By Shaun Tolson
Some neighborhoods are so steeped in history that simply walking the streets can make you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. Architectural gems are plentiful, residences have been meticulously preserved to showcase high-quality materials and craftsmanship from bygone eras, and character abounds—as does local lore. Walking the same cobblestones that famous patriots or poets once trod can be a heady experience indeed. And to make that a daily experience by living in a historic building or enclave can be even headier.
Preservationists say old places connect us to something bigger and more enduring than ourselves—a shared human experience—and make us a part of it. Moreover, many of us respond on a visceral level to the beauty of historic buildings and their architectural artistry. If you’re looking for a more practical argument, like antiques whose value increases as they gain the patina of age, historic districts often appreciate over time, particularly those with preservation protection.
MANHATTAN’S WEST VILLAGE
With its meandering, tree-lined streets and unexpected parks tucked into oddly shaped lots, the West Village is “the hide-and-seek area of New York City: You could get lost on purpose,” says Georgette Blau, president of On Location Tours and Histoury, which leads historic- building-and-home tours.
And getting lost is easy here, since the neighborhood was the last to be developed before New York City instituted a street grid system. So is feeling as if you’ve wandered into another century, thanks to the historic brick townhouses that line the narrow, often winding streets in this famously bohemian enclave—a reminder of what Manhattan was like before the skyscraper era began in the late 19th century. Some have housed America’s most celebrated writers, artists, and activists.
Take a stroll down Bleecker Street, where the first floors house trendy boutiques and small restaurants. Just off Bleecker on Grove Street you’ll find the oldest remaining wood-frame house in Greenwich Village—17 Grove Street, built in 1822. Across the way is Grove Court, a charming collection of 19th-century residences. A block south, the redbrick antebellum homes on Commerce Street with their mansard roofs provide all the evidence needed to understand why Hollywood uses the West Village as a fill-in for Paris.
BOSTON’S BEACON HILL
Boston’s colonial roots are best preserved in Beacon Hill, which “exists much as it has over the past few centuries,” says Michael Maler of Historic New England, a regional heritage organization. A walk along Acorn Street encapsulates the neighborhood’s charms. The cobblestone roadway—with its uneven, brick-laid sidewalks and gas-lit lanterns—preserves the look and feel of the horse-drawn-carriage days. In fact, a number of former stables have been converted into residences.
Standout buildings include The African Meeting House, circa 1806—the oldest Black church still standing in the U.S., now the Museum of African American History—and the Charles Street Meeting House, circa 1807, which hosted speeches made by abolitionists such as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.
A walk down Mount Vernon Street (away from the Massachusetts State House) brings you to Louisburg Square—a private park surrounded by brownstones that many prominent Bostonians have called home for centuries—and past the Second Harrison Gray Otis House, a stately mansion built at the turn of the 19th century for the real estate tycoon and congressman who was instrumental in developing the neighborhood. According to Maler, the house is “one of the only freestanding, Federal-style mansions on Beacon Hill.”
CORAL GABLES, FLORIDA
Today Coral Gables is beloved for its Mediterranean Revival architecture and tree-lined avenues, but when the family of founder George Merrick arrived in 1899, “This was a blank canvas,” says Brett Gillis of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables. “There was no electricity and no running water. This was America’s last frontier.”
Merrick was a fan of the City Beautiful movement, which aimed to create idyllic urban environments, so when he set out to develop Coral Gables in the 1920s, he envisioned a community of homes made from local marine limestone (aka “coral”) with matching gabled roofs. Though the influx of new residents soon outpaced this time-consuming construction method, a number of early stone homes still exist. The best way to see them is to take a jaunt down Coral Way through the heart of the city. Don’t miss the Historic Merrick House Museum—the plantation home owned by Merrick’s family.
Also noteworthy are the grand Biltmore Hotel, featuring a bell tower modeled on Spain’s Cathedral of Seville, and the Alhambra Water Tower, designed to resemble a Moorish lighthouse. It’s the first city landmark to be saved by preservation efforts.
Although Coral Gables features mostly Mediterranean-inspired architecture, which the locals refer to as Old Spanish, there are also seven thematic villages introduced in 1925 and completed a few years later. These include a Pioneer Village, a French Normandy Village, an Italian Village, and a Chinese Village that is among the best examples of traditional Chinese architecture on the East Coast.
ANGELINO HEIGHTS IN LOS ANGELES
Developed in the late 19th century as one of L.A.’s first suburbs, Angelino Heights is one of the city’s prettiest neighborhoods, thanks to an abundance of well- preserved and restored Victorian homes. In its heyday, it was the kind of place that might have inspired Norman Rockwell. Today it lures numerous TV and movie crews, which have filmed scenes from Charmed and Mad Men, Michael Jackson’s famous Thriller video, and more here.
“Victorian-era architecture is not a style immediately associated with Los Angeles, so Angelino Heights is a rare neighborhood,” says Laura Massino Smith, an architectural historian and director with Architecture Tours L.A. “A lot of people say they’ll never think of Los Angeles the same after they’ve seen Angelino Heights.”
The best way to soak in the history of Angelino Heights, L.A.’s first officially recognized historic district, is to stroll along Carroll Avenue, particularly the 1300 block, to admire the variety of Victorian architectural styles, ranging from Queen Anne to the more angular East Lake style.
SLEEPY HOLLOW, HUDSON VALLEY
Sleepy Hollow is indelibly linked to Washington Irving’s 18th-century tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman—and parts of this charming Westchester village still evoke the colonial era, says Allison Casazza, an associate with Histoury architectural history tours. “The village has done a very good job in preserving the physical remnants of that era and keeping that an active part of its historical narrative,” she notes.
If you’re looking to admire preserved colonial landmarks, a visit to the Old Dutch Church on North Broadway is a must. Irving’s story references the church, built in 1685 and designed by Frederick Philipse, a Dutch immigrant instrumental in the village’s development. Philipse’s estate, Philipsburg Manor, is now a National Historic Landmark and history museum, restored through funding by John D. Rockefeller Jr.
On the eastern outskirts of Sleepy Hollow, Kykuit, The Rockefeller Estate spans 3,000 acres. The mansion, circa 1913, is an eclectic blend of architectural styles, including Classical Revival.