If you love exploring New England historic neighborhoods for pleasure, inspiration, or to enhance your Instagram feed, these are the best spots to stroll.
By Kim Knox Beckius
Feb 17 2021
Buildings of a bygone era
line State Street in Marblehead, Massachusetts, home to one of the best-preserved historic districts in the country.
Owning a piece of New England’s architectural past may be out of reach, but admiring resilient craftsmanship from the street, well, that’s free. If you love exploring New England historic neighborhoods for pleasure, inspiration, or to enhance your Instagram feed, these are the best spots to stroll.
Known for its flashy Gilded Age mansions, Newport also has more than 400 homes and religious and civic buildings that pre-date 1799. Some, such as the 1697 Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, are now museums, but many others remain the center of everyday life, including dozens of finely restored Colonial-era residences in the waterfront neighborhood known as the Point. Its warped brick sidewalks aren’t trodden by as many tourists as the mansion-lined Cliff Walk, but here is your rare chance to see what a wooden city looked like in a prosperous colonial seaport.
Explore: Sample the walking tours offered by the Newport Historical Society. newporthistorytours.org
“The houses are old,” George Washington wrote by way of explaining why he took a four-mile detour to visit this seaside town while on a 1789 trip. With America’s largest collection of pre–Revolutionary War structures (200-plus) and hundreds more built before 1830, this peninsular town of narrow streets and tiny-plot gardens seems to have been gently treated by time’s passage. It is, however, the harshness of wars, storms, and fishing fleet losses that slowed Marblehead’s development and thereby helped preserve such landmarks as the virtually intact Georgian-style Jeremiah Lee Mansion, completed in 1768. Walk along Franklin, Washington, and Hooper streets, and you’ll feel as though you’ve completed a course in Early American architecture.
Explore: Take a compelling, architecture-focused walking tour with historian Judy Anderson. marbleheadtours.com
With their embellished doorways and authentic paint colors—mustard, dusty blues, cinnamon red, and earth tones—the well-preserved clapboard colonials in Portsmouth’s South End have irresistible allure for artists and photographers. Strawbery Banke Museum is home to 32 historic structures, dating back as far as 1695, that illustrate this neighborhood’s 300-year evolution; more vintage homes can be seen lining antique lanes such as Mechanic Street. Nearby are the Portsmouth Athenaeum and other brick beauties from the 19th century, the Federal mansions of Haymarket Square and Middle Street, Victorian showpieces like the Benjamin Franklin Webster House, and even the postwar Atlantic Heights neighborhood of Colonial Revival cottages built to house shipyard workers—all worth finding, photographing, and admiring.
Explore: Join in on one of Portsmouth Historical Society’s preservation-themed walking tours. portsmouthhistory.org
With so much architectural charm centered on the three historic homes of the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, casual visitors may think that’s the sole reason to visit Old Wethersfield. On a brick sidewalk stroll, though, you’ll see many fine homes from the colonial and Federal eras, with Victorians and America’s oldest seed company, Comstock Ferre, salted in. Hop in your car or on a bike, and find vintage structures that stir the imagination: an imposing warehouse in Cove Park, last of seven built here c. 1690; the chrome-yellow Richard Deming House, a rare surviving average-family home built c. 1710; the Buttolph-Williams House, another early gem and the setting for The Witch of Blackbird Pond. In all, Connecticut’s largest historic district has 150-plus structures whose stories begin before 1850. Explore: Pick up a self-guided Wethersfield Heritage Walk brochure at Webb-Deane-Stevens. webb-deane-stevens.org
New England builders didn’t have HGTV or the DIY Network in the early 19th century, but they did have Asher Benjamin’s design-filled little book, The Country Builder’s Assistant, which popularized Federal-style architecture. Woodstock bears the beautiful imprint of this era, when homes constructed around the village green and along adjoining Elm Street reflected the town’s rising stature as a hub of manufacturing, business, and county government. The fun in walking around here is scanning the proliferation of Early American structures for details of later architectural evolution, from the tall windows, quoins, and overhanging eaves of the Italianate style to an add-on Queen Anne turret.
Explore: Delve into the Woodstock History Center’s free I Spy…Architecture! guide, available online or at the Town Crier bulletin board on Elm Street. woodstockhistorycenter.org