What information could I find out about my building in Chicago?
October 2, 2021 6:23 AM   Subscribe

I live in a 4 flat on Chicago's North Side, that was built in 1921. What kind of historical info could I find out about my building? Bear in mind that I have tons of experience with inept city everything, and am not afraid to stand for painful amounts of time in an obscure office with obstinate clerks to gain info. I'm unsure though about WHAT I could find out - past residents? Citations against the building through time? Disputes with the city? What is possible to discover, and how?
posted by tiny frying pan to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not familiar with historical building research in Chicago, but if you can find something like a recent local or national historical register nomination application for a building it will have a good overview of what kinds of info is available and citations for how they found it. You can probably find everything you listed and more, like info on the original builder and possibly advertising for it.
posted by sepviva at 6:39 AM on October 2, 2021

Response by poster: (small caveat or question - this building would probably not be considered historical by any means - unless it's age automatically makes it so? - it's a fairly unremarkable building - I'm just interested)
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:45 AM on October 2, 2021

Best answer: The Chicago History Museum has an excellent archive -- or had one 25 years ago, the last time I visited. You may be able to find photographs of your block over the years, for example.
posted by rdn at 6:57 AM on October 2, 2021

If you look at historical census records you can find out who lived there at those specific moments in time, with age, gender, and occupation listed. In DC at least building permits are public record, so I was able to find the original permit and when it was filed complete. There was also a second permit two years later when the sleeping porch was enclosed by the current owner.

If newspaper archives are indexed you may be able to search for your address; you may also find police records indexed by street and block.
posted by fedward at 7:14 AM on October 2, 2021 [3 favorites]

Go to your friendly neighborhood public library and ask a librarian for help. They may refer you to another librarian or library with the kinds of resources you need. Both the 1920 and the 1930 US Census are available online but are not searchable, AFAIK, by address. However, there may be city directories that will provide you with the name of the residents at a particular address. Sanborn maps will give you a sense of the neighborhood, the Library of Congress will give you access online to many of them.

Good luck!
posted by mareli at 7:16 AM on October 2, 2021

Best answer: If you look at historical census records

Both the 1920 and the 1930 US Census are available online but are not searchable, AFAIK, by address.

The 1940 Census is also available, and the 1950 Census will be available next April (2022) -- US law dictates that detailed census records (vs. the topline/aggregated population figures) be released 72 years after their collection.

I did this exact exercise, also living in Chicago, 9 years ago when the 1940 Census came out and was able to successfully identify who was living in my apartment then. I will also echo that it was not the easiest task (the records are not really set up for someone starting with an address and figuring out who lived there, versus with a name and trying to find their information) but it can be done!
posted by andrewesque at 7:27 AM on October 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This looks like a good place to start.
posted by sciencegeek at 7:27 AM on October 2, 2021

Best answer: City Directories are often an easy way to find out info about an address, they're sort of a reverse phone book -- you start with an address and it will tell you who occupies that address, whether a business or person, and depending on the directory I've seen them include the resident's career, their children's names and genders, and religious or fraternal affiliation (smaller communities tend to have more info). Since they're put out more frequently they will be more 'complete' than the every-decade census may be.

Edit: that link above has a link to ChicagoAncestors.org, which mines the Chicago City Directory data they've digitized, don't know the quality of the searches though.

Beyond that, your county recorder or register of deeds can provide legal information about a property -- and as far as bureaucracy goes, a recorder is essentially the county librarian, their legally-ordained job is explicitly to help residents find out information so they are usually more helpful than you'd expect.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:29 AM on October 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

I used to live in a city where there were lots of neighborhood historical societies and they got together once or twice a year for a citywide historical fair, like a history convention where every society had a table with pictures, models, and other historical info about the neighborhood. Does Chicago have anything like that?

I found out from my neighborhood society that the place I was living was very close to a famous musical group’s practice space, and then was able to use that to find a bunch of historical photos of the block both from the society and searching the musical group online. In general, if you can find famous residents nearby I think your rate of success goes up a bunch for digging up information.

If the building has been owned by the same landlord for a long time and they’re sociable, you might also get something out of asking them. I once had a landlord hand me a booklet about the history of the building I was living in because it had been in his family for 50+ years and he was a sentimental dude.

