Best Old House Neighborhoods 2010: the South
For our third annual Best Places to Buy an Old House contest, what we looked for was simple: oft-overlooked neighborhoods populated by people who share an appreciation of finely crafted homes that have plenty of past and lots of future. And what we found—with the aid of our friends at PreservationDirectory.com, who helped us contact thousands of neighborhood groups, real estate agents, residents, and preservationists for nominations—was mighty impressive.
Here are a dozen great spots to find beautiful old homes below the Mason-Dixon line.
Union Springs, Alabama
On Friday evenings about 35 people meet up at Union Pizza in the small southeastern Alabama town of Union Springs to discuss important matters, such as how to properly reglaze a banged-up window, which stain to use on heart-pine floors, or whether or not to restore plaster walls. Welcome to the Newcomer’s Club, an informal group from places as far away as New York City and even Belize, whose members have relocated to this struggling small town for one reason: to buy, fix up, and live in one of its many magnificent homes. Once a thriving cotton and railroad town, Union Springs went from a population of 30,000 at the turn of the 20th century to a struggling community of just 3,000 by the turn of the 21st. The newbies are hoping to turn their adopted town around.
The showiest homes are the elaborate late-1800s Queen Annes, which feature lots of gingerbread, wraparound porches, and even the occasional turret. Walking through town you can pick and choose from among dozens of homes and buy one for as little as $50,000. “A lot of the people who come here to see one particular house end up buying a different one,” says local Realtor Joyce Perrin.
Why Buy Now?
In the decade before the recent recession, Union Springs saw more than a modest amount of investment in its older homes. Those who moved here then remain committed to the town, turning historic abandoned buildings into bakeries, restaurants, galleries, and shops.
Capitol View, Little Rock, Arkansas
Located just outside downtown Little Rock, Capitol View is a classic first-tier suburb, with small houses surrounded by mature oaks and overgrown gardens. The neighborhood started out as a blue-collar hub for machinists, furniture craftsmen, and workers on the St. Louis Iron Mountain & Southern Railway. These days it’s a haven for singles and families looking for fixer-uppers in a laid-back community. Many residents walk or bike on the trail that runs along the Arkansas River to get to their jobs downtown.
Most are Craftsman bungalows, but there are a few shotguns, foursquares, and Queen Anne cottages, too. Many homes are built on hillsides overlooking the Arkansas State Capitol building, but homes in the northeast section of the neighborhood offer views of the Arkansas River. Prices are from $80,000 to $200,000.
Why Buy Now?
After two decades of neglect, abandonment, and rental units run by slumlord owners, Capitol View, and downtown Little Rock, made a comeback in the 1990s, drawing first-time homebuyers and disillusioned surburbanites. Their efforts to celebrate the neighborhood’s history and architecture earned Capitol View a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
Thornton Park, Orlando, Florida
Sure, it’s just 25 miles from Disney World, but Orlando’s Thornton Park neighborhood offers amusements far more sophisticated than Space Mountain and a man-size rodent. Its European-style commercial district of restaurants, pubs, cafes, and shops is where locals go to kick back and relax. And many of those locals reside in beautifully crafted, not-so-big houses located along Thornton Park’s brick-paved streets—streets shaded by oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. The neighborhood is also a five-minute walk from Lake Eola Park, an urban oasis where you’ll find green space, hiking trails, and dog-walking paths surrounding a tranquil man-made lake.
Thornton Park is known primarily for its wood-frame “cracker-style” homes, which feature center hallways (to promote air circulation) and deep porches with long overhanging roofs that help keep the summer heat at bay. Other styles include Craftsman, Mediterranean, American Foursquare, and shotgun homes. A restored 1,300-square-foot bungalow was recently on the market for $215,000, but you can find homes under $200,000 and up to $700,000.
Why Buy Now?
Thornton Park is emerging as a hip urban area that’s attracting young homeowners looking for a friendly, walkable community in which to live and raise their families.
According to resident John Krauklis: “The best reason to live in Thornton Park is its proximity to downtown Orlando (a five-minute walk) and Lake Eola—and our weather isn’t too bad either.”
Old Town Historic District, Brunswick, Georgia
Located on a peninsula surrounded by tributaries to the Atlantic, the unspoiled coastal community of Brunswick offers laid-back neighborhoods shaded by oaks. At its center is a quaint, turn-of-the-century Main Street with dozens of welcoming restaurants, cafes, and shops. The city is modeled after James Oglethorpe’s “Savannah Plan,” with homes built around parklike squares.
Brunswick sports a number of Queen Annes, Gothic Revivals, and Second Empires. Homes start at $75,000 for a small fixer-upper and $190,000 for a larger, restored home.
