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Piecing Together Your House’s History

Have you been thinking about restoring an old building or simply learning more about the house you live in? This article, published by Penny Jones in the "Preservation News’ explains how to go about collecting the required information.

Researching the history of a house is like putting together an intricate jigsaw puzzle--with the added chore of finding the pieces first. Often some of the pieces are never found. A fundamental and unavoidable prerequisite to assembling the history of any building is careful research, propelled by perseverance and a certain amount of luck. Step one should be a complete deed or title search of the property on which the building stands--only the property itself, not structures on the property. Start at the county courthouse or records depository. Begin by locating the current owner’s name, and work backward through the grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer) indexes and the actual deed books to the earliest transaction.

With the knowledge of who owned the property and when, you can assemble other data. There is a wealth of public resource material that can be plumbed for information about old structures: will books and indexes, probate records, marriage records, tax records, census records, building permits, subdivision and plat books, and the minutes of meetings of public bodies such as the city council. Most of these public records are housed in county courthouses or state archives. Often you will be using microfilm or other types of copies rather than the original documents.

Maps are a valuable source of information on houses and other old buildings. County atlases, city maps. railroad maps, and bird’s eye views will show houses and buildings as well as property lines and roads. Sanborn maps are invaluable in urban areas. Dating from 1876 to the present. Sanborns are insurance maps covering more than 12,000 U. S. cities and towns. The maps show the location and actual "footprint" of buildings and record building materials, number of stories and other useful tidbits. A list of available Sanborn maps can be obtained from the Library of Congress but often local libraries and historical societies have copies.

City directories and crisscross directories can also be helpful. They not help date structures but also may reveal the occupations of owners and tenants. Keep in mind that cities often change street names and numbering systems, but in some cases indexes to these changes are available

Consult old newspapers for obituary notices on previous owners of your house, articles on fires or other natural disasters, advertisements for house sales, or articles and advertisements on the development of subdivisions.

A few lucky researchers will come upon rare original architectural plans for houses--a gold mine of information. Your best leads are historical societies, archives, or architectural firms that have been in existence for a long time. Occasionally relatives of architects keep their architectural plans.

One of the most valuable sources of pieces for your puzzle is a photograph. Whether they are professional photos in archival collections of long-established firms or libraries or simply snapshots in family albums, photographs will supply you with fascinating bits of personal and architectural information. Be on the lookout also for engravings, lithographs, drawings, and paintings.

Utility companies sometimes have collections of photographs of structures and streetscapes and records of initial hookups.

In addition to checking the more public records and information, you can mine many family sources for insight into the families and lifestyles of the former occupants of your home--diaries, letters, bills, account books, insurance policies, scrapbooks, and journals.

Another important source is oral tradition. Using a tape recorder, interview old neighbors or family members about a house or neighborhood. Corroborate this oral history by documentation.

As you find and assemble the pieces of your puzzle, don’t forget the most obvious source of information: the building itself. Its architectural style can lead you to the period when it was built, especially if it can be compared with similar structures in the area. Look closely at original materials and construction techniques for information using nail chronology. dendrochronologv (wood dating) and other scientific methods. Archeological investigations of the building and site can also aid your research,

If all this research sounds like a great deal of work, it is! But it can be fun, too. Don’t forget others who have toiled before you. Check with the National (or state) Register of Historic places. with local landmark commissions and iii books, magazines and pamphlets on local history.

Two books are recommended to help you with your research. Houses and Homes: Exploring Their History, published in 1987 by the American Association of State and Local History in Nashville. Also House Detective: A Guide to Researching Birmingham Buildings.

was published in 1988 by the Birmingham, Alabama Historical Society.

Whether you pursue your house puzzle out of sheer curiosity or to help restore or renovate it keep one bit of advice in mind at the end. Pass it on. Make a copy to hand down to the next owner and provide a second copy for your local library or Historical Society.

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