Introduction: Assembling a History of Your House
photo credit: Diana Winton Hayes 2014
Step 1: Why Create a History of Your House?
Chances are you are looking at this "Instructable" because you like or love your house. Understanding the history of your home is a great way to learn about the life the building had before you owned it and it is a means to share your time and understanding with future owners.
This process lends itself to doing as a family. It is a great way to help children learn the history of home, possibly a family home that has been in the family for generations. You can involve many generations in this effort. It is also a good process for neighbors to do together. Researching history is a great tool for bringing people together.
Step 2: The Elements of a Great House History
Deeds and Tax Records
Photographs- Historic and Current
Maps- historic maps, atlases, and fire insurance maps
National, State, and Local Historic Register Information
Interviews with past owners or reading diaries, letters, and wills
An architectural description
Samples of building materials
Writing a good narrative
Step 3: Materials and Supplies for Your Project
A digital camera, zoom and video capability are helpful
A paper notebook
A laptop or tablet
A large three-ring binder- at least 3 inches in width
Acid free folders and acid free storage boxes- purchase at end of your research to get the best size ( Source: Gaylord)
Use a flash drive or jump drive to back up your data on your computer regularly and keep it stored off premises in a safe deposit box.
Step 4: Planning for Your Project
This type of research can be done alone, with friends, neighbors or as intergenerational project for your family.
Ask yourself if you will tackle this project all at once or if it is acceptable to do this over time when you have time. There is no right answer but making time for the project will help you complete it.
Step 5: 1. Public Records
Copy or photograph and digitally scan these items and put the paper copies in your three-ring binder.
Document transfers of property ownership.
Property Tax Records
Increases in assessment often help date significant changes in a property’s physical appearance.
Step 6: Public Records
Town and County Offices
Surveys- historic district information & land surveys with deeds.
Wills and other Probate
Records provide clues to furnishings and lifestyle
Step 7: 2. Photographs
Take current images of all four exterior elevations (sides) and the interior. Label accordingly.
Date you take the photograph; include location
Exterior Elevation side (North, South, East, West) and street address
Interior Room name and geographic orientation(northeast living room for example)
Remember to photograph interesting architectural details.
Pictured example: Newel Post, foyer, east side, 10.15.15
250 Rainbow Street, South Royalton, VT 05068
Step 8: Historic Photographs
Local historical societies, local house museums and historic preservation groups are good sources.
Descendants of previous owners
Check local newspaper archives.
Look for post cards of your community. Scan all copies and place a hard copy in your three ring binder.
Step 9: 3. Historic Maps
Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Maps provide great details about the shape or footprint of buildings and when utilities were added such as electricity and steam heat.
A list can be found at www.loc.gov in the online geography and map room. Often town offices or historical societies and libraries have them in their collections.
Other historical maps can be found locally or in state-owned libraries or in special collections at area colleges and universities.
Step 10: 4. Property Surveys
Surveys, prepared by registered surveyors are often filed with deeds or passed on during real estate transfers.
Establish property boundaries
Provide clues to the landscape and details regarding trees, wells and utilities are often noted
Prepared by surveyors
Step 11: 5. Interviews, Diaries and Wills
Check your local historical society for interviews and diaries of previous owners. Understanding ordinary life can be extraordinary.
Check with descendants of past owners, too.
Check probate records for wills of previous owners- you may find out how your home was furnished and get clues to the lifestyles of previous owners.
Last Will and Testament
Step 12: 6. National and State Historic Registers and Local Historic Districts
Contact your state historic
preservation office for national register and state register of historic places information.
Contact your Town Office for information about local historic districts.
Surveys and nomination documents offer details about historic architectural detailing.
The US National Park Service maintains the National Register of Historic Places.
Step 13: 7. Prepare an Architectural Description
Work at writing thisyourself. Need inspiration?
Read: A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester
2013 Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, NYC, ISBN 978-1-4000-4359-0
Use Preservation Brief No. 17: A Guide to Architectural Character
Step 14: 8. Gathering Samples of Building Materials
When making renovations, keep samples of woodwork, plaster and lathe, mortar, wallpapers, and glass. Try to save and reuse as much historic material as possible but scraps can be helpful to understand how your home has changed over time and to match historical materials with new as work progresses on the house.
Collect items and store them in labeled plastic bags.
Eventually store the items in acid free folders and boxes.
Note molding profile in the example pictured, and observe that there are only two layers of paint.
Step 15: 9. Preparing Your Narrative
Start with a chronology of ownership.
Write about previous owners and interesting stories you have collected.
Include your architectural description and past and current photos.
Write your story for others to enjoy now and in the future. If you are doing this as a family project, ask the children to include their experiences with living in the house. If you are doing this project with the neighbors, compare notes and write about the neighborhood.
Step 16: Checklist and Review
You have assembled:
- A three-ring notebook with copies of items found in research
- A digital record on your computer with an off-premises flash drive for back-up protection
- Photos, surveys, probate records and map details
- Your own narrative
Congratulations- You have a History of Your House!
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