Why Buy Now?
With an expanded marina, new businesses on Main Street, and a progressive, preservation-minded mayor, Brunswick is poised to become a vacation and full-time hot spot. Though overdevelopment has hindered the charms of nearby barrier islands, Brunswick remains largely preserved and refreshingly authentic. “It’s still pristine,” says transplant Julie Martin. “It still feels like a small town, not a tourist trap.”
Founded in 1774 as the first permanent English settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains, Harrodsburg is the kind of place most people think of when they imagine Kentucky. Located about 45 minutes from Lexington, the town is surrounded by rolling countryside, with scattered hand-laid stone walls and prestigious horse farms. Recent facade improvement grants have allowed a sprucing up of the downtown’s turn-of-the-century commercial buildings, which are being offered up to anyone willing to do something interesting with them (a coffee shop and art gallery are in the works). Those with a love for the outdoors will find plenty of hiking and biking trails, as well as top-notch fishing at nearby Herrington Lake.
The most expensive and sought-after homes are Greek Revivals, which sell from $250,000 to $375,000. A Colonial Revival or Queen Anne can be had starting at around $125,000, while Craftsman homes start at just $45,000. Many of the older homes are located in town, though there are plenty of historic farmhouses to be found on the outskirts.
Why Buy Now?
This is an ideal location for anyone looking to escape the headaches of city life and settle down in a quiet, Mayberry-like small town on the verge of a renaissance. After decades spent as an agricultural community, Harrodsburg wants to rebrand itself as a progressive small town by offering up new arts and literary festivals.
The Garden District, Monroe, Louisiana
The Garden District in Monroe, Louisiana, is celebrated for its tree-lined streets and overflowing flora. But Monroe’s version is decidedly more laid back—and affordable. The area borders the Ouachita River on its northern and western sides, and Forsythe Park, which offers tennis and volleyball courts, a nine-hole golf course, and a public boat launch. It’s the kind of neighborhood where the kids all walk to school and young families host rotating dinner parties.
The earliest homes were built between the late 1800s and early 1900s, though construction continued up until the 1950s. Styles include Tudor, Spanish Mission, and Craftsman, as well as several large Dutch Colonial Revivals. Home prices range from around $80,000 to $200,000.
Why Buy Now?
Southern charm, safe streets, friendly neighbors, and good schools are drawing long-term suburbanites back to the more urban Garden District. Home prices have remained steady throughout the recession, and there are plenty of fixer-uppers available at bargain prices.
Holly Springs, Mississippi
When it comes to Southern charm, the north Mississippi town of Holly Springs—population just 7,900—has it all: antebellum homes with wraparound porches, tree-lined streets, Dixie-centric film shoots (including Cookie’s Fortune), a literary touchstone (Jan Karon’s Mitford novel series), and lots and lots of history. The town played reluctant host to General Grant during the Civil War, and it’s also where Civil Rights leader Ida B. Wells, an alum of the town’s historic Rust College, began her efforts to end lynching in the South. City life awaits about 35 miles northwest in Memphis, Tennessee, while more rural activities, such as fishing, hiking, and hunting, are just outside town. And if that builds an appetite, chow down at Phillips Grocery, which, according to USA Today, serves up one of the world’s greatest burgers.
Once called an “encyclopedia of antebellum houses” by The New York Times, Holly Springs’ residential architecture runs the gamut from Greek Revival to Gothic Revival and Queen Anne to Italianate. While many houses were destroyed during the Civil War, 60 pre-war examples survive. Homes start around $120,000 for a large brick 1930s Craftsman on a corner lot, while some of the town’s columned antebellum mansions can be had for about $600,000.
Why Buy Now?
Holly Springs isn’t necessarily a booming economic town, but there are plenty of jobs in nearby Memphis, so many looking for affordable old homes that are worth the sweat equity are settling here. The town is also becoming a popular alternative to Oxford, just a half hour south, where rising prices—and, many would say, too many newcomers—are spoiling its small-college-town vibe.
Salisbury, North Carolina
We’ve featured the small Piedmont-region city of Salisbury several times in our Save This Old House column. And with good reason. This place is packed with great old houses, many of them in need of a little TLC—and some dating all the way back to the late 1700s. Salisbury is home to 10—count ’em: 10—National Register Historic Districts, all with available properties.
You can still track down an old brick Federal home. But you’re more likely to find Craftsmans, Greek Revivals, and Queen Annes. Prices start at around $65,000 for a fixer-upper, but even many beautifully restored homes go for less than $200,000.
Why Buy Now?
