Thursday, February 24, 2011

Do you know your roost's history?

Are you curious about the history of your old house? What story would your home tell if its walls could talk? Perhaps someone lived there that later went on to become famous, a juicy scandal could have taken place, or the house may have been designed by a well-known architect.

If you are willing to put a little time and energy into research, below are some steps to discovering your historic home's history:

  • Is your house in a historic district? Check with your local SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office) to see if your house has been surveyed either in a municipal or county-wide comprehensive architectural survey. If so, ask for access to a copy of the survey to see if you house has been included in the inventory.
  • Check your county's GIS website or tax records (possibly located at your courthouse or government administration facility) for basic information. Ask the staff to help you navigate the website or online records database if you need help. Sometimes these records will include the date in which the house was constructed.
  • Check with your local historical society, archives, or public library for basic research resources like local histories, geneologies, architectural history publications, photographic histories and old postcards. Explain to the archivist or person on staff what you are looking for- these people are a great help and often a wealth of information regarding sources pertinent to your research.
a small piece from a 1907 Sanborn Insurance map 
  • Utilize Sanborn Insurance maps. (image at right) These were created starting in the last quarter of the 19th century by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company for many cities and towns. You can glean key bits of information from them about the buildings themselves, street patterns, and the building's use.  A good library or university archives should have these maps available in digital or sometimes hard-copy format. Some originals are even in color.
  •  Check with your local newspaper's archives to see if they have any old photographs or articles that might mention your neighborhood. If you are lucky, your local library might have newspaper articles indexed by year and separated by subject. You can usually access them on microfilm. 
  • If you know the previous owners, ask them what they know about the property. Try to locate and talk to "old-timers," or folks who have been in the area a long time, who may remember previous owners of your house.
  • Check old City Directories (usually kept at your local library or university). 

If you don't live in a historic home, try out these research methods on a historic building in your community that speaks to you. Most importantly, have fun! 

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