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25 iconic historic sites keeping American history alive

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Ralf Broskvar // Shutterstock

25 iconic historic sites keeping American history alive

When it comes to America’s short but vibrant history, a saddening amount of important sites have either fallen into disrepair through neglect or have been destroyed completely due to wars, conflict, or disasters. That is where the National Trust for Historic Preservation comes in. The organization, which is a privately funded nonprofit, is responsible for keeping American history alive through the salvation and protection of the nation’s most precious sites. The National Trust strives to protect the important places that represent the diversity, cultural experience, and shared identity that make the United States so unique. By implementing direct action and inspiring the support of American communities, the National Trust is focused on saving the places where significant historical events took place.

The historic sites acquired by the National Trust represent so much more than just a building or property. According to the National Trust, these spots must be preserved to help us maintain the connections to our heritage necessary to help us understand our past. Perhaps even more importantly, historical sites allow Americans to appreciate the nation’s many triumphs, while simultaneously learning from its mistakes. When visitors take the time to support these places, they are helping to keep the influential parts of American history alive so that future generations may reap the same educational rewards.

Stacker took a closer look at the 25 oldest historical sites on the National Trust for Historic Preservation roster as of 2019. The list is organized by the year that each site was constructed and is a true display of just how much care goes into keeping them maintained and open to the public. We included information on the history behind the impressive sites and what makes them such important American landmarks, as well as what to expect while visiting each one. Main attractions included guided or self-guided tours, collections of art, artifacts, and historical documents.

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NewMexicophotographer1 // Wikimedia Commons

Acoma Sky City

- Year constructed: 1150
- Location: Acoma, NM

The Acoma Sky City has stood the test of time since it was first constructed almost 1,000 years ago by the Pueblo people, who remain a federally recognized tribe today. The plazas, streets, and historical adobe homes are still home to a handful of residents who conduct tours of the city and the 17th-century San Esteban del Rey church for visitors. This makes the Sky City the oldest community to be continuously inhabited in the United States, according to the National Trust.

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Carol M. Highsmith // Library of Congress

Drayton Hall

- Year constructed: 1738
- Location: Charleston, SC

What makes Drayton Hall so special is its condition. After the home was acquired by the National Trust in the 1970s, the organization made the decision to keep Drayton Hall preserved in its original condition with no modern restorations (electricity, plumbing, etc). Visitors will have access to the exquisite grounds and the main house, which has remained unfurnished to display the architecture that has survived seven generations of ownership, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War.

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S.d.touro // Wikimedia Commons

Touro Synagogue

- Year constructed: 1759
- Location: Newport, RI

As the oldest synagogue in the United States, Touro Synagogue is rich in history, culture, and beauty. Not only is it considered the most historically significant Jewish building in the US, but it is also one of the most important examples of 18th century American architecture. Visitors can tour the site, take part in a prayer service, or visit the Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. Visitors Center to learn more about the history of the synagogue and surrounding area.

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Pthomaskmadigan // Wikimedia Commons

James Madison's Montpelier

- Year constructed: circa 1760
- Location: Orange, VA

Montpelier was the permanent home of James Madison, fourth president of the United States, and it was here that Madison came up with ideas for the US Constitution. The property is located two hours from Washington, DC, and provides miles of walking trails, group tours, a political and cultural museum, galleries, and exhibits. In addition, Montpelier is also the site of one of the biggest research projects for the study of slavery in the United States.

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Jana Shea // Shutterstock

Cliveden

- Year constructed: 1767
- Location: Philadelphia, PA

In 1763, the colonial Chief Justice of Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, Benjamin Chew, began construction on a summer house for his family. About ten years after the home was finished, it became the site of a historic battle between George Washington’s troops and the British army (the Battle of Germantown). The Cliveden property survived the battle and remained in the Chew family for another 200 years before becoming part of the National Trust, along with a collection of important historical artifacts, all of which are open to the public.

