Do-it-Yourself Detective Work
How to look for clues about the history of your house
By Stephanie Joy Smith | Online Only | September/October 2008
Like many homeowners, Thisbe Nissen and her husband made many intriguing discoveries while renovating their house, from a hidden well and remnants of a fence, to a bunch of poles buried in the back yard (the poles are currently holding up bean plants in the garden). "We would love to know about the choices that got made at different places," Nissen says.
The good news is, you don't have to be a professional to be a good house detective. Here are a few simple steps you can take to find out more about the history of your home. Just a warning though: This can be addictive.
1. Take a good look at your home, inside and out.
Simply inspecting the exterior of your house and comparing to others in the neighborhood is the easiest way to spot alterations that have been made over the years. Changes in material, scars, or discoloration on bricks can suggest how the house has changed. Look inside, as well. Exposed frames in the attic and basement may reveal marks left by the builder, including dates, or even stamps indicating that your house was assembled from a kit. Closets can also be a good place to check for old paint schemes or wallpaper, or secret messages left by previous inhabitants.
2. Ask around.
Neighbors, local business owners, mail carriers—anyone who knows the neighborhood well can probably tell you something about the people who used to live in your house, and might be able to remember when changes were made to it. In addition, don't forget to check with your local historical society.
3. Follow the paper trail.
A simple deed or title search will give you the names of the people who owned the property over the years, and tax records can reveal how the property has changed over time. They sometimes include photos, as well. Many cities also have fire maps dating to the late 19th or early 20th century that can show the footprint of your house and the layout of the neighborhood. To learn more about the lives of the people who lived in your house (how many children they had, how they made a living), check census records and newspaper archives.
Stop by Flea Markets, Antiques Stores, and Salvage Shops
Getting ready to restore your house? Looking for that elusive doorknob or piece of stained glass to recapture its period look? Warehouses specializing in architectural antiques are hotter than ever. Thisbe Nissen visited the Historic Albany Foundation's Architectural Parts Warehouse (79 Lexington Ave., Albany, NY 12206; 518.465.2987;) and Antique and Vintage Woods of America (2290 Rte 199, Pine Plains, NY 12567; 888.382.6240).
Here are a few of our favorites:
2311 18th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009, 202.332.3370
Specializing in bath accessories, brackets, columns, vintage hardware, lighting, ironwork, stained glass, and much more.
52 Indian Point Lane, Harborside, Maine 04642, 207.326.4938
Call ahead for an appointment, since the owners may be off looking for architectural treasures. They have windows, plumbing fixtures, doors, lighting, mantles, hardware, and much more.
124 West 24th St., New York, NY 10011, 212.989.8401
Featuring bronze, iron, stonework, terra cotta, tiles, mantles, hardware, and more.
4325 N. Ravenswood, Chicago, IL 60613, 773.348.0622
Specializing in art, ceramics, furniture, historically significant pieces, religious artifacts, midcentury modern furnishings, stained glass, and much more.
453 South La Brea, Los Angeles, CA 90036, 323.939.4403
You'll find doors, windows, cabinets, mail slots, medicine chests, and lighting.
308 Second Ave. SE, Cullman, AL 35055, 256.737.0554
Ironwork, stained glass, terra cotta, plaster work, doors, lighting, and other treasures.
Don't forget the Preservation Resource Center warehouse, which has made it a point to salvage important elements from New Orleans houses slated for demolition in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Materials include floorboards, joists, flooring, and barge boards, among other things.
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.