How to Research a Historic Property
There are a number of reasons why a person would be interested in the history of a building. Some people want to know if their projects are eligible for Renaissance Zone tax credits; some people are interested in rehabilitating run down properties to their former glory; some people want to promote the heritage of an area to help develop tourism; others want to nominate a property to the National Register of Historic Places; while still others are simply curious. No matter what the driving reason is for wanting to learn more, there are a number of available resources that can help the researcher understand more about a property.
- The County Courthouse might have records pertaining to deeds, mortgages, wills, probate records, tax sales and court litigation. The courthouse will also have an abstract filed that provides a legal description of the property and who has owned it through time. The most current abstract is held by whoever holds the mortgage title to the property.
- City Hall also will have a number of records that relate to a property and its buildings. The Building Inspection Office will have original building permits. A building permit will provide information about the builder, the owner, the architect or contractor, materials, sketch of the floor plan, and original cost. The City Assessor’s Office will also have a legal description of a property and dates of construction for any buildings on the property.
- Tax records also contain legal descriptions of a building and might indicate changes to a property.After the legal description of the property has been established, a researcher can more easily trace other records. Other organizations that might contain records relevant to historic buildings include city, county, regional, and state historical societies; museums, archives, and libraries. Local universities and colleges also hold a number of archival and special collections that might include information about historic property. There are a number of significant sources to look for.
- Maps and Atlases: Sanborn Insurance maps provide detailed information for buildings and properties for a number of cities throughout the United States. Fire Underwriters Inspection Bureau maps provide information about businesses for smaller communities, but usually do not include houses. County plat maps or atlases show land ownership for large tracts of land and are especially useful for researching rural areas. The United States Geological Survey topographical maps also indicate the location and number of structures in rural areas and show terrain contours and major geographical features in relation to property and buildings.
- Photograph collections: local archival repositories are the best source for photographs. Universities, libraries, and county historical societies often have archival collections available to the general public. Former property owners and neighbors might also have photographs of a building.
- Previous studies: Local and state archives might also have information about architectural surveys that might have been conducted in the past as well as nomination forms for the National Register of Historic Places. If a building is in a historic district, surveys and nomination forms might include information on individual buildings as well.
- Books and Periodicals: Community, neighborhood, business, and family histories may contain information on buildings. City directories contain information about past and present owners and occupants of homes and businesses, list the primary business for a building, and can be used to trace the location of both people and businesses over the years. Newspapers and magazines might also contain information about people and properties relevant to a research project.
- Other Information: Ask neighbors about previous owners, changes to the property, and neighborhood history. Check state and federal census records for information about former property owners. Check archival repositories for information about local architects and architectural firms, as well as records that contain information about significant people or events associated with a property
- Look for more than just buildings. There are a number of significant features of a property that are often overlooked in the research process. Landscape features, public art, and other items might have significance and historic value in relation to or separate from the primary building. No matter what the reason for research is, the process can be very exciting and rewarding. History and heritage can arouse a strong passion in people and a preservation project often benefits multiple people and is an asset to any community.