Squeaky floor boards, layers of wallpaper, broken steps, and chipped bricks all create the character of an old house. But who put these characteristics there? Your house has a life of its own defined by the people who have lived in it.
Do you want to know more about the people who lived in your house? Or do you want to know more about the house itself? Was that porch original with the house? When was the kitchen remodeled, and by whom? Do you want to find out who owned the initials T.K. carved in the wooden floor of the back porch? Do you wonder who originally owned the land before the house was even built? Do you want to find out who built the home? Is there an old tale of an historic happening in your house?
These are a few of the many reasons why people research the history of their house or their ancestor’s house. Learning more about the homes of our ancestors can help us to learn more about their daily lives and their values. Looking beyond the names and dates of genealogy research, a house history can add interest to a family history.
Don’t stop with the history of a house. Research the history of the neighboring houses, and the community in which the house sits. Just as each of your ancestors wasn’t an island, houses are not islands either. How did the house and its residents fit into the community? These relationships are important to fully understand your ancestors.
You will want to begin your house history search as you would any other genealogy-related search: begin with what you know and work backward in time. Are you the present owner of the house, or do you know who the present owner is? It’s fairly easy to find the names of current property owners. Tax records are public records and many jurisdictions have searchable online databases. Begin with the most recent deed and work backward in time tracing the buyers and sellers through the years.
Most house history searches will begin with a deed search. A search of the tax records (usually online) will give the parcel number. Then you can go to the Register of Deeds and pull the deed. The deed will identify the grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer) and provide a legal physical description of the property.
If you live in the house or have access to the house, search the basement, attic, floorboards, and walls for hidden documents that might have been left behind. A visit to the local historical society or museum could net some information. Ask the society and museum workers if they might remember some of the history of the house. Interview the townsfolk. If you don’t currently live in the house, can you interview the current owners? It’s possible they’ve inherited some old photos or documents from previous owners.
As you trace a house’s history back through the generations, keep in mind that the person who lived in the house may or may not have been the owner. It’s possible the home was rented. Searching city directories and censuses will reveal who actually lived in a home at a given point in time. Compare these records to the land records for the same time period to determine if the home was rented.
Deed research may lead a straight line back to the beginnings of a house. It may also be a broken chain. Other documents will come into play when there is a gap in the deed chain. Sometimes probate records have property descriptions of the deceased. Or you may need to trace the residents of a house through city directories and census records if a deed cannot be found.
Are you researching the people as you go as well as the house history? Can you determine the relationships between the buyers and sellers? Was the home transferred by will from father to son, or was is sold to a unrelated person? If the property was a farm, was it farmed by a tenant farmer or by the owner? All of these details help to build on the character of the home.
Census records are perhaps the most popular tools to search for our ancestors and their place of residence. Most censuses beginning in the twentieth century provide a street address for urban entries. Census records can help you locate your ancestor’s residence and build the community in which your ancestor lived.
Fire insurance maps were created by the Sanborn Company in the late 1800s through the first half of the 1900s to help insurance companies determine insurance premiums. They are very detailed and can indicate building materials, dwelling use, street widths, address and lot lines, and building height. They show houses within the context of the community as a whole. (The Maps Genguide has more information about using maps in genealogical research.)
Bird’s eye view, or panoramic, maps were created between the years 1847 and 1920. Panoramic maps show a bird’s eye view of streets and individual buildings. These maps, while not drawn to scale, provide a valuable reference to the community as a whole. Buildings and other features are drawn on the maps and a legend will often indicate the occupancy of larger, more prominent buildings. Some maps include features like railroads, churches, cemeteries, and topographic features. A bird’s eye view map can visually show how your ancestor’s house fit into the community. (The Maps Genguide has more information about using maps in genealogical research.)
County histories and atlases were popular in the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. County histories provide a wealth of information about many locales across the United States. If your house is historic, you might find specific information about it in a county history. County histories provide detailed descriptions of communities. If your house is not historic, this resource will provide information about the surrounding area. (The County Histories GenGuide has more information about using county histories in genealogical research.)
City directories are a valuable tool to placing your ancestors at a certain place at a certain time, whether or not they were land owners. A city directory can provide a street address, identify neighbors, and provide information about the community in which your ancestor lived. (The City Directories GenGuide has more information about using county histories in genealogical research.)
Plat books provide graphical representations of a property. Some will show structures on a property while others will indicate property lines and neighbors. A sense of community can be gained from researching plat maps.
