Who Lived In a House Like This? A Brief Guide to Researching the History of Your NYC Home
Have you ever wondered about the history of your home? Who used to live there or what their lives were like? Philip Sutton, a librarian at the New York Public Library, said he would get these types of questions so often he decided to put together a brief guide to the kinds of materials that someone might use to research a New York City building’s history. It is less about architectural history, and more about the history of the building and the people who owned and lived in it. Sutton shared his guide and research tips with MetroFocus.The Library’s Milstein Division is home to one of the largest free United States history, local history and genealogy collections in the country. Looking at maps, census data, city directories, land conveyances, photographs, newspapers and local histories available at the New York Public Library and beyond, it is possible to construct a history of your home.
What was the neighborhood like when my building was built?
Research begins and often continues with secondary sources — reference books: encyclopedias, guidebooks, dictionaries, and local histories. Kenneth Jackson’s latest edition of the “Encyclopedia of New York” is a good first stop for all kinds of information pertaining to New York City history. Entries are short but rich in detail, well written, and usually include further reading suggestions. Another invaluable text is I.N. Phelps-Stokes‘s “The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909“. This reference book records important daily events taken from contemporary sources, like newspapers, and features an index that includes information about land grants and farms, entries for streets, buildings and individuals, and much more from the history of the island. This text is also available online, courtesy of Columbia University.
If you’re researching the history of a building in Brooklyn, you will at some point need to consult a reprint of Henry Stiles’s “A History of the City of Brooklyn: Including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburg” (1869). This text contains a lot of very detailed information regarding the early days of Brooklyn, as well as information about individuals, farms, businesses, streets and much more. A digital version is available through the Internet Archive. “The Neighborhoods of Queens” by Claudia Cryvat Copquin and “The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn” edited by John B. Manbeck are two examples of local history texts that examine the city’s boroughs more closely, whilst Eugene Armbruster’s “Brooklyn’s Eastern District” (1942) is a good example of a book dedicated to a single neighborhood, and describes in great detail the development of Williamsburg in the mid-19th century.
In addition to reference materials, the Milstein Division has a collection of over 1,000 historic New York City guidebook titles, from the early 19th century to the present day, and includes not just general guides, but ones specifically for stores, restaurants and entertainments. City guides may include demographic information, street directories, public institutions, maps and illustrations. This is in addition to any number of architectural guidebooks.
Is my building in a historic neighborhood?
Perhaps you live in a building located in a New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission Historic District. If so, your building may be described in a Historic District Designation Report, available in the Library or on the Commission’s website. Detail varies, but reports sometimes include information about when a building was constructed. You can tell if your building has Landmark status by checking its Property Profile Overview at the New York City Department of Building’s Buildings Information System.
Why is my street called Henry Street?
Here are some some useful titles and websites that concern themselves specifically with the past and current names and origins of neighborhoods, streets, roads, lanes, parks, bridges and more:
- “Naming New York: Manhattan & How They Got Their Names” by Sanna Feirstein
- “The Street Book: An Encyclopedia of Manhattan’s Street Names and Their Origins“ by Henry Moscow
- “Old Streets of New York“
- “Brooklyn By Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Restaurants, Parks, Bridges and More Came to be Named“ by Benardo and Weiss
- “Bronx: History in Asphalt, the Origin of Bronx Street Names“ by John Mc Namara
Who owned my building?
A good way to research the history of a building is to make a list of its various owners over the years. You might work backwards, starting with the current owner, tracing ownership back to a time when the land upon which the property is built was an as yet unmarked plot in the middle of farmland, then owned by a Dutchman or an Englishman. As is often the way, we start with a map.
MyCITI Map Portal: This is a digital information hub in the form of a map. Here you will find invaluable information listing current ownership, basic building history details, the building’s Block & Lot number (a vital way of identifying property through shifting geographical and electoral boundaries and changing street numbers), and a wealth of information pertaining to the structure and community it is located in.
ACRIS: The Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS) allows you to search property records and view document images for Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn from 1966 to the present. You can trace ownership back to 1960s: check Property Records. Use your building’s Block and Lot number to search this database — you’ll need to keep an eye out for the Deeds amongst all the mortgage stuff. Again, coverage is for the five boroughs of New York City.
