Best Old House Neighborhoods 2011: Rowhouses
For the fourth year in a row, we've tracked down North America's most timeless neighborhoods—places where lovingly crafted old houses have extraordinary pasts and unarguably promising futures. With help from our friends at Portland, Oregon-based PreservationDirectory.com—who distributed our nomination forms to more than 14,000 historical societies, neighborhood groups, and preservation nonprofits—we've assembled our biggest-ever list of off-the-beaten-path places that are worth eyeing for a great old home.
From brightly colored Canadian Second Empires to the stately brick versions of Kentucky, rowhouses are a favorite way to enjoy city life without sacrificing a neighborhood feel. Here are eight neighborhoods fit for all you row dwellers.
While Augusta has its share of antique shops and pubs, as well as top-notch restaurants that draw gourmands from all over the Bluegrass State, the most pleasurable thing to do may be to sit on a Riverside Drive bench and watch the Jenny Ann ferry glide back and forth across the Ohio River, as it has since 1798. Aside from pretty vistas, this city of 1,300 is known as the former home of "Mambo Italiano" singer Rosemary Clooney—whose house has been converted into a museum—and her dashing nephew, George, who attended Augusta Independent High School. "George's parents still live here," says Doug Padgett, Augusta's director of tourism, "but when he comes back into town, he's pretty discreet about it."
Riverside Drive is lined with stately 19th-century brick rowhouses built for the old town's river merchants, who transported tobacco, livestock, and wine. Today, several small wineries call this part of Kentucky home. Both townhouses and detached houses here run from $250,000 to $400,000—the view makes them worth every penny—but more affordable houses can be found along Second and Fourth streets, where we spotted a completely renovated four-bedroom Queen Anne for $185,000.
Why Buy Here?
"This town hasn't changed for a long time," says Padgett. "You can still see the remnants of the good old days—the small mom-and-pop stores and the quiet streets lined with shade trees." In recent years, Padgett has seen both commuters and retirees from Cincinnati, about 42 miles away, move here for the peace and quiet, and for the opportunity to virtually time travel to a simpler way of life.
Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, New York
Once home to thousands of Norwegian shipbuilders as well as Italian and Irish immigrants, this old-school Brooklyn neighborhood on New York Harbor's shores is a down-home kind of place. Families walk together after church on Sundays or gather at the locally owned restaurants and bakeries that line Third Avenue. This is a serenely diverse neighborhood, where you can hit a Norwegian pastry shop, an Italian butcher, and a Middle Eastern grocery all on one block; and it offers great views of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. "We like things subdued here," says Victoria Hofmo, who grew up in the community of 70,000. "We also like all the green space, the waterfront access, and the village atmosphere. We've got it all."
Two- and three-story single- and multi-family brick and brownstone rowhouses are common, as are wood-and-stucco Tudor-style and limestone-front Renaissance Revival rowhouses. This is New York City, of course, where "affordable" means anything under seven figures. A two-story brick rowhouse with original millwork and pocket doors might go for $500,000. A restored 1930s Tudor rowhouse recently listed at $558,000. Renaissance Revivals start at $700,000.
Why Buy Here?
It's just over an hour by subway to midtown Manhattan. Young families and professionals are coming for what is now unattainable in most New York City nabes: a single-family house.
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
It's said that you need to be either a poet or loco to live in Old San Juan, where Old World charm meets decidedly New World eclecticism. Packed into the winding streets of this fortified Caribbean peninsula are artists, students from three universities, shop owners, café culture knockabouts, lawyers, musicians, millionaires, government employees, and the gobierno himself, who lives in La Fortaleza; built in 1540, it's the longest-occupied governor's mansion in the Western Hemisphere. Neighbors chat over café con leche at places like La Bombonera every morning, and a walk on the blue-gray cobblestones, called adoquines, leads past impeccable, colorful Spanish Colonial rowhouses on par with those of Madrid.
Restoring a Spanish Colonial, with its 2-foot-thick walls, brick-lined cisterns, and lead-pipe plumbing, is a long, involved process that is strictly overseen by the Instituto de Cultura Puertoriqueña. "They have a say inside and out, down to the hinges," says Realtor Margarita Gandía, whose mother was one of San Juan's first Realtors in the 1950s. A shell might go for $300,000. Homes requiring less than a gut-renovation can command $600,000. Finished, properties are worth $1 million or more.
Why Buy Here?
The upside to following strict preservation guidelines is that if the result passes inspection, you'll pay nothing in property taxes. That status has to be renewed every 10 years, under inspection, which keeps the neighborhood in top form.
Eckington, District of Columbia
Forget Bethesda and Arlington. When technology director Steve Rynecki moved from San Diego, California, to Washington, D.C., in 2002, he wanted to live inside the city limits. He also wanted an older place with period details—a Federal rowhouse on Capitol Hill or a red-brick Queen Anne in Columbia Heights. Unfortunately, digs in those neighborhoods were priced over the half-million-dollar mark. So Steve looked to the district's northeast section and found what he was looking for: an 1893 rowhouse for around $250,000. "The price was right, the architecture was amazing, and the metro a 10-minute walk," he says. Originally the province of powerful Victorian-era politicians and business owners, Eckington later became a stronghold of D.C.'s African-American middle class. These days, it's a magnet for anyone looking to eschew the Beltway 'burbs and find fixer-uppers and freshly renovated homes in a cool, urban spot just a 10-minute drive from Capitol Hill.
Most are brick Federal, Queen Anne, or Colonial Revival rowhouses. We found a renovated six-bedroom 1913 Colonial Revival rowhouse for $249,000. Of the renovations-needed ilk: a four-bedroom brick Victorian-era rowhouse, with a turret, for $345,000.