Newspaper research can yield a wide variety of helpful information for your house history search. Sale and rental notices have routinely appeared in newspapers since the late 1800s. Small-town newspapers often posted lists of people moving within the community, this activity often occurred in the spring. (The Newspapers GenGuide has more information about using newspapers in genealogical research.)
Deeds show the transfer of property ownership and usually include a physical description of the property. However, a deed for a property does not necessarily indicate who lived on the property. It may have been a rental property. When doing house and property history research, comparison with other resources will help to verify the residents of a certain property.
Wills often transfer property and indicate the location of that property. An accompanying estate inventory can provide a room-by-room description of the contents of a house.
Historical preservation societies often have files and create publications about historic houses complete with photographs and written histories. Many of these can be found on the Internet.
Photographs can show the house at different points in time and often identify previous owners. You may find photographs with family members in local publications or at historical societies, museums, and libraries.
Vital records (birth, marriage, and death records) often list the place of residence.
Vertical files are commonly found in libraries, archives, and historical or genealogical societies. These vertical files, filled with family papers, newspaper clippings, and other miscellanea, can be a valuable tool in your search for your ancestor’s home.
Building permits were commonplace after 1900. A building permit can help to identify the location and type of dwelling your ancestor owned.
Look at the architectural style of the house to help place it in a particular time period. Keep in mind that major renovations may have altered the original style of the house.
This list is by no means complete, but is a representation of popular building styles in America during that past few centuries.
Gothic Revival (1840-1880): This style borrowed features from Gothic cathedrals and were ornate and castle-like in appearance. Most often constructed of masonry or stone, common characteristics of this style were pointed windows, pinnacles, flat roofs with gabled ends, and leaded glass windows. There were also wood Gothic Revival homes that featured steeply-pitched roofs and gingerbread trim.
Greek Revival (late 18th to early 19th centuries): This style was a reflection of the Greek temples and went well beyond an architectural style for homes to become the most popular style for public buildings during this time period. Common characteristics were columns, a symmetrical shape, and low roof lines.
Italiante Style (1840-1855): This style was inspired by Italian Renaissance villas. Common characteristics included two- or three-story structures, flat or hip roofs, symmetrical rectangular shape, wide over-handing eaves, tall narrow windows, and double doors.
Second Empire (1855-1885): This style was modeled after the opulent architecture of Paris during the reign of Napoleon III. Common characteristics were a mansard roof, small porch entry, paired columns, and tall windows on the first story.
Queen Anne (1880-1910): This style became very popular after the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The house’s style is elegant, yet simple. Common characteristics include round or square towers, wrap-around porches, dormers, bay windows, steep roofs, asymmetrical shape, and rich ornamentation.
Georgian Colonial (1690-1830): A stately and symmetrical style that began during the colonial period. Common characteristics were a square symmetrical shape, five windows across the front, medium pitched roof, minimal roof overhand, and decorative crown over the front door.
Federal Style (1780-1840): The Federal style in America was based on the Adamesque style in England. Common characteristics include a low pitched roof, a fan light over the front door, classical detailing of entryway, symmetrical styling, delicate moldings, and smooth facades broken only by small porches.
Saltbox (1650-1830): Another style that carried over from the colonial period and is defined by a sloping roof on the back that results in the house being two stories on the front and one story on the back. The Saltbox is generally a wood frame house without a porch. The chimney is located at the center of the house.
American Craftsman (late 19th through early 20th century): This style features handcrafted work in stone and/or wood. Common characteristics include tapered and squared columns, low-pitched roof lines, deeply overhanging eaves, exposed rafters, and a covered front porch.
Cape Cod: This architectural style originated in New England during the 17th century. Common characteristics were a low broad building, one-and-a-half stories, steep pitched roof, large central chimney, clapboard siding, central front door surrounded by two windows on each side, and little or no exterior ornamentation.
Architectural Styles of America and Europe.This website serves as an architectural educational resource. Included are descriptions and photographs of homes including early American, Victorian, revival styles, modern styles, and postmodern styles.
DIY Network. From the DIY Network, a slideshow with 26 popular architectural home styles.
This Old House. The history of American houses, from the Colonial era to the modern age, is presented through photographs.
What Style is Your House? Learn about the different house styles through this guide of New England architecture.
Old Houses. This website provides a guide to old house styles and architecture through an overview of house styles.
updated July 2017