So You Want to Live in ... a Historic Coastal Home

Many residents with a passion for old houses call this historic quarter of Portsmouth home.

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 Deb Richards
Portsmouth, New Hampshire

The South End of Portsmouth contains a rich array of early American architecture. So rich that its Strawbery Banke Museum of 17th- to 20th-century buildings was carved directly from the neighborhood―no need to haul in historic dwellings from elsewhere in New England. But this picture-perfect quarter of the old seafaring city and one-time Colonial capital of New Hampshire isn't all a museum. Many residents with a passion for old houses call it home.

Deb Richards is a 12-year South End resident who moved here from Guilford, Connecticut, a few years after her husband died. She lives in a 1780 frame house just steps away from the mouth of the Piscataqua River. "Like many of the houses here, it was probably built by someone who fished or lived off the sea," says Deb. "It was restored about 25 years ago, and it still has original paneling and wonderful wide floorboards." The previous owner rebuilt the big center chimney that is the hallmark of Colonial houses in New England. Deb often uses her three ample hearths for cooking. "I always do turkeys with an open fire and a reflector oven," she explains.

Deb's penchant for period authenticity goes beyond 18th-century style meals. "I've furnished the house entirely to the period," she admits. "I inherited many of the pieces from my parents, who were avid collectors."

Commitment to historical accuracy in interiors is a personal affair, but adherence to exterior standards in a historic district is not: Deb reminds vintage-home buyers that restrictions on alterations can be strict. "When I wanted to convert my garage to a summer room, I had to go before the historic commission to have the doors approved," she recalls. "They had to be appropriate, period doors." The rules in the South End, as in many similar districts, extend to details such as lighting, fencing―even enclosures for garden hoses. Still, Deb's glad her home lies within the boundaries of a historic district, noting that the requirements help preserve her surroundings and maintain property values.

Although Deb bought a house that had already been substantially restored, she has watched neighbors put years of labor and considerable resources into their homes. "It's not for the faint of heart to take on an old house that's not been restored," she advises. "Unless you have a lot of money, you have to be able to do a lot of your own work." Homes built in past centuries, she adds, weren't designed to accommodate plumbing and wiring. Therefore, it's that much harder to install or repair modern amenities.

Once bitten by the old-house bug, many amateur antiquarians can't confine their enthusiasm to their own quarters. Deb has done archaeological work at Strawbery Banke. She serves on the boards of Portsmouth Advocates, a watchdog organization for the preservation of old houses, and the 1716 Warner House, Portsmouth's first brick residence and the earliest house in the nation to be declared a National Historic Landmark. When a benefit auction was held last year for Warner House, one item prompted especially brisk bidding. It was one of Deb's hearth-cooked dinners.

Seeking the Past

If you're looking for historical property along the shore, consider yourself lucky. Because the colonies were settled from the outside in, a wonderful selection of historically important housing stock stands along the coasts.

New England is prime territory, with grand specimens of Colonial, Federal, and Victorian architecture that are less expensive the farther north you go, especially beyond Maine's Rockland-Camden area. South of Portland, prices remain sky high. Notable communities with rich collections of historic homes include Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Newburyport and Salem, Massachusetts; Newport, Rhode Island; and towns along the Connecticut coast. Fall River and New Bedford in Massachusetts and, to a lesser extent, Providence, Rhode Island, may still offer relative bargains.

In the mid-Atlantic region, Cape May, New Jersey, is a Victorian dream. Pockets of handsome 19th-century houses still stand along Maryland's Eastern Shore in such places as Easton, St. Michaels, and Cambridge. The antebellum gems in Charleston and Savannah are legendary―and legendarily priced―but estuarial locations such as Edenton and New Bern in North Carolina and St. Mary's, Georgia, aren't quite as high in the Southern stratosphere.

In Florida, look to such Gulf Coast towns as Apalachicola, where Victorian style met with a breezy subtropical vernacular. Mobile, Alabama, also offers turn-of-the-20th-century surprises―but wherever humidity meets clapboard, you'll have to keep a supply of paint handy.

Coastal California's historic house prospects are best explored in the north. Unless you want to spring for a San Francisco "painted lady," check out the Mendocino/Fort Bragg area for Victorians. Of course, you can head farther north still and cry "Eureka" when you find just the right place. That's the name of the north coast's biggest town.

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