RESEARCHING YOUR OLD HOUSE'S
(OR ANY OLD BUILDING’S) HISTORY
by Louise Gomez Burgess
“Research on structures falls into four basic phases or types:
1. The study of the physical evidence to be found in the structure itself
2. Complete investigation of legal records to provide lists of names, dates and transactions which are vital pieces of the building's past
3. Research of the original documents that are found in libraries and archives to supply facts that might pertain to the building or its owners
4. Comparative research, which involves structures similar in type or style, to broaden the perspective of the researcher and put the structure into an historical framework."
Cynthia Durko, "Researching a Building." In Preservation Illinois: A Guide to State and Local Resources, 1977.
Since Research can be time consuming and expensive, one may question the need to delve into the history of a building. But research is important. The following list of benefits may help to justify just where your dollar and cents and time are going.
1. Researching an old house's history provides information about the buildings' past and a link to the people who have lived there before. Was the home grand, a farmhouse, a simple inner‑city dwelling? Did the original owners have the resources to use costly woods or fixtures? Was there anything quirky about the building for its period?
2. Research can provide a history of events that happened in the house and in the
3. Research provides information to ensure a building's restoration accurately reflects the building's history. The information gathered then can help determine which parts of a building should be preserved and which parts can be changed.
4. Research can be used for nominating a building (over 50 years old generally) to the list of properties on the National Register of Historic Places or a local listing.
Keep in mind your purpose when researching the general history, dates, and architect of an individual property. You will need different information for conducting various levels of preservation‑related research.
WHERE TO BEGIN?
Don't reinvent the wheel. Go to the library, local historical society or contact the State Historic Preservation Office to find what research has been done on your building. Your work may have been completed already.
1. ORAL HISTORY - Start right away seeking out anyone who may have lived in the property or knew previous inhabitants. Does that person remember anything about the decor, furnishings, landscaping or neighborhood?
2. SURVEY THE AREA UNDER STUDY - Title Research.: Ask owners of the structure if they have the Title Abstract for the property. This document outlines the chain of title and includes pertinent deeds, mortgages, probate records and more. If an abstract is not available you should go to the county courthouse to inquire at the register of deeds, county clerk, probate office or tax assessor.
3. DIRECTORIES - City directories often contain owner or occupant names for both residential and commercial buildings. Sometimes they give previous occupants occupations. R.L. Polk and Company was the most prolific publisher of city directories.
4. NEWSPAPERS - Using old newspapers to research a building is very time consuming but may provide information not available anywhere else. Notices about previous owners, advertisements for the development of the building, the building's sale, articles about the building's restoration or information about fires or other disasters that may have affected the neighborhood.
5. MAPS - county atlases, city maps, railroad maps and bird's -eye-view maps often show the location of a building as well as property lines and roads. Insurance maps prepared by the Sanborn Map Company date back to 1867 and are invaluable for researching in an urban area.
6. ARCHITECTURAL DRAWINGS AND SPECIFICATIONS - Architectural drawings and building specifications, blueprints and financial records occasionally are transferred from owner to owner as a building changes hands. A more likely source would be the architectural or construction firm that worked on the building. Other sources include state or city archives, university collections, and local historical societies, Descendants and other relatives of the architect may have saved plans as well.
7. PHOTOGRAPHS, POSTCARDS AND ILLUSTRATIONS - Whether they are professional photographs in archival collections or snapshots in a family album, photographs can give an array of personal, site and architectural information. Prints, postcards, drawings and paintings also may exist, especially if the building is prominent in the community.
8. ARCHITECTURAL STYLE - The architectural style can lead you to the period in which the building was constructed and how the building fits into the history of architecture. Be alert to building techniques and materials, however, because styles have been revived at various periods in American history.