When considering exquisite luxury goods—paintings, sculpture, even fabrics, furniture and wine—we think of personal, highly curated items that make our living spaces distinctive and enhance the ambient experience of a particular home. In some cases, however, the home itself is the oeuvre d’art.
In the art world, older isn’t always better, but revered older works do carry additional prominence, specifically the prestige of age and history that newer art hopes to acquire with time. Similarly, as beautiful homes and estates begin to acquire the patina that only decades or even centuries can bring, they take on an unmatched nobility and grandeur.
There’s a certain class of buyer and homeowner—patrons, if you will—that places a premium on properties graced by time. To them, living in a historic residence is akin to living within a famous piece of art.
“Owning a property that stands out as a landmark or a testimony to a glorious past is like owning a unique piece of history,” says Diletta Carutti, of Italy Sotheby’s International Realty.
“Historic,” of course, means something different in each part of the world. The European sense of history stretches deep—enthusiasts shopping in Florence or Rome, for instance, will encounter residences that date to the Renaissance or Baroque, vividly reflecting the décor and ornamentation of those periods. In the U.S., it might mean a colonial-era farmhouse in New England or one of the famed “cottages” of Newport.
“I like to point out who was president at the time the house was new,” says Russell Firestone, of TTR Sotheby’s International Realty in Washington D.C. “For clients, that really puts in perspective how old a property is, that John Adams or Thomas Jefferson was president when this house was built.”
Firestone says what buyers are truly looking for in older homes is character, and in particular preserved character—the house must innately reflect the time and conditions amid which it was conceived. Houses must have a strong street presence and great façade as well as specific period interior features: traditional floor plans with high ceilings; formal living rooms with entrance halls; double parlors with fireplaces; original trim work and molding; staircases with handcrafted balusters, banisters and original treads; and perhaps most important, original wide-plank flooring.
Still, as much as owners embrace the way these homes offer glimpses into previous and more elegant eras, the archeological pride only goes so far. In fact, it typically stops at the kitchen and bathrooms.
American estate homes from the 18th and 19th century prioritized entertainment—hence the ornate and spacious public areas—but the bathrooms were usually rudimentary and the kitchens, designed for staff, small. As lifestyles have evolved these outdated spaces are no longer considered historically important (or desirable, or practical), and today it’s perfectly acceptable for vintage homes to feature fully remodeled and updated “private” spaces.
“You want to walk through the great history and character of the interior, the foyer, the dining rooms, the living room and hallways, and then after that buyers want to walk into a new kitchen and new bathrooms,” Firestone says.
Owning a famous or historic estate does bring with it a level of prestige, and that’s another part of the attraction. “There’s a social status associated with owning certain ancient properties,” says Diletta Carutti in Italy. “A lot of buyers we see are personalities in the public spotlight and they want to be able to say, ‘We own that.’”
It also brings with it important maintenance and preservation responsibilities.
American homes in this category often reside in historic districts with strict guidelines for improvements, often based on standards developed by the National Park Service, including what materials can be used during renovations and limitations on what can be altered. These factors not only inoculate historical residences from changing trends (something sorely lacking in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s) but also help uphold property values. Most European countries also have in place similar regulatory agencies to protect old and ancient structures.
Preserving historic homes is not for the timid. It’s a fact of ownership that, simply due to the age of these buildings, there will be issue to be addressed and remedied. Cracked or uneven foundations due to settlement, malfunctioning doors and windows, water damage, brick deterioration and warped or slanted floors are inevitable over a lifetime of hundreds of years. Owners must have a passion for conservation.
But those who undertake this level of ownership usually do appreciate and embrace it. Firestone recalls one client so determined to take his home back to its original state he had every plank of flooring removed and re-planed to repair water damage before being meticulously reinstalled. That’s not just dedication, but love.