Salisbury is home to the Historic Salisbury Foundation, one of the most active and successful historic-preservation groups in the country. Since the 1970s, they’ve helped save 90 structures from demolition and are deeply involved in revitalizing Salisbury historic neighborhoods by buying endangered houses and selling them to preservation-minded owners.
Northwest Quadrant, Beaufort, South Carolina
If you want to get in on the ground floor of a major downtown neighborhood revitalization, hit up Northwest Quadrant. Once a thriving black middle-class neighborhood, the area—now half white, half African-American—fell on some hard times in the 1970s. But the city and its preservation-minded mayor are determined to breathe new life into it by working with residents to edge sidewalks, clear vacant lots, and push people to buy, restore, and love a house here.
They are modest one- and two-story shotgun-style homes, or “hall-and-parlor cottages,” as they call them here. Most are close to the street and were built with timber frames, wood siding, and tin roofs. Prices start at $100,000 and top out at $150,000.
Why Buy Now?
This is a great opportunity to live in one of the prettiest waterfront cities in the South. Beaufort is working with the Historic Beaufort Foundation to come up with a master plan for revitalizing the area that will include restoration guidelines and financial incentives. The Quadrant’s downtown location means it’s within walking distance of restaurants and shops. “These houses are the future of Beaufort,” says Evan R. Thompson, the foundation’s executive director.
The Cornstalk District, Harriman, Tennessee
About 4,000 people moved to the small East Tennessee town of Harriman between 1890 and 1892. They came to purchase lots in a new town that was founded by New Yorker Frederick Gates on the principals of industry—and abstention from alcohol. Gates built an elegant house set high on a ridge overlooking the Emory River and named it Cornstalk Heights. While the house is gone, the neighborhood surrounding it remains the site of the best, most beautiful homes in town. And don’t worry. A liquor store finally opened here in 1992.
Houses range in style from Folk Victorians built during Gates’s day to Craftsman and Cotswold cottages and Colonial Revivals built in the early to mid 1900s. Many homes are extremely affordable, ranging in price from $75,000 to just under $200,000.
Why Buy Now?
While many American small towns are simply caricatures of their former selves—tourist destinations with souvenir stores and fudge “shoppes” where the hardware store used to be—Harriman is the real deal: 100 percent authentic small-town America. “It’s still a little gritty,” says Ethiel Garlington, Director of Preservation Field Services for the nonprofit preservation group Knox Heritage. He means that as a compliment. So if you’re looking for an affordable, functioning small town that’s just 45 minutes from a good-sized city (Knoxville), Harriman’s the place to be.
Solar Hill Historic District, Bristol, Virginia
Bristol is a city with an identity crisis. Half of it is in Virginia, the other in Tennessee, with the border running down the middle of its main street. But Solar Hill—entirely on the Virginia side—has a distinct personality. Long before 1869, when the observatory for which the neighborhood is named was built, Solar Hill was a stagecoach crossroads. Prominent travelers, including future presidents Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson, made overnight stops. The area has a nice view of downtown, and tons of big, beautiful old houses, whose preservation has become a top priority. The town has newly renovated sidewalks, street lamps, and historic markers that make for easy walking tours.
Solar Hill has houses dating to the early 1800s and 1900s. Styles include Federal, Neoclassical, Queen Anne, Italianate, Colonial Revival, Tudor, and Craftsman, priced between $80,000 and $200,000.
Why Buy Now?
Although the district is listed on the state and national historic registers, there are no zoning ordinances affecting property improvement. Bristol is also a great place for music lovers. In 1998 the United States Congress officially recognized it as the “Birthplace of Country Music,” where Ralph Peer began recording country musicians, including the Carter Family, for Victor Records in 1927. Bristol is now home to dozens of music venues that attract artists of local and national scale.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Only 309 people can call the small town of Harpers Ferry home. But more than half a million visitors stop by each year to see the site of the United States Amory and Arsenal, which John Brown raided in 1859 in a failed attempt to end slavery. Situated at the scenic intersection of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, Harpers Ferry now has a national park built around the historic site. The downtown has old-timey shops and restaurants and a housing stock that looks as attractive as it did in the 19th century, thanks to the Harpers Ferry Historic Town Foundation.
Thanks to limited building lots, subdivision development never took place here. But as the population ages and downsizes, it is easier to find 18th-, 19th-, and early-20th-century houses starting around $150,000. Some of the earliest structures were destroyed during the Civil War, but there are Federal houses from the 1830s still standing in “Upper Town,” alongside Queen Annes from the late 1800s.
Why Buy Now?
There’s a push for preservation in Harpers Ferry, and the West Virginia government is willing to help bear some of the financial burden of rehabilitation. A 20 percent state tax credit is available for money spent on remodeling a personal residence, and the state has a grant program for project funding as well.