(Edit: Besides the above, the buildings were just standard row houses for the area. Nothing else of note.)
posted by A Blue Moon at 7:40 AM on October 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you google "Sanborn Fire Insurance Map" and your address, you may be able to find a historic map of your area--the Library of Congress has a large collection that's digitized. Local to Chicago, the Newberry Library and the Chicago History Museum could both be good resources; there may also be a neighborhood historical society that could be helpful, depending on what neighborhood you live in.
posted by carrienation at 7:51 AM on October 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

I researched my old loft building in LA, and city directories, historic maps and old newspapers (esp. the classifieds) were the most useful. I use Newspapers.com, rather than microfilm/fiche. I also used reverse directories, found names of businesses or individuals and then researched those—from produce companies to lawyers to accounting first to art galleries.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:08 AM on October 2, 2021

Oh, forgot about this excellent resource: this House History Checklist from the Northside Neighborhood History Collection at the Sulzer Regional Library, which is pretty comprehensive. (This came to me via the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society.)
posted by carrienation at 2:51 PM on October 2, 2021

Best answer: If you do a title search of the property, you will often find out all sorts of interesting information. What you will be able to find, specifically, is who owned the property, when it was sold and for how much, what mortgages it may have had on it and when paid off, etc. Also you will be able to go back beyond the date this building was built, and find out who the owners where before - and often (for a fairly boring, fairly "modern" building whose own history is perhaps not all that exciting) the earlier history is even more interesting than the more recent history.

What I mean by "title search" is either the formal type of title search that a title company might do for your property when you buy or sell a house - what they call "an abstract of title" in this article. And, presumably, you could hire a title company to do a title search on the property.

But you can also do the same research yourself. Pretty much all counties in the U.S. will have recent property records online. So you can do a "parcel search" or use the online GIS map to find current info for the property. You can also search real estates sales record the county will have. You might need the buyer name, seller name, property ID number (which you'll find in the parcel search).

Online you'll likely be able to go back so far. For my current county it is about 1967. For older records, you'll need to go to the county courthouse and do the search in person. The records are all public and it is not hard to do. Usually they will have someone who can help you a bit to learn the ropes. These are ALL public records.

What I recently did with our property is searched to find the record of property sale to us. Then I knew the exact name(s) of the immediately previous owner. So then I searched sales records for each of those people as buyer. That gave me the name of the previous owner, so then I searched that name. Continue until you can't go back any further.

Along the way I also found out about a few mortgages, mortgages paid off, etc.

I addition, you can look up county plat maps for various time periods. The current plat map will likely be online in GIS format. And then the county public records dept will have earlier plat maps available - hopefully all of them going back to the founding of the county.

But I have also had excellent luck just doing google searches for things like "my county, state plat map" "my county, state historical map" "My county, state map".

In my case I can find 1904, 1881, 1877, and 1844 plat maps, plus the current county GIS plat map, online.

The Bureau of Land Management has a search for land surveys and patents. Patents will be the homesteader or similar - so the first owner to acquire the land from the U.S. government after they "acquired" it from the native peoples and/or whatever other means (ie, Louisiana Purchase). In addition, they have land surveys, notes, maps, and other related info. It's all searchable online. Be sure to click on "related documents" and then look at all types - patents, surveys, LSR, CDI, Tract Books, etc.

You can also search court records for the various owner names you find. (Exactly how to do this will vary by locality.) Just for example, there was a huge court case that went all the way to our state supreme court dealing with the property where I currently live, dating from about 100 years ago when the whole area was still a single farm property. It involved an "illegal" will so it went in great detail into the history and relationships of the deceased owner, all of her heirs and relatives, the relatives and relationships of her first husband who were trying to make a (greater) claim on the property, and so on. All very fascinating if you are interested in such things.

Finally, you can just straight-up google any people or names you find. Often what you will turn up is surprisingly detailed. Places like findagrave.com and familysearch.org often have a fair bit of info, including short bios and such. And once you know names, asking at a local historical society is often beneficial.

Just for example, here are four sources about the first U.S. owner of the property I live on, that I had not seen before and found just now in 2 minutes of googling: Historical society listing of early business owners (our guy was a blacksmith, which I didn't know before), findagrave listing (very short bio, this could be filled out a lot now), history resources available a nearby library, summary of the Supreme Court case.

And searching in the Land Patents database, here are the original land patents for the same owner (including the first parcel in 1845 and then an additional three parcels I didn't previously know about until just now (hmm...).

And on top of that, here is the original 1843 land survey of the area - so the first U.S. land survey. This area was somehow overlooked in the earlier 1820s survey so the 1843 survey shows all the people who were squatting in the area, hoping to have first dibs on the property when the survey was finally completed.

It is also the earliest known map of the Santa Fe Trail through this area - the diagonal-ish line that makes its way across the northwest 1/4 of the map.

I've researched a few individual properties in this fashion and the results always turn out to be quite interesting, if you are interested in that type of thing.
posted by flug at 3:21 PM on October 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

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