How to research the history of my house
January 30, 2018 6:52 AM   Subscribe

We bought a lovely two-flat in Chicago last year. It was built 100 years ago and converted into a single family home in 2005. How can I find information about the history of my house? Would love to know about past owners, old photos of the street, etc.

We exchanged friendly notes with the people we bought it from, but they only owned it for five years before us, so they didn't seem to have anything of note history-wise. According to one of the neighbors, the people who owned the building before them, when it was converted, hid a cache of materials about the history of the house in the walls somewhere (!) during the conversion, but we're not inclined to pull a Chuck McGill and punch holes to find it...
posted by chimpsonfilm to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You could have a look at the census records for the house - here are some tips from the NYPL on Searching the Census by Address.

Some place list past ownership records in the assessor's database (mine does) but I don't know if Chicago does.
posted by mskyle at 7:00 AM on January 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A few things I've done on my previous house and current property:

Ask the neighbors, especially older folks who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time. Expect them to be completely wrong about things though, as they may be misremembering stuff. If something doesn't sound right it probably isn't. One guy told me my neighbor's house was moved from another town but it clearly was not. YMMV.

Check the registry of deeds in your county. This is fun. Expect to spend a few hours there. They may have some of this on-line but chances are older records won't be digitized yet. I assume it's similar in all counties, but this is how I did it: You start at the most recent deed, the one recorded when you bought the house. This will reference a previous deed by book and page number. You then search for that book/page at the registry. Keep going back until you can't go back any further. You'll get things like all the previous owners and property boundaries. Some of the older records will say things like "the Northwest corner, 20 paces from Farmer Brown's oak tree..."

Look for old maps. A lot of these are on-line. This might not tell you about the building but it can show you how the neighborhood has changed and grown. You might see where farms and factories once existed where housing developments are now.

Check your town's historical society. Ask if they have anything about your neighborhood.

Search eBay for old postcards and/or photos of your town. Might be difficult with a big city like Chicago but you can search for your street or neighborhood. A lot of old postcards were just photos converted into postcards, I've found.

Check census records.

Search old newspaper archives for your street or neighborhood.

Search every nook and cranny of your house. Look for old maintenance tags on the furnace, stuff nailed to the basement rafters, the attic, etc. Look for old knob and tube electrical fittings, old plumbing that may not be connected to anything, initials carved in door frames, etc.
posted by bondcliff at 7:13 AM on January 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

If the four part BBC series A House Through Time (review) is ever available to you in the US, try and watch it. Although I imagine research sources will be quite different for Liverpool and Chicago, it's worth watching for inspiration and storytelling if nothing else.

Restoration Home, also on the BBC, is another fascinating series about restoring and researching the history of homes.
posted by humph at 7:26 AM on January 30, 2018

Best answer: I have a few minutes. I do research (historical and genealogical) and have and waiting for the gas man to show up at my house. If you PM me an address, I can look up records through my & subscriptions.

The way I normally research a home is research the most recent census (1940) where they index the street. To go father back I follow the owner or older owners in the neighborhood in each older census. I also search the address in Newspapers and sometimes out interesting info.
posted by beccaj at 7:43 AM on January 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

I don't know how searchable the permit records are in Chicago, but in DC the public library will help you search them for your property. I found the original construction permits for our house, filed in May 1924 and recorded as complete in December of the same year. The sleeping porch was fully enclosed in 1926, according to permits. The tenant's occupation was "driver."

You may also have some luck looking in public sale records. Between permits, tax records, and the census you may get a pretty good idea of who lived there and what they did to the house.
posted by fedward at 7:48 AM on January 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Check out Property Shark.
posted by cwarmy at 10:28 AM on January 30, 2018

Best answer: A city directory is like a reverse phone book; you start with an address, and it tells you who lived there, and in older ones it even included info like the breadwinner's job, how many kids, what religion they are, etc. The library probably has a big shelf of them, otherwise the historical society or university library are other places to look.

The benefit of those is that they'll list renters; the register of deeds will show who owned the property, but not much about who lived there unless you know it has always been an owner-occupant.
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:08 AM on January 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Libraries often have copies of local Sanborn fire insurance maps. These can be pretty fun to look at for your neighborhood, assuming they have them. They typically were for heavily developed areas and sometimes can go back to the late 1800s. You can also try the library or purchase historical USGS topographic maps. There’s a website I use for work called where you can click “viewer” and then put in an address, and available topo and aerial maps will be listed and you can click through which is fun. The more heavily populated the area the more maps you’ll find.
posted by FireFountain at 11:08 AM on January 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

I researched our Chicago 3-flat using the resources cjelli links to. Eventually, though, the online resources end and you have to access physical archives in person.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 9:02 PM on January 30, 2018

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