There are houses, and there are houses. A good one is enduring, inspires curiosity, and imprints a stamp of rebooted creativity on anyone who visits. But historic houses, and their accompanying tours, are not a monolith. Some are troves of original objects that never left, and others are masterworks of specialized sourcing. Some have been demolished, rebuilt from scratch and reconstructed from old records. Whether preserved through love or money, or both, these jewel boxes of American design span centuries, and designers will never tire of poking around their inspirational gold mines. Here, said designers share their favorite historic houses across the US—with a particular emphasis on the Eastern seaboard.
Beauport (built in 1907), or the Sleeper-McCann House, was Henry Davis Sleeper’s home in Cape Ann’s Gloucester. With tony clients like Joan Crawford, Sleeper was a prolific decorator in the early days of professional design, but his own house on Eastern Point was where his instincts for color, maximalism and architectural salvage really went wild. “He certainly knew quality,” says AD100 designer David Netto, “but he didn’t do that style for his clients, his approach was more academic. Beauport is like a movie set.”
A unique blend of Shingle, Queen Anne, Colonial, and European revival styles, the house is over 14,000 square feet, comprised of 40-plus rooms, hidden staircases, Chinese and Spode porcelain, Spanish and Portuguese glaze, American glass, hooked rugs, endless prints, and a level of collector’s detail that would make Tony Duquette proud. When Helena Woolworth McCann (Frank Woolworth’s daughter) bought the house, she left it largely untouched and lived in the memory of Sleeper’s many parties and eccentric houseguests.
As Netto describes, “It’s a bohemian house built by an artistic person, that was then coveted by someone rich. Rich people always want more order, but there was this bananas house and she wanted it. I find that very interesting.” A Nooks and Crannies Tour walks visitors through every hidden inch. “I love secrets,” Netto says. “And this house is secretive.”
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
The Deering family of agricultural scions were no strangers to developing magnificent properties in Florida, including the grand Vizcaya Museum and Gardens (built between 1914–22) in Coconut Grove. The villa is cradled by a subtropical forest and Biscayne Bay, and is, as Miami designer Juan Poggi of Poggi Design says, a true interpretation of Mediterranean architecture, with Aubusson rugs, gold leaf moldings, silk damask walls, and chandeliers in crystal, porcelain, or carved wood. “James Deering had to be a very sophisticated man to work around all this space with such a clear knowledge of what he and his team were trying to accomplish,” Poggi says. “It was a very sophisticated home for Florida at the beginning of the 20th century. I have carefully explored it several times, because it’s a bundle of details and not a simple place to describe. It’s the closest thing we have around here to a European museum.”