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! 

Linking to:


  1. We just moved into a 1920 Sears Roebuck Home last month with what we believe is the original homestead house out back. :) Thanks for the tips!

  2. Hi Kimberly! Sears kit houses are SO cool! You are lucky to live in one because I'm not sure how many of them survive. Thanks for stopping by :)

  3. Hi Megan, I'm catching up with your blog. This post is great! I also love your home decor posts and photos. Your house is beautiful!

  4. Hi Kaitlin! Thank you so much! I'm definitely having fun blogging. Hoping to do more preservation-related posts soon once we transition into home ownership. I really enjoy your blog as well :) Keep up the good work!

  5. hopping over from the lettered cottage
    love this post. we love to find out more about our 214 year old house. Our whole town is a historic district so there are LOTS of old photos. THe local Historical Society is a weatlh of information!

  6. also from tlc.. we are about to celebrate the big 100 year birthday party for my house! well.. next year.. but is it weird that i have already started planning it? ;)i sit on our historic neighborhood board.. and we have good info on all the big well known homes but unfortunately zippo on the small 'unknowns' like mine. talking ot the oldies in your neighborhood really is a great tip!! fun post- thanks! :)

  7. Misty: Wow! 214 years old? That is incredible! Good for you for preserving it for future generations and for working towards telling its story :)

    Lauren: That is awesome! Are you going to serve birthday cake off your porch? I think that is so cool and not at all weird that you are planning already (I would be doing the same thing)! Learning about the "unknown" historic homes in a neighborhood definitely takes some digging and dedication on the part of homeowners and historians, but it can be done. Good luck to you!