How do we find out what an old house originally looked like?
January 28, 2005 5:24 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend lives in an old house in an even older city (Poughkeepsie, New York). The building has obviously been subletted and then rebuilt. We think it was a one family, then a two-family, and now it's a one-family again. The layout is so weird with five bedrooms (one being in the attic), two kitchens and no living or dining rooms that we're really curious to find out what looked like originally. How can we go about digging up these kinds of records? Is there any way to find old floor plans or building codes from public records online or off? Further, can we find out about past owners and tenants?
posted by tomorama to Home & Garden (15 answers total)
This might be a hard row hoe. The only advice I can give it to check with your county assessors office, perhaps they will have a building record on file for tax purposes. When I worked for those boys, their records were old (sometimes in the early 1900s) and it was interesting what you could find. Overall though, I think this will be rough. Good luck.
posted by sled at 6:10 PM on January 28, 2005

Any old records are likely to at best show the footprint of the house. Is there a club of people with old houses they are renovating in town? What you need is to have an old house guy with a lot of experience to walk through the place. I have a neighbor who has restored many old houses. He can instantly pick out what is original and what is not, and where old walls, etc. used to be from pieces of evidence that are perfectly invisible to me until he points them out. You might also watch for other homes in the area that look the same from the outside and go knock on their door. You can look for past owners and tenants from old phone books and city directories at your local historical society.
posted by LarryC at 6:30 PM on January 28, 2005

Poughkeepsie is established enough that they probably keep fairly comprehensive records and have been for some time. With any luck at all building permits have been applied for and assessors have wandered through on occassion.

I would start with the city codes department and see what permits have been applied for over the years and then visit the assessors office. Also don't forget to drop in on the county clerk, catch him/her in the right mood when it's not too busy and they can be a wealth of information. County clerks know everything. By now, at the very least you'll know who the previous owners were and maybe could try contacting them or their survivors directly. Once you have the names you may also want to visit the library and see if they were of any local historical note. These types of records are usually the last to get digitalized so your best bet is a personal appearence.

At the very least you have an interesting winters research project and will learn far more about Poughkeepsie than most rational people would ever want to know. BTW, your post makes me wonder just how common these are. I've lived in two of them -- one right up the road from you in Catskill and another in Gloversville -- I thought we just had freaky taste in housing.
posted by cedar at 7:34 PM on January 28, 2005

I know the Minnesota History Museum offers a class that shows you how to research the history of your house and where to find the resources you need. I found a historical society listed in Poughkeepsie; perhaps they have something similar?
posted by belladonna at 7:41 PM on January 28, 2005

As an area resident, I'd say the above posters have offered you a good start, though your you should seriously consider the city and county clerks' offices, along with the local building inspector. Given the structure's multiple renovations, someone at Plass the Plumber, Wolfe Plumbing/HVAC, Schmaling Glass, Love/Effron, Central Hudson, or even Cablevision might be familiar with some of the place's history. Further inquiries to the local police/fire houses, and Adriance Memorial Library may also prove useful. Good luck!
posted by Smart Dalek at 8:13 PM on January 28, 2005

Another possibility, depending on the house's age: if it was built in the early 1900s (maybe earlier, I dunno) up to about 1940, there's a decent chance (15%? 20%?) it was a kit house. If you can find out the year it was built, or better yet, the maker, you're well on your way to finding the floor plan. There are tons and tons of books and web sites about kit homes of the early 20th century and reprinting floor plans. Aladdin and Sears were two of the biggest makers.

Still another possibility: a lot of older cities have a neighborhood association or other historical preservation groups interested in recording the history of the old neighborhoods. You may well be able to google for historical information about your neighborhood, which could give you some contacts for finding someone who possibly knows more about the old home....

Good luck!
posted by kimota at 8:25 PM on January 28, 2005

Depending on how old 'old' is, there probably won't be much in the way o detailed blueprints on file with the county and figuring out the original interior layout will be a bitch. You can easily find older tenants and owners by checking the city directories for each year (here they go back to 1867 or so, although the lookup-by-address section doesn't appear until around 1900). Sanborn insurance maps (which are mostly online, though you'll probably have to find a university library with a subscription; it might be easier to check out the originals at the library or historical society) show detailed footprints of houses over the years and indicate things like number of floors, building materials used in different sections of the house, locations of chimneys, etc.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 11:47 PM on January 28, 2005

You might also try going to the libraries at Marist and/or Vassar. I'm actually a Vassar alum, and I remember taking a class in which we toured Poughkeepsie and studied the public, commercial and residential architecture in some detail. Unfortunately, I can't recall who the prof was (sorry!), but I'm sure there are documents that would be useful in the library. The librarians would also know which professors use these documents on a regular basis, and those profs in turn might be able to help you unravel the structure of your house as LarryC suggests . While the info you get from the colleges might not be specific to your house, I bet it would give you a sense of typical period homes and so on.
posted by katie at 4:47 AM on January 29, 2005

In addition to the fine suggestions above: Find the oldest inhabitants of the immediate neighborhood, and ask them. Some neighbors stay in place for 50 years. Even if you learn little about your housing predecessors, you will surely learn about your neighbors.
posted by sacre_bleu at 4:54 AM on January 29, 2005

Tomorama...this is a long shot, but I'm from Poughkeepsie and my family has been in the area for generations. If you email me the address, I'll see what I can find out for you. Like I said, serious long shot, but what the hell, you never know.

tjeaton AT gmail DOT com
posted by spicynuts at 6:43 AM on January 29, 2005

Any images to share?

I took a studio once where we drew plans of courthouses only by looking at photos of every county courthouse in the state of Indiana. It was an interesting excercise.

Email in profile.
posted by Dick Paris at 11:56 AM on January 29, 2005

Reading the start of your question... I'm not a stalker and am not near Poughkeepsie -- but I am an architect.
posted by Dick Paris at 11:58 AM on January 29, 2005

Don't forget to check the county registry of deeds. Even though the units in the home were probably rented when it was split (and not owned as condos or something) you will at least be able to get the names fo the owners.
Even if all the deeds are not on the shelf, they store the archives and you can ask the people working their to dig that stuff up for you.
posted by sophie at 3:33 PM on January 29, 2005

See if the library has a set of Sanborn Maps which are handdrawn fire insurance maps from the late 1800s and early 1900s. They are drawn to a large scale, each house might be a half inch wide. It shows the outline of each building, and includes outbuildings, and names businesses. Really useful and fun to browse. Looks like Poughkeepsie had them.

Also, look at old City Directories at the library. You can lookup by address and see who was living at that address, and their occupations. They will list every familiy member.

posted by jjj606 at 4:28 PM on January 29, 2005

Take a walk. Developers often work with the same builders in focused areas of town. Just walk the streets in your neighborhood looking at the houses. Pounds to pennies says you'll find half a dozen that kinda look like your house (roof pitch the same, similar placement of windows, hey that looks exactly like our house, but with a porch, etc.). Have pictures of your house and knock on some doors. Be really nice and explain what you are doing and I can guarantee some people will let you poke around their house.
posted by jmgorman at 8:47 AM on January 30, 2005

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