Why Buy Here?
Government offices have opened around the five-year-old Florida Ave/New York Ave metro stop that's just a stone's throw from Eckington. Newly opened restaurants and clubs near the revitalized Atlas District give residents plenty of entertainment options, too. "It's being discovered as an affordable place to buy a house in D.C.," adds local Realtor Michelle Buckman, "and there's a lot of renovating going on."
Le Plateau Mont-Royal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
"The Plateau is the place to be in Montreal right now," says Franny Mathieu, a barista at Toi, Moi & Café, the sort of highfalutin hangout that likens flavoring coffee to no-nos like "pouring grenadine syrup in a Bordeaux." Le Plateau Mont-Royal, or "Mount Royal Plateau," borders both downtown and the city's namesake peak, which shoulders a green space designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same man who helped design New York City's Central Park. Anglophone and Francophone residents tend to walk to the chic boutiques and spoken-word performances—and not just because parking is a challenge. Even though climbing rents are prying students from their flats, the neighborhood remains an ideal congregating spot—a 10-minute bike ride from any of Montreal's four universities.
The Plateau is one of the best places to find examples of Montreal tenements—two- or three-story structures known locally as 2- or 3-plexes—built between 1880 and 1915 from local limestone, brick, or wood (for the latter, 3-by-11-inch boards are stacked like masonry). Their standout feature: every-which-way exterior metal staircases, which give tenants direct door-to-street access. Historically, families bought these larger buildings as a hedge against retirement, renting out the top floor or two. But today, conversion into single-family dwellings is common. A 3-plex in need of work might—quickly—fetch $600,000 (USD), a 2-plex about 20 percent less.
Why Buy Here?
If the thought of shoveling snow from steep metal stairs makes you think twice, imagine borough-administered grants for restoring historic properties—in 2010, 119 homeowners received a total $1,480,000—and, for now anyway, fixed-rate mortgages at less than 4 percent.
Leslieville, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Once gritty and industrial, the east-end Toronto neighborhood of Leslieville (population: 27,000) has gained traction as families, artists, and business owners arrive in droves, lured by the fashionable scene, safe and walkable streets, proximity to local beaches, and—at least by pricey Toronto standards—affordable housing offered here. "Leslieville has completely changed in the past three years," says Jasmin George, who works at the children's boutique Baby on the Hip. Hers is one of many new businesses that have opened in Leslieville in recent years, including pubs, restaurants, markets, bakeries, and a cheese shop.
"There's definitely something enchanting about this place," says David Dunkelman, a Realtor who runs TorontoNeighbourhoodGuide.com. Three-story Victorian-era rowhouses with steeply pitched gables line narrow, tree-bordered streets. Prices for two-story rowhouses and vernacular-style cottages start at $300,000 (USD).
Why Buy Here?
It's one of a few desirable nabes near Toronto's center where a reasonably priced home can be scored. Downtown is a swift 15 minutes by car or trolley, and the nearby Lake Ontario beaches can be reached via foot or bike.
Central Halifax, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
"You have to be a certain kind of person to live in Halifax," says real-estate agent Pam Cherington. "The kind who's concerned about quality of life." A love of the water doesn't hurt, either, since this so-called sleepy city of nearly 400,000 is surrounded by the stuff. Some of the most enviable old homes belong to residents of the Central Halifax neighborhood on the Halifax Peninsula, with its brightly painted townhouses and a five-minute walk to downtown and its restaurants, cafes, and brew pubs—all part of the appeal for the young professionals and growing families who move here. Halifax has a number of universities, too, so there's a steady influx of young people, some of whom never leave.
The draw here is the late-19th-century cedar-shingled townhouses, with high ceilings, original pine or Douglas fir millwork, and thick crown moldings. Some are two stories with flat roofs; others are two-and-a-half stories with pitched roofs and dormers. The houses, built by Nova Scotia's sea captains, merchants, and businessmen, can be found in conditions from rundown to impeccably renovated, for prices from just north of $200,000 (USD) on up.
Why Buy Here?
The area declined during the 1980s and '90s, but has spent the last decade as a destination for house flippers, who updated many a kitchen or bathroom. Those obsessed with attractive resale values, however, have mostly moved on, and those coming in are more likely looking to build a community and stay for the long haul.
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada
Newfoundland stands apart from Canada, an island with its own time zone, dictionary of idiomatic English, and buoyant cultural pride. The downtown district of capitol city St. John's, built in a geographical bowl on a protected harbor, is a knot of steep streets where a local politician might live next door to a scruffy musician gigging at the Duke of Duckworth pub. Civic-minded residents boast that downtown St. John's postal code comprises more artists per capita than any other in Canada, and the Newfoundland narrative looms large in the form of a massive gallery, archive, and cultural center called The Rooms that overlooks the area.
"We love our 'jelly bean' houses," says Dale Jarvis of the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, referring to rows of three-story Second Empire rowhouses downtown. These structures hew to a remarkably consistent style, all built in the wake of an 1892 fire that burned St. John's to a nub. Uphill, a smattering of Queen Annes and bungalows reside, perched there by merchants hoping to avoid future blazes. Thanks to offshore oil drilling in the last decade, St. John's dodged the housing bust, but rowhouses with room for improvement can still be had for $250,000; freestanding homes list in the $500,000 range.
Why Buy Here?
You haven't had this much fun with color since Crayola came into your life. Local company Templeton Paints has introduced a line of historic Newfoundland hues; the jelly-bean colors, embraced by owners of the downtown rowhouses, are eye candy—and instant motivation to put your paintin' clothes on.