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Selling history by the square foot

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In a backlash against vinyl-clad McMansions, some developers are creating historic-style communities with houses that look like they were built as long ago as the 17th century. But unlike restored antique houses, these "new old" homes have open floor plans, walk-in closets and can be as large as 7,000 square feet, more than twice the size of the houses of America's forefathers.

These communities number in the dozens and range from a collection of colonial-style farmhouses near Amherst, Mass., to Craftsman-style cottages on Bainbridge Island, Wash. Many are marketed as "settlements" and hark back to an agrarian past -- some even include working farms. They tap into an emerging farmland-preservation movement dubbed "new ruralism," a counterpart to the new urbanism philosophy that promotes dense, walkable neighborhoods. Both support traditional building styles and small-scale architecture.

As part of the pitch, developers promise not only an old-fashioned feel, with features such as window seats and gables, but also old-fashioned attention to detail, with fine woodworking and materials such as slate roofs and copper gutters. Moreover, developers carefully site the houses to retain the natural landscape.

Of course, this isn't the first time developers have turned to the past. The early 20th century saw a revival of colonial-style houses, and more recently, East Coast summer resorts such as Cape Cod and the Hamptons have seen a proliferation of new shingle-style houses akin to those built in the late 19th century -- which themselves often were based on colonial designs. Indeed, historical reproductions are arguably just another attempt by developers to contend with the housing downturn by offering homeowners, particularly downsizing baby boomers, something unusual.

But a community with too many houses in the same traditional style could end up being dull or artificial, like a theme park.

"Even if they're well built, a neighborhood full of Georgian colonials is a monotonous place to be," says Russell Versaci, a Middleburg, Va., architect who is designing traditional farmhouses for historic-style neighborhoods and is the author of "Creating a New Old House."

And some architects are skeptical that the cost and quality level of today's workmanship will allow these developers to make convincing reproductions.

Yet developers are trying hard. North of New York City, a Dutch company is building 23 homes modeled after 17th century Dutch architecture and using post-and-beam construction, an antique building technique that shuns nails. The developer of the community, called Brook in Waterland, even has imported European artisans, including wood carvers and faux-painters. Another developer brags that his 420-home community near Atlanta, called Serenbe, was largely built without using bulldozers in an attempt to replicate the landscape of an early 20th-century neighborhood.

Builders are betting that some people will pay more for the look of history. These houses can be 25 percent or more expensive than tract homes because of the extra detail and costly materials. Homes at Brook in Waterland, for instance, range from $2.3 million to $3.8 million.

"It's very satisfying to build these, but some people just want the most square footage for their dollar," says builder Mark Wisotzky of Amherst Building, which is constructing Phelps Settlement in East Granby, Conn., where homes on the two remaining sites will cost from $600,000 to $900,000.

Even a series of kit homes designed by Versaci will cost an estimated $250 per square foot to build, cheaper than a similar custom house but still a pricey $750,000 for his most popular model, the 3,000-square-foot Currier farmhouse.

Classic Colonial Homes, an architecture firm in Leverett, Mass., that designs traditional New England houses, has worked with 22 builders on "antique colonial settlements." One of these is Avery Lane Settlement, a cul-de-sac community of eight houses in Simsbury, Conn. The firm's president, Lance Abbott Kirley, also is consulting on a 50-house project planned for outside Philadelphia and a 12-home community on the Missouri River near St. Louis. Many of these projects were launched in the past two years, despite the slumping housing market.

"McMansions are bigger with higher ceilings, but they're devoid of all the detail which gives a house its soul," Kirley says.

Josh Livingston and his wife Melanie own one of the houses in Avery Lane Settlement, whose reproduction homes are designed to fit in with Simsbury's many historic buildings. Completed in 2006 at a cost of about $750,000, their house has historical touches such as a prominent center chimney, copper-trimmed windows and a garage designed like a carriage house.

"We didn't want a typical tract house that doesn't have a lot of character," says Josh Livingston, who works for a toy company. "If I could buy a really old house that doesn't have any problems, I probably would. But this is the best of both worlds."

Most of the 100-odd houses will be hidden from the main road and each other by existing trees to create privacy and better views, says Joseph Barnes, a development principal of the community. The development also will have a working farm. Since sales began in September, 10 parcels have sold, ranging from roughly $350,000 for two acres to more than $1 million for about 36 acres. Buyers will be encouraged to build in a traditional farmhouse design through an extensive architectural plan book, Barnes says.

On the West Coast, some builders and architects report an increased interest in the Craftsman-style architecture of the late 1800s through the 1930s, typified by relatively horizontal lines, wide eaves, sturdy beams and front porches. Similarly, there is resurgent interest in the bungalow style, a relatively modest, low-slung house popular around the same time. For example, the North Town Woods community on Bainbridge Island, Wash., is populated with about 70 bungalows of 2,200 to 2,600 square feet, says builder Jerry Reese, who built many of the houses based on plans by Bungalow Co., a Bend, Ore., designer.

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