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Why do historic houses sit so close to the road?

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It’s all about practicality

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

Old houses are full of quirks. And, quite frankly, that’s why we love them. From the slightly askew doorways and irregular wide-plank floorboards to the often hand-forged hardware, these structures succeed in charming us down to their most granular details.

But, the more we look at historic houses, the more we notice one common trait that seems to work against them: Old houses usually sit quite close to the road. And often, they're on main, heavily trafficked roads—even if the houses are touted as being on large plots of land.

"I’ve had a lot of realtors tell me that it’s difficult to sell many of these houses that are right up against the road," says Elizabeth Finkelstein, founder of Circa Old Houses. "It’s definitely a problem."

It seems like if you want to live in an older house and you also want the house to be set far back enough on the road to avoid the sound of traffic, you'd have to resign yourself to the fact that options are few and far between. But why is that? What was the thinking behind building these houses so close to the road in the first place?

One answer can be found in the plain practicality of being close to a road before the age of modern cars. "It takes energy to get to and from the house, either by foot or horse and buggy," speculated Bruce Irving, a realtor, renovation consultant, and former producer of This Old House. "You want the house to be easily accessed. So, why place it at the far end of a driveway or a big, big lawn?"

To Irving’s point, many of the houses that are being sought after today as country escapes from city life were never conceived of as recreational estates, but rather as working farms. We’ve come across lovely farmhouses everywhere from Stanfordville, New York to Springfield, Vermont, that both sit on over 70 acres of land, but are placed just off the road.

Since these homesteads were organized around sustaining a working farm rather than a country estate, it makes much more sense for the house to be close to the road so that goods can easily be brought onto and off of the property while the rest of the land can be used for farming.

Something else to keep in mind is that in the 18th and 19th centuries, the concept of "street noise" as we know it today effectively didn’t exist. "There wasn’t that caustic terrible noise that comes from things like cars—you were dealing with horses and carriages. The annoyances were fewer and further between," says Finkelstein. "I really don’t think it was that bad to be placed close to a road then. If anything, it made life easier."

But while many of these houses were purposefully constructed close to roadways, sometimes the roads were retroactively widened to accommodate modern transportation. "Cars in the late 19th century were very unusual, and I don’t know whether people recognized that, in 20 years, Ford and other manufacturers would create more accessible automobiles," says Mosette Broderick, Clinical Professor of Art History at New York University. "Thinking in terms of creating a good roadbed was certainly not a major concern of anybody until the 1920s."

What existed up until then, says Broderick, were rather crude roadways called "post roads" or "stagecoach roads," which were paved over and widened as cars entered common use, and as drivers realized the benefits of driving on a paved road versus a dirt road. Brockerick also pointed out that following the second World War, larger, more modern roads were often built parallel to the older stagecoach roads, a good example being the Long Island Expressway, which runs parallel to Route 25A or Northern Boulevard—which he calls "a real old-timer."

These advancements in urban planning had a two-fold effect on older houses. First, the newly paved, widened roads shortened the distance between the front door of the house and the edge of the road even more. And second, the modern highways added an entirely new, purposefully busy and highly trafficked road somewhere that wasn’t even in consideration when the house was originally built generations before.

Now, of course, there are exceptions to the observation that older houses hug the road. Grand estates for the wealthy, for example, were built further back from the road (though those are categorically different from the farmhouse-type of structure we’ve largely been considering here and are worth their own article.) Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can find a house that has been purposefully moved further back on its lot to accommodate the desires of a modern buyer, like this restored 1840s-built house just north of Hudson in upstate New York. Then you can really get the best of both worlds.

If you’re considering buying an older house, though, know that being close to the road is probably going to be part of the deal. But try not to view it as a detriment to the house. Think of it as yet another quirk to fall in love with, like the wavy glass in the windows.

Closeness to the road stands for a specific period of history, one without cars, and one when the house may have had an entirely different purpose from being a rural escape. And if you really can’t stand the thought of street noise interfering with an evening spent by the fire? Look for a house on a dead-end road—the street noise will be so low, you’ll practically forget which century you’re in.

House Calls: Restored Treme Townhouse

A nearly perfect Greek Revival farmhouse in Dutchess County, New York. The house is on 78 acres of land, but sits directly off the road.