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Who Used to Live in Your Apartment? Here's How to Check

By Amy Zimmer | July 9, 2014 8:37am
 City libarians share tips on how to get started on doing house research.
How to Unlock the History of Your House
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BROOKLYN — Andrew Thomas Reid has rented his Ditmas Park house for the last five years, turning it into an arts hub with a recording studio that sports an ornate chandelier and damask wallpaper. He recently found himself wondering if other musicians had ever lived in his large Victorian home.

Curious about how the home's past could be shaping the present creative output of its rotating roster of artists and musicians (eight live there now), Reid took a workshop at the Brooklyn Historical Society to see what he could find out.

"I was interested in the overall energy of the house and how that has affected how I and other people live here," said Reid, creative director of BKLYN1834, a new media company that seeks to develop the borough's talent into commercial successes.

Reid also dreams of some day buying the house and thought having more information could help.

There's a wealth of information out there, from online databases to library map collections and deeds at city agencies. It's just a matter of navigating the materials and archives — but that's no simple task.

"It's not so easy as pulling a book off a shelf," said Joseph Ditta, reference librarian at the New-York Historical Society.

"Rather, it requires a lot of gathering of disparate bits of information from a variety of sources, such as fire insurance atlases, newspapers, city directories, and stitching them into a history of a house."

Some people research their building for history's sake. Sometimes they're realtors, developers, buyers, sellers or owners doing renovations.

"Every now and then people say, 'My house is haunted and I want to know if there was a murder in the house,'" said Philip Sutton, of the New York Public Library's Milstein Division of US History, Local History and Genealogy, whose next free bi-monthly class on how to research the history of your home is July 16.

Reid discovered the architect and developer of his nearly 3,000 square foot house, built in 1906, worked on many of the area's upscale homes.

"It was sold for $20,000 in 1972 and went for $175,000 in 1999. Now it's worth close to $1 million," he said. "That is kind of mind-blowing."

He found names for some of the home's more recent owners and he plans to do more research. No musicians yet, but Reid learned that a doctor lived and worked there.

Here are some beginners' tips from the pros.

Get started online.

The Department of Building's "Buildings Information System" — which includes building permits, certificates of occupancy, complaints, inspections and other documents — may be difficult to interpret, but it's a good place to begin, especially if you're "viewing it under the guidance of a librarian who understands its quirks," Ditta said.

"At the very least," he added, "the website will convert a street address into its corresponding block and lot numbers, which are essential to have handy when consulting other records."

They identify properties through shifting boundaries and changing street names.  

Is your home landmarked? You may have a short cut.

If your block has a brown street sign, you live in a landmarked district. If you're still unsure, the DOB's BIS can also tell you whether you're in a landmark.

If so, you might be able to get detailed information from the report published by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, found on its website or through the Neighborhood Preservation Center's database, suggested Elizabeth Call, who created the Brooklyn Historical Society's building research workshops and now works at Columbia's Burke Library.

How much did your home or building sell for and to whom?

The Office of the City Registrar's online Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS) allows you to search property records, including mortgages and deeds, from 1966 to the present.

If you want to find to trace ownership before then, it gets a bit trickier.

The Brooklyn Historical Society, for instance, has a collection of Brooklyn land conveyances — dated property transfers — with abstracts showing the sellers (grantors) and buyers (grantees) from the late 17th century to 1896, Call explained. Other institutions have conveyance collections, too.

For land deed information from roughly 1900 to 1966, you need to visit your borough's Department of Finance office.

What's your building made of? Have there been changes to it over the years?

Fire insurance maps — at the NYPL's Map Division and historical societies' libraries — describe a building's location, construction materials and use over a period of time and sometimes include the names of some schools, churches, businesses and factories.

Created for fire insurance companies, these maps "show block-by-block, detailing what a building is made out of and you can get a sense of how an area changed over time," said Call, noting that the Brooklyn Historical Society's maps date from 1855 to 1929.

What did your building look like?

Besides the large photo archives at libraries and museums, the Municipal Archives, at 31 Chambers Street, has 720,000 black-and-white images of every building in the five boroughs taken between 1939 and 1941 as a way to assess property for tax purposes.

Many libraries also have real estate brochures —advertisements for new developments, often between the 1920s and 1950s — that give details about layouts and prices with pictures and maps.

Who lived there? Piecing together a social history

Once you get names from deeds and mortgages, you can then start piecing together who might have lived in those buildings through the census, newspaper archives, wills and obituaries and other directories.

City directories (printed between 1786 and 1934, which often list the head of household's occupation and business address), telephone directories (which began in the late 19th century) and address directories (beginning in 1929) can help uncover the head of household, while US Federal and New York State censuses can help fill in other residents, Sutton explained in a blog post about conducting research.

"Often, when folks say they're interested in a building's history," Ditta said, "they're really looking for something on its former occupants in addition to the physical space in which they lived."