Identifying the largest historic districts in New England was no easy task because, let’s face it, we’re dripping with history. You can barely throw a rock in New England without hitting a historic building, landscape, cemetery, lighthouse or waterfront.
Since we decided to do it by state, we found Rhode Island especially challenging because of Providence and Newport. Both cities have extensive collections of contiguous historic buildings. We opted for Ocean Drive in Newport, as it contains 1,509 acres.
So if you have a yen for taking in a lot of history some weekend day, these might fit the bill.
Wethersfield Historic District
English settlers from Massachusetts founded Wethersfield in 1634, making it the first European settlement in Connecticut. The historic district, tucked between Hartford and Rocky Hill, covers 1,300 acres. It contains 1,200 structures with about 100 dating to colonial times.
The town itself evolved from a struggling early colonial outpost. It emerged as a transportation hub and contributed many soldiers to the American Revolution. Then eventually it rose to prominence as home to the Wethersfield onion.
Work on officially protecting the historic district began in 1962. In 1970, the National Park Service placed it on the National Register of Historic Places. The district has many residents and businesses, making for a lively ambience. Most famously it also contains the Silas Deane House (1766), the Joseph Webb House (1752); and the Isaac Stevens house (1790). They belong to the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum. open to the public. So is the Town Green, which stretches nearly a half mile.
Colonial and Federal style houses surround the green, and many retain their original character. They offer excellent examples of the carpentry used by skilled builders who mostly worked as shipbuilders.
Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village
Maine, the largest state in New England, naturally has several large historic districts. The Schoodic Historic District in Acadia National Park takes in more than 1,000 acres of raw natural seascapes. The Castine Historic District, with its rich colonial history, takes up about 1,800 acres on the southern end of the Bagaduce Peninsula. Meanwhile, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, near Poland and New Gloucester, sits on somewhere between 1,700 and 1,900 acres of land.
Founded between 1782 and 1784, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village was a settlement of Shakers – a religious group that grew out of the Quaker, Methodist and Camisard sects of Protestantism.
Shakers lived communally, worked hard and practiced celibacy. That ultimately spelled the diminishment of the Shakers. Sabbathday Lake was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
Despite the dwindling population of Shakers, Sabbathday Lake remains a working Shaker Village. It consists of 18 buildings – six of which are open to the public. The museum welcomes summer visitors to view Shaker crafts and learn about the history of the group. Tours of the village are offered Monday through Saturday throughout the summer. The village is closed on Sunday, though the public may attend a weekly religious service.
All 30,000 acres of Nantucket belong to the National Historic Landmark District. The island is considered the finest surviving example of a late 18th-century New England seaport town. America’s whaling industry started on Nantucket in the late 17th century, as the colonists imitated the original Native American whalers.
By 1774, 250 American ships engaged in whaling; 150 of them came from Nantucket. But then whaling declined. Shifting sandbars also prevented ships from entering Nantucket Harbor and a fire in 1846 destroyed the commercial center.
Historic preservation didn’t begin on the island until 1897, when a windmill (now known as the Old Mill) built in 1746 was donated to the Nantucket Historical Association. Eight hundred structures built before the Civil War survive, including Sankaty Light, built in 1850.
Another historic property, the Jethro Coffin House, dates to 1686. But as Nantucket prospered, residents built larger houses in the Federal and Greek Revival styles. Orange and Main streets offer the best examples of those grand old homes.
The island’s fortunes changed with the arrival of wealthy summer visitors. Some put the island on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s most endangered list in 2000 for tearing down houses, gutting rehabs and building too-large homes on inappropriate sites.
Amherst Village District
Amherst, N.H., was named for Lord Jeffery Amherst, commander of all British forces in North America. The town became the first Hillsborough County seat in 1769, but county government moved to either Nashua or Manchester. That
left the central village barely touched by change, and today it’s one of the prettiest places in New England.
Today the Amherst Historic District comprises more than 1600 acres and 120 buildings in Federal, Georgian and Greek Revival styles. They’re clustered around the Village Green, where the town holds a large Fourth of July celebration, a Christmas tree lighting and band concerts throughout the summer.
Ocean Drive Historic District
The Ocean Drive Historic District developed when the new grand mansions on Bellevue Avenue pushed development south. Ocean Drive begins near Bellevue Avenue, follows the shoreline to Brenton Point State Park and ends just south of Fort Adams.
The roadway winds through rolling green hills, rocky cliffs, pastures and summer houses. Those include early 18th-century farms and Eidlitz’s Swiss Chalet of 1854. Frederick Law Olmsted designed some of the landscape, following the natural terrain.
The homes are much more private than on Bellevue Avenue but include some architectural gems: the neoclassical Beacon Rock estate by McKim, Mead and White; French chateaux by Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson and Bonniecrest, a Tudor English mansion converted to condos. Hammersmith Farm, where Sen. John F. Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier, is also along Ocean Drive.
Commercial buildings are generally the clubhouses of private beaches. Gooseberry Beach is private but open to the public.
Montpelier Historic District
Montpelier, Vt., has the largest historic district in Vermont listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The city, Vermont’s state capital, grew up around government, But it also got help from industry powered by water from the Winooski River and its North Branch.
Montpelier has Federal style mansions and Greek Revival homes that survived the town’s economic boom after the Civil War. In fact, the historic district has 563 main properties along with bridges, dams and cemeteries. The city has vibrant neighborhoods and busy downtown and business districts, proving history doesn’t have to be boring. (We never thought so, though.)
The district has five churches designed by architects between 1865 and 1874. It also includes Italianate mansions and brick commercial buildings built after two fires in 1875. From the 19th and 20th centuries, the district has elaborate French Second Empire and Queen Anne homes as well as buildings deemed historically important. The Greek Revival Statehouse was carefully restored in the 1980s.
The Vermont History Museum, next to the Statehouse, has maps of the historic district.
Images: Sabbath Lake By Jamie Ribisi-Braley – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35399926. Montpelier By AlexiusHoratius – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23102071. Vermont Statehouse By Jonathanking – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21731245. Amherst Civil War monument By Smuttynoser at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10372554.Ocean Drive, By Daniel Case – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3966356.
This story about the largest historic districts was updated in 2021.