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Historic house research: 7 steps to learning the story of your home

Start with your local library

Colonel Charles Williamson House in Geneva, NY. The photo is one of many in the Historic American Buildings Survey.
Photo by Walter H. Cassebeer / Library of Congress

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in January 2017 and has been updated with the most recent information.

Whether the house or apartment you live in is 50 years old or 150 years old, chances are it has a story to tell. But what to do if you’re curious about your home’s history and have no clue where—or how—to start sleuthing?

Thankfully, there are a variety of resources, from your local library to Google, to help you uncover the past, even if your only lead is a few lines of potentially erroneous information from the real estate listing.

Find out if you’re in a historic district

Many towns and cities have specifically designated and regulated historic districts. If your home is located in one of these districts, much of the work might already be done for you.

If you’re in New York City, “the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC)—when it designates either an individual landmark or full historic district—writes a detailed report of its whole history,” says Elizabeth Finkelstein, founder of CIRCA, a website dedicated to historic houses.

Reports filed closer to when the LPC was founded, in 1965, are not as detailed as they are today. The greater detail allows for specific landmarks and neighborhoods to be regulated more closely and precisely.

For areas outside of New York City, Finkelstein suggests contacting the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to see if you can ask if your neighborhood has a historic designation.

You can also see if your neighborhood, or even your specific house, is listed with the National Historic Landmarks Program, the federal designation of historic landmarks. “A good number of the reports are digitized,” says Finkelstein. “What you can even do is type in the name of your district or home into Google and, often, the report will come right up.”

Go to your local historical society, archive, or library

“Once we got started researching our house, Stony Ford Estate, we made sure to use local resources like the county archives,” says Susan Brinson of the website House of Brinson. She and her husband William bought a Greek Revival house in upstate New York a few years back.

“We found the original document that the owner of Stony Ford signed to purchase the estate, for $3,750 in 1864—which was key because then we had a specific date to verify other accounts of the property’s history against.”

The Brinsons are constantly on the pursuit of concrete evidence and information regarding their home’s history. “A lot of information in older newspapers is based on word of mouth and will be riddled with inaccuracies. It’s great to have concrete evidence to filter out what’s incorrect.”

Your local library or historical society is a great place to go for more visual records. “The New York Public Library has a great collection of Sanborn maps, which color code structures by building material.” says Finkelstein. “The thing to keep in mind is that street numbers could occasionally shift over time and addresses can change. So, you want to make sure you’re looking at the correct location.”

Sanborne maps weren’t just completed for New York City—the Library of Congress has a digitized collection of over 2,000 maps dating between 1800 and 1899 from about 28 states, so you can start researching right from your computer.

Explore your neighborhood

Opening up your research to include the whole neighborhood, district, or town can provide you with details about more general changes that happened around your home. This can help paint a more vivid picture of not only your own home’s history, but also the streets use, the place where you take may walk your dog, the schools your kids might attend, and much more.

If you’re struggling to find historic photos of your house, investigating the neighborhood might lead to photos of similar houses built during the same period.

One great place to start is the Historic American Buildings Survey at the Library of Congress. This database is a collection of images and records from the early 20th century. Much of the collection has been digitized, and it’s searchable by location.

HABS—as it’s popularly called—doesn’t include every historic house in a town, but it’s definitely worth checking out. You’ll find not just exterior photos of houses, but also, in some cases, interior shots, floorplans, and other architectural drawings of significant structures. The database also includes public buildings like train stations and city halls, which offer a more holistic view of your town in the past.

Check the newspapers

Newspapers are a wonderful way to find out about the social history of your house. “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle is all online and searchable,” says Finkelstein. “They often reported on parties, so you can see who was socializing together and when.”

The New York Times digital archive is also highly informative, especially if your home is from the turn of the 20th century. The New York Times regularly reported on the social activity in New York City, Newport, and the Berkshires—among many other places.

Local libraries often provide access to old newspapers. They may also provide online access to certain databases of publications, like JSTOR, and subscription-based research tools, like Ancestry.com, which can help you learn more about the social history of your home.

Another great resource—recommended by the Brinsons—is Newspapers.com, which has a digitized collection of papers from all over America stretching back to the 1700s.

“We found wonderful first-hand accounts of life at Stony Ford through the old newspapers,” says Susan Brinson. “You should also think about looking at obituaries to find out more about the social history of your house and the family who once owned it that way.”

Set up a Google Alert

Brinson says that if you have specific names that you’re looking for in your research—whether it’s the name of a house, a neighborhood, or a previous owner—don’t be afraid to set up a Google Alert for those keywords.

In Brinson’s case, that meant setting up an alert for names of previous owners of Stony Ford. From there, she found a book mentioning the house and ended up buying it on eBay.

Look at the census

Checking out the census records is a good place to start if you know previous owners of your property and not much else. “If you search by address, you can find out the owners of the house, their nationality, and who their children were,” says Finkelstein.

“The census is done every 10 years, so you can see how the population of the house changes over time,” adds Finkelstein. “You can see if there were multiple families living at your address, too, so you can piece together if the house was ever a multi-family home.”

Expect to be surprised

Sometimes, the history will find you. The Brinsons were always aware that sometime in the 1930s, a portion of Stony Ford was lost—but they didn’t know why, whether it was due to a fire or some other maintenance-related issue.

They then learned that a nearby house had the missing section of their home, which added to their curiosity. Why would you pick up a part of a house and move it?

“A couple of weeks ago, a family showed up to our door saying that their Aunt Phoebe lived at Stony Ford in the 1930s grew up at the house as a child,” says Susan Brinson. “They revealed that the portion of the house was moved so Phoebe could have a place to live with her husband.”

Brinson said that she couldn’t contain herself when she learned of this moment in Stony Ford’s history. “What’s even more exciting is that their aunt is still alive today. I guess it’s time to find Phoebe!”