Historic House Designs Make a Comeback

Wistful types who want everything old to become new again can make their wish come true with the latest home-design trend.

Now, more than ever, building new houses in historic styles -- and even replicating famous homes in American history -- is en vogue.

Instead of hunting for existing old houses, a growing number of prospective homeowners are purchasing design plans for Victorians, Colonials and other historic styles and building houses true to those plans -- with updates to the kitchen, bathrooms, closets and heating.

"It's an old house that has all the modern conveniences," said R. Bruce McMillan, who with his wife Virginia, had a Queen Anne Victorian like ones designed by the famous architect George Barber built on his property in Springfield, Ill. "We've been very happy with it."

Old-house design firms, classical architects and architecture schools have seen monumental growth in the last couple of years.

"It's sweeping the nation," said Cecilia Reese Bullock, founder of Authentic Historical Designs, a Jackson, Miss., firm that sells a range of historic-house plans.

Some buyers fall in love with famous homes in history, and decide on a replica of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, George Washington's Mount Vernon, Jefferson Davis' Beauvoir or the legendary 19th-century Mississippi mansions, Rosalie and Windsor.

"It's the whole return to the family and the old feel of building something timeless," Bullock said.

A few homeowners even go so far as Hollywood to look for their dream house, deciding on something like Ashley Wilkes' plantation Twelve Oaks or Scarlett O'Hara's Tara from Gone With the Wind.

In fact, Bullock established her company when someone wanting to rebuild Tara approached her. But she usually tries to steer people away from Tara replicas, she said.

"Tara is abysmal -- it was tacky," Bullock said. "Twelve Oaks is the gorgeous one. That's our bread-and-butter look."

Her firm's 1,000 plans also include those for Beauvoir, the George Wythe Colonial farmhouse in Williamsburg, Va., and a host of others. Bullock said business at the 23-year-old Historical Designs has "easily doubled" in the last five years.

Those in the know attribute the craze to the retro, patriotic phase Americans have been going through.

"This architecture has something to do with our idea of what America is about," said classical architect Allan Greenberg, who has offices in Washington, D.C., New York and Greenwich, Conn. "We associate it with democracy and freedom."

Greenberg said the houses that remind Americans of their country's roots tend to be beautiful but simple, with big windows, plain facades and comfortable interiors.

Because of the increasing demand, he said, more architects are learning classical design and more schools are teaching it.

"Our past is who we are," said Greenberg. "It's a way of thinking that's never really gone out of style."

The McMillans spent $350,000 in 1991 to build their Victorian, which features a wrap-around porch, a turret, gingerbread detail, crown moldings and gables.

But building a new, old house isn't just for homeowners with big wallets. Bullock said there's a vast price range according to area of the country and house style.

Classic, plain Colonial farmhouses are on the lower end of the scale, while the Victorians are the most expensive. Bullock said the range can be anywhere from $70 to $300 per square foot.

"You don't have to be wealthy," Bullock said. "We've worked to provide plans for both ends of the market."

The fad has become so popular that developers in places like the Sweetbottom section of Atlanta have begun doing entire streets and neighborhoods mandating historic styles.

"It's a great trend," Bullock said. "It's good for families, communities and the country."