You live in a historic house, but don’t have any real information about its past, aside from a paragraph in a National Register district nomination and the approximate construction year on your tax bill. There is obviously so much more to know about a building. So how do you learn the history of your house? 4/1 Design happily writes up House Histories for interested homeowners – and here’s an outline of exactly what goes into researching one, in case you want to take it on yourself.
We started doing House Histories to go along with the required documentation for Preservation Durham’s historic plaque applications. We also think they’d make a pretty great gift for that hard-to-shop-for loved one, or for a small business owner who operates from an old building.
A successful House History research project involves a combination of persistence, patience and a good instinct for sources. A few journeys down research rabbit holes also help.
Here in Durham, the first place to go for information on a building is always OpenDurham. The free website, started and maintained by Gary Kueber, is a clearing house for information about Durham’s history and buildings. Most buildings listed on the National Register have an entry with their description from their district listing transcribed. Maps and historic photos are included, when available. Kueber has spent countless hours digitizing various local photo archives, and sometimes there’s even tidbits in the comments there.
It’s always a good idea to look at the full National Register nomination for a house to glean interesting background neighborhood information and search for clues for architects.
Not every building will have photos or articles, so a is a surefire way to document history and find people associated with the house is deed research, or tracing the house’s ownership back to the original owner. This is done by looking up the current owner’s deed of sale online. From there, the search is continued through the chain of grantees and grantors until the first one is found. It can be a bit tedious, but is worth it. This process is required for the aforementioned historic plaque application.
Equipped with a list of past owners, we then turn to the city directories to see if the owners were also the home’s occupants. Thanks to Durham’s universities and economic ups and downs, many single family houses in Durham served as rental properties, so have had a shocking number of inhabitants over the years. So where does one find a city directory? Digital NC has digitized versions of city directories, going all the way back to 1875. City directories of yore listed a person’s place of employment after their home address, so you can discover interesting tidbits beyond residents’ names.
We once dated a home’s second story addition by comparing addresses and occupants in a city directories. One year a new street number showed up in a city directory, with no corresponding building on a map, so we were able to deduce the date of the major addition.
While city directories only list the homeowner and adult family members, census records show the entire household, including everyone’s ages. I’ve found that ancestry.com is the easiest way to look up individuals in the census records. Given changes to street names and numbers, misspellings of family names, and difficult handwriting from the past, this can be a tricky source to comb through.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps are one of our personal favorite tools for research. (Some day, Emily hopes to wallpaper my bathroom in a huge Sanborn Map.) The maps were produced by the Sanborn Company to document buildings so that they could be accurately insured. Maps include information about a building’s use (residential or commercial), its building materials, and number of stories—all important things to know for liability reasons. Durham’s first Sanborn map dates to 1884, and expanded versions were published in 1888, 1893, 1898, 1902, 1907, 1913, 1937 and 1950. The maps can be accessed online through the Durham County Library with your library card number. Some maps can be found (in full color versions, to boot!) on UNC’s North Carolina Maps site. If these maps get you excited, check out this Chicago website, which places an overlay of Sanborn maps over current Google maps, and this project that researched the locations of theaters in Durham over the years.
After building plans—which are next to impossible to find for most homes—the most sought after research pieces are historic photos. As mentioned above, Open Durham has a good number of historic photos amassed from various archives. Open Durham’s entries are searchable by map, which is especially useful for finding photos for buildings without photo listed in their individual entry. Sometimes, a photo tagged for one address shows the building next door in the background or clipped on the side of the frame. This was the case for the Bassett House, as seen in the image below. Durham County Library’s North Carolina Collection has a solid collection of digitized local photos on its Durham Historic Photograph Archives site.
While there’s an ever-increasing collection online of digitized photos, physical archives can also be essential for a project. Duke University has a lovely archive and helpful librarians. When I go to an archive, I always take my iphone to with me to snap reference photos of photos and documents. It’s faster than making copies (if that’s allowed at all) and is more accurate than notes, which I also take. You also get to feel like a Cold War-era spy stealing classified documents!
Newspaper archives can yield articles with interesting tidbits about the home and its occupants, though they can be especially tedious to search. The Bassett House was used as a designer showcase for the Women’s Junior league in 1976, and several articles with interior photos (a very rare bird) were published. The Durham County Library has microfilm records of all of the Durham newspapers.
While you’re digging around in newspaper records, check for the obituaries of early owners. It can be easier to start with county records and cemetery listings for birth and death dates first. There are a fair number of grave entries listed on this cemetery census site. I always start with Mapleview Cemetery, as that was the main public cemetery in Durham for many decades.
Once the collection of owners/occupants, deed and census records, maps and any photos or newspaper articles is complete, the writing begins! Our goal is to create a narrative combining the physical history of the house with that of those who lived there. As local historians, we are able to link various properties and people we’ve researched previously. We are also able to draw connections between important events in a homeowner’s life and changes in to the structure. For example, after the death of a spouse, the house may be sold or cut up into apartments. Knowing the exact date of precipitating life events helps date alterations, which makes for a richer—and more accurate—story.
Sometimes there’s a lot, sometimes there’s a little, but there is always a story to tell. Drop us a line and let’s get started on your home!