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feserc // Flickr

Belle Grove

- Year constructed: 1797
- Location: Middletown, VA

The family home of Major Isaac Hite and Nelly Madison Hite, sister of US President James Madison, Belle Grove remains an authentic example of a prosperous working plantation from the 1700s. Visitors can explore the preserved main home as well as the 7,500-acre plantation grounds which housed cattle, sheep, wheat fields, a distillery, and several mills. Also open to touring visitors are the icehouse and smokehouse built in 1815, the slave cemetery, the apple orchard, and a demonstration garden.

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Carol M. Highsmith // Library of Congress

Woodlawn Mansion

- Year constructed: 1800-1805
- Location: Alexandria, VA

Woodlawn Mansion was the first historical site to be owned by the National Trust, and is also recognized as a National Historical Landmark. Initially constructed for the nephew of George Washington, Woodlawn was eventually sold to a family who turned the 2,000-acre property into a free labor colony. The main house is now a historic museum, and tours of both the mansion and property are available to visitors.

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Tim Pierce // Wikimedia Commons

African Meeting House and Abiel Smith School

- Year constructed: 1806 & 1835
- Location: Boston, MA

The African Meeting House—built in 1806—is the oldest existing African American church building in the US. In 1835, the Abiel Smith School was built, becoming the first building in the country constructed for the sole purpose of housing an African American school. The church went on to host important figures, such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas, before being sold and used as a synagogue until 1972, when it was acquired, restored, and turned into a museum by the Museum of African American History.

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Carol M. Highsmith // Library of Congress

Oatlands

- Year constructed: 1808
- Location: Leesburg, VA

A profitable working plantation until the Civil War, Oatlands was transformed into a country estate by a wealthy family before becoming part of the National Trust. Visitors can explore the grounds and gardens on their own or experience a Historic Mansion Museum Tour or an Enslaved Community at Oatlands Tour.

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bobosh_t // Flickr

Decatur House

- Year constructed: 1818
- Location: Washington, DC

The Decatur House is one of three surviving homes in the nation designed by the “father of American architecture,” Benjamin Henry Latrobe, making it one of the oldest homes in DC. Today, the building houses historical documentation and White House history and education programs and is open for free public tours.

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Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism // Flickr

African Meeting House and Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham House

- Year constructed: 1827
- Location: Nantucket, MA

This meeting house remains the last public structure standing on the island of Nantucket that was central to the African American community there in the 19th century. It was previously used as a meeting house, school, and church. Seneca Boston, a weaver and former slave, built what became the Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham House a full 10 years before slavery was abolished. Today, the Museum of African American History holds cultural programs and exhibits on the history of the African American community on Nantucket at the site, and the Meeting House is available for ceremonies and events.

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Carol M. Highsmith // Library of Congress

Cooper Molera Adobe

- Year constructed: 1827
- Location: Monterey, CA

The adobe structures at Cooper Molera Adobe serve as a glimpse back into historical Monterey, from the old town’s early years as capital of Mexican Alta California through the actual development of California as a US state. The historic site is now shared by educational exhibits and commercial spaces, such as the renovated barn complex used for events.

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James Kirkikis // Shutterstock

Lyndhurst Mansion

- Year constructed: 1838
- Location: Tarrytown, NY

Lyndhurst Mansion was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis and serves as one of the best examples of American gothic revival architecture. Visitors are guided through the magnificent structure’s 19 decorated rooms and are left to explore the restored bowling alley, landscape, kitchens, laundry room, and observation tower.

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JoeBalynas // Wikimedia Commons

The Gaylord Building

- Year constructed: 1838
- Location: Lockport, IL

The Gaylord Building was pivotal in the construction of the Illinois & Michigan Canal, housing construction materials and serving as the headquarters for the historic project. Today guests can visit the exhibitions and galleries, as well as the Lincoln Landing and the Gaylord Donnelley I&M Canal Trail.

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Eric T Gunther // Wikimedia Commons

President Lincoln's Cottage

- Year constructed: 1842
- Location: Washington, DC

Easily the most important site for the history of President Abraham Lincoln, President Lincoln’s Cottage was his home for a quarter of his presidency and the place where he formed some of his most significant ideas. Visitors are able to take an authentic look back into the private life of the American hero through multimedia-enhanced tours, original programs, and award-winning exhibits.