Land Conveyences: Microfilm, at the City Register’s Office: [For Manhattan] 66 John Street, 13th Floor. Here you will find conveyances (or property deeds) and records of land and property transactions dating back to the colonial period. You will need to consult indexes using the Block and Lot number, and then check the Liber and Page numbers listed in the index to access the full records. Land conveyances and their availability across the five boroughs of New York City are described in more detail in a separate blog post.
When was my building constructed? And by whom?
One of the most common questions, and, potentially, one of the most difficult to answer, is “who was the architect?” If there was one. If you happen to live in Manhattan, and below a certain street, the Office for Metropolitan History Buildings Permit Database: 1900-1986 is a great resource for discovering who built your property and when, as are the previously mentioned Landmark Commission designation reports. Real estate sections in historic newspapers sometimes contain news about the construction and sale of property, especially if your building is more recent. The New York Public Library has many newspaper titles. In addition to this, trade papers may contain information about a building’s construction — the Real Estate Record and Guide (1868-1922), digitized and made available free online by Columbia University, is a particularly useful example.
Have there been any changes to my building over the years? What was there before?
Street and fire insurance maps will describe a building’s location, construction materials and use over a period of time, as well as the names of some business, factories, churches and the boundaries of former farmland — useful if you’re going back in time. Visit The New York Public Library’s Map Division to look at these and other maps, or consult them digitally via the Map Division’s collections of Fire Insurance, Topographic, Zoning and Property Maps of New York City. In addition to NYPL’s collections, Queens Library, Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn and New York historical societies all have great map collections.
New York City’s Buildings Building Information System: This database includes property profile information, building permits, certificates of occupancy, complaints, inspections etc., amongst a whole wealth of other documents.
Who lived in my building? And what were they like?
You may have been able to construct a list of people who owned your building based upon property deeds, mortgage records and so forth, but of course it doesn’t neccessarily go that a building’s owners actually lived there. There are a number of ways of working out who lived in your building.
City directories, available on microfilm or digitally through the Fold3 database, will generally list the head of household, their occupation and home and business addresses. They run from the late 18th century through the 1930s and are a pre-telephone telephone directory. Telephone directories began in the late 19th century and are located in the Microforms Reading Room, as are address directories starting from 1929. Address directories, as the name suggests, are searchable by address and will indicate immediately who lived in your building — or rather, the head of household. If you want to discover the identity of the people who lived with the person listed in the directory, and everyone who lived at an address before 1929, you might consider looking at the US Federal and New York State censuses.
To do this, however, you will need to discover what Enumeration District the building was in at the time the census was conducted — this is known as the ED number, which changes from census to census. You can do this by referring to an ED number generator, available at a site called One-Step, or by consulting election maps and indexes, in print or on microfilm, in NYPL’s Milstein Division. Censuses are available on microfilm or via subscription databases, which are currently accessible through Ancestry Library Edition and HeritageQuest.
Obituaries, biographical details and stories pertaining to a building’s owners and occupants (and for that matter the building itself) may be found in old newspapers. The New York Public Library research collections provide free on site access to numerous historical newspaper databases, including America’s Historical Newspapers and ProQuest Historical Database.
What did my building look like?
The biggest collection is Photographic Views of New York City, accessible online at no cost through the Library’s Digital Gallery. The bulk of the photographs in this collection were taken between 1910 and 1940, but some are from as late as the 1970s. You can search for an image of a building by entering the street name (not the building number) and a cross street, then browsing for your building.
Clippings collection: This is a large collection of newspaper clippings, pamphlets, images and other random material on New York City topics arranged by subject. Sometimes you’ll find lots of useful information, sometimes not, but it’s always worth checking. Request these files at the reference desk in the Milstein Division, by neighborhood name, street name, or other subject.
Tax Lot Photographs: Desperate to find a historical picture of your home? Then there very likely is one. Between 1939 and 1941, as a means to assess real property for tax purposes, the city took photographs of every building in the five boroughs, producing 720,000 black and white images. These can be accessed on microfilm at the Municipal Archives, located at 31 Chambers Street, in Manhattan. Your building, provided it was built before this period, will be there. A similar exercise took place between 1983 and 1988, this time producing 800,000 color photographs. Note, the microfilm quality of the images to view on site at the archive is fairly bad, but you can order prints for a fee that are very good quality.
In addition, other institutions, such as the libraries of the New York Historical Society, Municipal Art Society, Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection, and the Archives at Queens Public Library will have materials pertaining to your research.
To learn more read the full post at the New York York Public Library’s website.