic Games. It helped put this rising city, founded in 1764, on the world map.
The city’s growth was spurred in the early 20th century by industrial firms, including beer titan Anheuser-Busch. It brought a flood of immigrants, many of them German, who built up the city and the homes within it.
Some of those older homes are hot commodities today. “Buyers like the fact that each historical house here has a story,” says Mark Johnson, a real estate agent with Keller Williams.
In neighborhoods such as Soulard, Lafayette Square, and Benton Park, buyers can find everything from brick bungalows built in the early 1930s to newer, three-story mansions. According to historians, the southeastern neighborhood of Carondelet has homes dating to the 1700s.
5. Santa Fe, NM
Median list price: $496,500 National Register–listed properties: 61 National Historic Landmarks: 7
Pueblo-style adobe architecture is unique to Santa Fe, NM.
Most Western cities are younger than their East Coast counterparts. But not Santa Fe, NM. The area was occupied by Native American tribes as far back as the 1100s and incorporated in 1610 by the Spanish. The Palace of the Governors dates to the 1600s and is the oldest continually used government building in the nation.
The unique pueblo-style and adobe architecture of Santa Fe is inspired by the climate and available materials. The Spanish used mud and clay brick to build sandy-colored, boxy homes with flat roofs and small windows, designed to stay cool during the day and warm in the night. Over the years they’ve become a prime tourist attraction,
Historic neighborhoods such as the Plaza—home to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and much of the city’s art scene—have seen home costs soar. Unfortunately this has priced out some of the city’s original descendants, with lineage to the Spaniards.
“They’re not able to live in the areas in the historic places where their grandparents and parents lived,” says Andrew Lovato, historian for the city of Santa Fe.
Median list price: $599,000 National Register–listed properties: 596 National Historic Landmarks: 71
U.S. Capitol, 1861
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
After the American Revolution, Washington, DC, was created in 1790 from land donated from Virginia and Maryland. But the city’s position as the U.S. capital was far from secure. It was almost moved after British soldiers invaded the city in 1814 and burned the White House to the ground. But the War of 1812 would soon pass and the capital remained where it was.
Over the next 200 years many of the country’s most significant events would take place here—from Abraham Lincoln‘s assassination, to the Watergate break-in, to the Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage.
In fact, it’s hard not to find history in this city. History buffs should check out Capitol Hill, lined with beautiful 100-year-old Colonial row homes. The upscale neighborhood Georgetown, which has been the home to scores of famous Americans like Jack Kennedy, is packed with two-story brick homes built 150 years ago. And Brightwood, where Lincoln became the first sitting president to receive enemy fire, has gorgeous Colonial-style brick homes.
7. Hartford, CT
Median list price: $224,900 National Register–listed properties: 144 National Historic Landmarks: 8
The home of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Hartford, CT
Culture Club/Getty Images
Favorite son Mark Twain, who lived in Hartford from 1874 to 1891, wrote “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” here. The Mark Twain House, a National Historic Landmark, looks like a brick medieval fortress and is built in American high Gothic style.
And next door is the three-story cottage where Harriet Beecher Stowe lived for the last two decades of her life, another landmark. But these are far from the only historic homes you’ll find here. Neighborhoods such as Asylum Hill are lined with huge 19th-century Victorian houses priced under $300,000.
Founded in 1636 by Puritans seeking religious freedom, the city finally made a name for itself nearly 200 years later, as a manufacturing juggernaut and one of the wealthiest cities in America. As one of the nation’s oldest cities to boot, Hartford has the oldest publicly funded park (Bushnell Park) and the oldest continuously operated public art museum (Wadsworth).
Median list price: $239,900 National Register–listed properties: 170 National Historic Landmarks: 12
A historic house in Providence, RI. The city was founded in 1636, and built without a central church.
Roger Williams, a Puritan minister who was banished from the repressive Massachusetts Bay Colony, crossed the river and founded Providence, RI, in 1636.
“Once he settled in, he built Providence without a central church, so residents could worship as they pleased,” says Geralyn Ducady from the Rhode Island Historical Society. “So unlike most New England towns, there wasn’t a church in the middle. All the homes were built along the river. The properties were built so that everything went straight back. You’d have your main house on the river, and behind that the carriage house, behind that the orchard, and behind that the family burial plot.”
After the Revolutionary War, Providence transitioned into an industrial city with factories popping up around town. Many of the spacious Victorian homes built during this period are still around, including the three-story William F. Sayles house, which was built in 1878 and now priced at $1.7 million.
More than a few of these multibedroom homes have become popular options for cash-strapped students at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, sparking fears that they’re driving up local housing prices. Local politicians have been looking at ways of limiting the number of undergraduates who can stay in the homes as a result.
9. Richmond, VA
Median list price: $241,300 National Register–listed properties: 263 National Historic Landmarks: 18
Row houses in Richmond, VA, which was the capital of the Confederate States of America
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Richmond, VA, one of the country’s largest slave trading hubs, became the capital of the Confederate States of America. Tredegar Iron Works, which produced military equipment and ship parts, was considered a backbone of the Southern war efforts.
Long before the Civil War began, Richmond was already a historically significant city. The 1775 speech by Patrick Henry in which he declared “Give me liberty or give me death” was delivered at the still-standing St. John’s Church.
Today Richmond has a number of historic neighborhoods oozing Southern charm. Jackson Ward is a historically black neighborhood that has become a pioneering mecca for jazz, ragtime, and swing music, and was once dubbed “Harlem of the South.” And buyers won’t go broke buying a home in the area. This one-bedroom condo in a row house built in 1870 is priced at $229,000.
10. Little Rock, AR
Median list price: $199,900 National Register–listed properties: 243 National Historic Landmarks: 5
National Guardsmen and a group of white students standing outside Little Rock Central High School to prevent African-American students from entering
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The capital of Arkansas may be best known for one of the more shameful periods in American history. During the height of segregation, a group of nine black students enrolled at the all-white Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Gov. Orval Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to block the students from entering the school. The students, who came to be known as the Little Rock Nine, were finally able to enroll after President Dwight Eisenhower stepped in.
“Race remains a prominent theme of life in Little Rock. A number of the neighborhoods and schools are [still] virtually segregated,” says Jess Porter, chair of the History Department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Things are improving, but progress is slower than most would like.
Homes in the Little Rock Central High School District, where the famed school is located, tend to be bungalows, Victorians, Tudor Revivals, and Colonial Revivals, many of which are in need of some TLC. That’s reflected in the neighborhood’s median price of just under $90,000—less than half of the median price tag in the city proper.
Sources: realtor.com and the U.S. National Park Service
Allison Underhill contributed to this report.
Source: Housing Trends Feed