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DW labs Incorporated // Shutterstock

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

- Year constructed: 1863
- Location: New York, NY

The Tenement Museum is dedicated to the celebration of immigrants in America. The museum conducts 12 different tours of both the main structure at 97 Orchard Street and the Lower East Side. Tours consist of neighborhood walking tours, apartment tours, and interactive experiences aimed to accurately display the immigrant experience into America.

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Carol M. Highsmith // Library of Congress

Hotel de Paris Museum

- Year constructed: 1875
- Location: Georgetown, CO

In the midst of the Colorado silver-mining boom in the 1800s, Hotel de Paris served as a hotel, boarding house, residence, restaurant, and traveling salesman showroom. Today the building operates as a historic site museum with original furnishings, an impressive book collection, and informational tours available to visitors.

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Carol M. Highsmith // Library of Congress

Villa Finale

- Year constructed: 1876
- Location: San Antonio, TX

The home of historic preservationist Walter Nold Mathis, Villa Finale provides visitors with an example of the classic gardening style popularized in the South during the late 1800s. The home itself was turned into a museum and tours are available for those who’d like to learn more about its history. Mathis is famous for restoring several properties in the town of King William, which helped revitalize the area.

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ArtisticAbode // Wikimedia Commons

Brucemore

- Year constructed: 1884-1886
- Location: Cedar Rapids, IA

The museum at the Brucemore estate tells the story of three families who contributed to the surrounding community in their own unique ways, and the three women responsible for building the mansion, transforming it into an estate, and bequeathing it to the National Trust. Visitors will have the chance to explore the 26-acre property including the gardens, grounds, and a 21-room mansion, to get an in-depth look at what life was like for the very influential families who owned the estate throughout its prime.

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T photography // Shutterstock

Chesterwood

- Year constructed: 1898
- Location: Stockbridge, MA

Chesterwood was the home and studio of the famed sculptor, Daniel Chester French, who was responsible for creating the seated statue of Abraham Lincoln that sits in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. The site hosts several community events throughout the year to inspire the public with contemporary art and sculpture, and tours are conducted to allow visitors the chance to view the art collections, gardens, and architecture of the property.

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Felix Lipov // Shutterstock

Kykuit

- Year constructed: 1913
- Location: Tarrytown, NY

Originally constructed for John D. Rockefeller, the American businessman and philanthropist, the Kykuit estate has since been the home of four generations of the famously wealthy family. The Rockefellers have made important contributions to philanthropy, conservation, business, government, and the arts throughout the years, and the preservation of the estate highlights those efforts. Tours of Kykuit will include the galleries and rooms within the main house as well as the outer gardens and property around the estate.

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Min C. Chiu // Shutterstock

Filoli

- Year constructed: 1915-1917
- Location: Woodside, CA

Filoli is considered one of the most well-preserved country estates remaining from the early 20th century in America. The site consists of the main mansion, 16 acres of formal gardens, and more than 600 acres of woodlands. Several tours of the property are offered to guests, as well as regular community events such as outdoor tea in the gardens and expert-led nature walks. 

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MostlyDross // Flickr

Pope-Leighey House

- Year constructed: 1939
- Location: Alexandria, VA

Developed by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the great architects of history, with the intention of providing affordable housing in the late 1930s, the design of the Pope-Leighey House went on to influence the majority of new homes around the United States during that time. Today the home hosts tours showing off the innovative concepts that inspired modern architecture.

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Edelteil // Wikimedia Commons

The Glass House

- Year constructed: 1949
- Location: New Canaan, CT

The Glass House was built by architect Philip Johnson, and is widely considered to be one of the greatest landmarks for modern architecture in the country due to its exterior walls made completely of glass. Visitors can tour the 49-acre landscaped grounds and its fourteen structures, as well as view a collection of 20th-century artwork and exhibits.

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Carol M. Highsmith // Library of Congress

Farnsworth House

- Year constructed: 1951
- Location: Plano, IL

The design and construction of the Farnsworth House marked a significant turning point in the career of its architect Mies van der Rohe and, consequently, in the world of architecture. The building helped popularize the country’s desire to move away from the Modernist conceptions of architecture and toward creating more organic-looking designs that complement the surrounding nature. Today the home is open to the public as a museum.

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