Your Home’s History: Digging into Resources, Finding Treasure
02/17/2018 Kristin Demshki
Researching your family history can reveal family honor (and perhaps a few secrets) but what about your home? Even homes can have mysteries – perhaps you don’t know who built your house or when. Why that strange cupboard is in the kitchen? As a child, did a celebrity practice their “no-paparazzi” wave in the foyer?
Researching your house’s history can give information about the original owners and later tenants, date of construction and home-building materials, a famous architect’s involvement and much more. You may even discover that your home could qualify to be included on the National Register of Historic Places.
Start by playing detective at home: survey inside and out for architectural features, materials used in construction, roofline and even window types. You may find antique wallpaper in the kids’ closet, dates on old beams, yellowed diary entries in a crawlspace or original letters in the attic. Read more about homegrown sleuthing at the National Trust on Historic Preservation. Then use the following resources to discover more:
Building Permits. Check with your city or county planning, building or zoning office to find your home’s permit, which may even be digitized online or easily accessible. A home-building permit can offer information on the architect or builder, when and how the original structure was built (perhaps that closet was once a water closet), the original owner and the type of building structure.
Deed and Taxes. A deed indicates the transfer of property, so deeds can point to owners throughout the years. Tax records can help pinpoint when that pink-tub bathroom was added, or other additions or changes.
City Directories. These directories are another great source to discover those who previously lived at your address, typically spanning between the late 1800s and early 1900s, including names and occupations. Available at your local library and through research subscription sites such as Ancestry.com.
Public Library. Your local public library should have shelves specific to your city (such as original town or county maps and city directories), books about the history of American architecture and regional resources. For example, see this list of house-research resources available at the Los Angeles Public Library.
Home Work. Did an “innovator” turn your Craftsman into a Ranch? Architecture books and websites can help you identify the style of your home, resolve questions about house features and regional differences and even help you find out your home’s age, if you’re unsure. One noteworthy tome: A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia McAlester. And this fascinating architecture chart from Pop Chart Lab even includes the McMansion.
Local Historical Societies. Your state, county or city historical society are often staffed by professional and amateur historians who may be able to offer more information on your home’s pedigree or point you to resources such as local collections of vintage house photos. Find your local-history experts at Preservation Directory.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. From the late 19th century, these maps were used across the country to determine fire insurance coverage. The aged maps can reveal how many stories your home had originally, building materials used for construction, locations of doors and windows, and other details. Find some through the Library of Congress, and others at your local library.
Kit Sites. Beginning in 1918, homes were sold through the Sears Catalog – in a way. If you suspect your early-20th century abode was built from a kit, plumb websites such as Arts & Crafts Society and Antique Home to discover your adorable home’s retro roots and original floor plans.
National Historic Registry. If your home is at least 50 years old, there are pros and cons to including your home with the National Register of Historic Places. To learn more, read up on 10 Ways to Research Your Home's History from the National Trust for Historic Preservation or This Old House’s How to Research the History of Your House. To understand the criteria and how to nominate your house, visit the National Parks Service’s website.
Or… you could just buy a historic house (ask if ghosts are included).