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

By William G. Scheller
March 06, 2006
Kindra Clineff

Deb Richards
Portsmouth, New Hampshire

The South End of Portsmouth contains a rich array of earlyAmerican architecture. So rich that its Strawbery Banke Museum of17th- to 20th-century buildings was carved directly from theneighborhood―no need to haul in historic dwellings fromelsewhere in New England. But this picture-perfect quarter of theold seafaring city and one-time Colonial capital of New Hampshireisn't all a museum. Many residents with a passion for old housescall it home.

Deb Richards is a 12-year South End resident who moved here fromGuilford, Connecticut, a few years after her husband died. Shelives in a 1780 frame house just steps away from the mouth of thePiscataqua River. "Like many of the houses here, it was probablybuilt by someone who fished or lived off the sea," says Deb. "Itwas restored about 25 years ago, and it still has original panelingand wonderful wide floorboards." The previous owner rebuilt the bigcenter chimney that is the hallmark of Colonial houses in NewEngland. Deb often uses her three ample hearths for cooking. "Ialways do turkeys with an open fire and a reflector oven," sheexplains.

Deb's penchant for period authenticity goes beyond 18th-centurystyle meals. "I've furnished the house entirely to the period," sheadmits. "I inherited many of the pieces from my parents, who wereavid collectors."

Commitment to historical accuracy in interiors is a personalaffair, but adherence to exterior standards in a historic districtis not: Deb reminds vintage-home buyers that restrictions onalterations can be strict. "When I wanted to convert my garage to asummer room, I had to go before the historic commission to have thedoors approved," she recalls. "They had to be appropriate, perioddoors." The rules in the South End, as in many similar districts,extend to details such as lighting, fencing―even enclosuresfor garden hoses. Still, Deb's glad her home lies within theboundaries of a historic district, noting that the requirementshelp preserve her surroundings and maintain property values.

Although Deb bought a house that had already been substantiallyrestored, she has watched neighbors put years of labor andconsiderable resources into their homes. "It's not for the faint ofheart to take on an old house that's not been restored," sheadvises. "Unless you have a lot of money, you have to be able to doa 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 antiquarianscan't confine their enthusiasm to their own quarters. Deb has donearchaeological work at Strawbery Banke. She serves on the boards ofPortsmouth Advocates, a watchdog organization for the preservationof old houses, and the 1716 Warner House, Portsmouth's first brickresidence and the earliest house in the nation to be declared aNational Historic Landmark. When a benefit auction was held lastyear 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 theoutside in, a wonderful selection of historically important housingstock stands along the coasts.

New England is prime territory, with grand specimens ofColonial, Federal, and Victorian architecture that are lessexpensive the farther north you go, especially beyond Maine'sRockland-Camden area. South of Portland, prices remain sky high.Notable communities with rich collections of historic homes includePortsmouth, New Hampshire; Newburyport and Salem, Massachusetts;Newport, Rhode Island; and towns along the Connecticut coast. FallRiver 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 Victoriandream. Pockets of handsome 19th-century houses still stand alongMaryland's Eastern Shore in such places as Easton, St. Michaels,and Cambridge. The antebellum gems in Charleston and Savannah arelegendary―and legendarily priced―but estuariallocations such as Edenton and New Bern in North Carolina and St.Mary's, Georgia, aren't quite as high in the Southernstratosphere.

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

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