By Carolyn L. Barkley
Ever since I was a young girl, I have loved touring historic houses. I try to imagine what living in a house would have been like and I wonder about the people who lived there. Each house has its own peculiar ambience. Some houses look as if the occupants have just stepped out for a minute; others feel more like show-pieces in which it is difficult to imagine living one’s life. Even empty houses, like Drayton Hall outside of Charleston, South Carolina, provide an atmosphere that teases the visitor with images of the events, both tragic and joyful, that must have occurred there. If only the walls could speak…
A house history, developing a “pedigree” for a house, is rewarding research. If you are facing one of those proverbial brick walls in your family research, learning about the history of your house, or the house of an ancestor or relative, offers an enjoyable change of pace – and your research just might uncover some information to help breach your brick wall. Sally Light’s House Histories: A Guide to Tracing the Genealogy of Your Home (Golden Hill Press, 1989) is a basic resource. In addition, many localities provide house history guides for their areas including “Your House Has a History” in Chicago; “Alexandria House Histories” in Alexandria, Virginia; “How to Research the History of Your House (or Other Building) in New Orleans;” and “House Histories: How to Trace a House Genealogy” in Pittsburgh.
This article outlines a series of steps to follow in researching your house history, covering both “bricks and mortar,” and the people who lived within its walls.
1. The Physical House. You will want to learn all you can about the house itself.
a. Locate photographs of the house in family photo albums or picture collections. Arrange your photographs in chronological order and note any changes that occurred, such as the addition of porches or rooms.
Describe the architecture used in designing and building the house. What interior elements point to a certain time period for construction? To help you answer the question, you may want to refer to books such as A Field Guide to American Homes, by Virginia and Lee McAlester (Knopf, 1984) or What Style Is It? A Guide to American Architecture by John C. Poppeliers and S. Allen Chambers (rev. ed., Wiley, 2003).
b. Depending on the age of the house, talk to neighbors who may be able to provide you with anecdotal information about the house and the neighborhood. Read Joe Brickey’s article “Adding Another Dimension to Your Genealogy.” Draw a floor plan of your house and use it as a stimulus for discussion.
c. Is there an historic survey for houses in your locality? Survey information can be found in historical societies, state libraries and archives, or through state preservation department such as the 110,000-site database maintained by Virginia Department of Historic Resources. These surveys may include both pictures and a physical description of the house, as well as information about the owner. In addition, check to see if the WPA included the house in its inventory of structures in your community.
d. Has a history of your neighborhood been published? Even if your house is not included in such a history, carefully note the resources used by the author and consult them for additional background information. Historical societies as well as local and state libraries may have photograph collections that will snapshot your neighborhood at various times.
e. Visit the local registry of deeds and trace the chain of title for the house. Make a list of the names of owners, including the value of the property for each sale and the property description. If the price of the property changes significantly from one sale to the next, it may signal a renovation or addition to the structure. You may need to refer to mortgage books, wills, and estate papers to create a complete chain of title. In addition, check to see if there are plat maps from the time of the town or city’s establishment, as well as maps showing any changes to the plat in later years.
f. Visit the local tax office to review tax assessments for the property. Once again, a change in the assessment may indicate the addition to the structure.
g. Visit the local building permit office. Using the information you discovered at the registry of deeds and the tax office, search for building permits for the house, either for its initial construction, or for any later additions. A building permit will provide the dimensions of the original building and any additions, as well as the type of construction. It may also provide the names of the owners, builders, and architects.
h. If the house is located in a city or large town, consult Sanborn Fire Insurance maps that may be available through your public or state library. These maps can be very helpful, providing lot size and building outlines, as well as information about neighboring houses or businesses. You can trace changes to the building and neighborhood by consulting several editions of these maps.
2. Occupants. You may also want to learn more about the people who lived in your house.
a. In a city or larger town, a review of city directories will be able to provide you information about owners. Search first by address, noting the names of owners in each year’s directory. Once you have created the list of owners by year, check the directories by the owners’ names for additional information. Depending on the year and the directory, you may find places of employment, or the names of wives and adult children still living at home. This search may occasionally yield vital records information (usually deaths) as well as the designation of “widow” or “widower.”
b. Search for each of the owners in appropriate census enumerations. Note the children in each family and their relative ages, as well as other individuals who may have also lived in the house.
c. Search local newspaper indices for any articles about the owner of your house and his family. This search may provide obituaries for members of the household, marriages, calamities such as fires, legal entanglements, community involvement, etc.
d. Search all vital records to which you have access for the owner of your house and his family.
Once you have collected information about the physical house and the people who lived in it, create a chronology of your house that integrates both house and occupant events, documenting the source of each entry. Add pictures from your family’s or another collection. When you have completed the chronology with all of its attached documentation, you may just hear what the walls have been trying to whisper in your year.