Drafting a House History
Compiled by Barbara Bezat and Alan K. Lathrop University of Minnesota Libraries, 1979
Building Permits| Abstract of Title| Plat Maps| Atlases| Architectural Records| Owners and Occupants| Additional Research| Sources for Research
INTRODUCTIONOver the years, interest in preserving older buildings in the United States has increased dramatically. Recent preservation efforts emphasize the rehabilitation of great numbers of structures that are not significant either architecturally or historically, rather than stressing the preservation of single monumental properties of national concern. Today, sites that reflect the local, ordinary life of Americans are being preserved. Protection is also being extended to entire blocks or districts that evoke a feeling of nostalgia and which were once prominent in the development of a community.
This increased awareness of the aesthetic and cultural value of older buildings has its roots in a rising national interest in local history. Since 1966, for example, the number of history and heritage preservation groups in the United States has risen from 2,500 to more than 6,000. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, a growing recognition of the importance of preserving tangible remains of the past has resulted in the establishment of Heritage Preservation Commissions. These commissions have the power to designate individual structures and districts as local landmarks. They also review building and demolition permit requests that affect the designated buildings.
A highly visible result of the growing enthusiasm for local history has been the accelerating restoration of housing in the nation's inner cities, including areas in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Entire blocks of deteriorating Victorian-era residences have been rehabilitated by people who have recognized their charm and substantial construction. Turn-of-the-century workers' cottages along Milwaukee Avenue in Minneapolis have been restored and revitalized. At the same time, house on St. Paul's Dayton and Selby Avenues have been steadily undergoing rehabilitation, as have adjacent neighborhoods.
Interest in these renovated properties has often extended beyond restoration. Just as millions of Americans have become fascinated with the search for family "roots", these new inner-city home owners have become interested in the history of their houses, many of which predate the turn of the century.
Often, people do not know where to turn for the records that will reveal the history of their houses. This guide has been prepared for everyone in the Twin Cities who may be contemplating house history research. Its purpose is to conduct the researcher through the sometimes baffling maze of county and municipal records to those which are the most likely to contain pertinent information for compiling a house history. It will also direct the researcher to those libraries and archives in the region that hold significant collections of books, newspapers, or manuscripts from which more information might be obtained.
This guide contains the chief sources of information to be found in government offices and institutions in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. By following the steps outlined, a good basic history of one's house can be assembled - when it was built, who built it, who owned it, its dimensions, its cost, and materials used. A search might also lead to the discovery of changes subsequently made to the property, when these changes occurred, and what they cost. A search might even uncover the original floor plan and exterior appearance. Suggestions for additional research are provided for diligent researchers who want more information about styles, the architectural history of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the nation, or the political and social history of the cities, the states, or their neighborhoods.
There is no guarantee that an exhaustive scrutiny of these sources will reveal facts about everyone's house. Lost records, lack of data in existing records, or the mere fact that documents were never created for some houses can complicate the search. Incomplete records, smudged or illegible data, or a house that was erected from stock plans by an anonymous carpenter can also frustrate the researcher. Some possible courses of action have been suggested for such uncertain and confusing situations.
This guide can be used in searches for information about buildings other than private residences. It may also be pertinent in other regions of the United States because the kinds of records and depositories mentioned are typical of what will be found in most other localities. There may, of course, be local variations in names of records offices. Certain types of institutions may not exist. Some parts of the country may be blessed with far more records and sources than one would find in either Minneapolis or St. Paul. However, with a little imagination, the seeker of house history information should find this guide applicable regardless of where s/he resides.
The house historian should keep this guide at hand for it can be used to search for missing information during idle moments in a busy schedule or when one of the sources mentioned is nearby.
Addresses of sources mentioned in this guide are appended at the end along with a reading list containing books, newspapers, and periodicals which the seeker of house history information might find helpful in the search.
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Minneapolis permits have been microfilmed and copies may be requested by permit number from the inspections department staff. The Ramsey County Historical Society holds the St. Paul building permits and permit index cards; you must call in advance to make an appointment to obtain copies. Building permits are filed by permit number, not by street address. You must first locate a permit number before requesting a permit copy. To do this you should consult the "building index card" for the structure you are researching.
Building index cards list all the permits issued for the structure and, in St. Paul, are now housed at the Ramsey County Historical Society; the building index cards for Minneapolis are kept in the Special Collections Department of the Minneapolis Public Library (MPL house history research). These cards are filed by street address and contain the following information: the date and the number (permits are filed numerically) of the original permit, the contractor's name, the cost, and the legal address of the house. It is important to note that this card does not list an architect's name; this information is available only on the permit. The researcher may request a copy of this building index card so that the permit numbers are readily available.
The original permit and any subsequent ones issued for remodelling or other structural changes are helpful if one wants the names of the architect or owner, which appear only on the permit. This information, however, is not always included on the permit.
Some permits have been lost over the years, and permits were never issued at all for the area bounded by 54th and 62nd Streets, and 46th and Xerxes Avenues until Minneapolis annexed it from Richfield in 1927.
Most of the suburbs hold either incomplete or very short-run files of building permits. Many permits are dated no earlier than the 1930's, and few suburbs require the architect's name on the permit. Exceptions are the cities of Golden Valley, Wayzata, White Bear Lake, and West St. Paul, which have taken care to maintain backfiles of older permits.
If there is no building permit, a rough estimate of the construction date can be made by checking building permits for other houses on the block. If the samples show dates within a few years of each other, the house may have been built about the same time. Another useful group of sources for pinpointing the date of construction in the absence of building permits are the "assessment rolls" of the county taxation departments, containing the assessed value of a piece of property and of any structure on that property. From them, one might find sudden increases in value as improvements were made, such as initial construction on the property or major additions to existing structures. The tax assessment rolls for many counties have been microfilmed and may be consulted at the Minnesota Historical Society. However, the rolls for Ramsey County are not available.
These atlases are available at the Minnesota Historical Society, the Special Collections Department of the Minneapolis Public Library, and the St. Paul Public Library. They do not circulate and must be used in those libraries. Back to top
CITY DIRECTORIESA chronology of the human habitation of a dwelling can be compiled using old city directories. City directories are annual listings of residents with their street addresses, occupations, and sometimes office addresses. They can be used to locate a former owner's place of residence, if other than the house, or to verify the date of occupancy.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT OFFICESLocal government offices are another source of information about the life of the owners. In Minneapolis, most of the offices for house history research are located in the Hennepin County Government Center; in St. Paul, they are located in the Ramsey County Court House. Vital statistics, such as births, deaths, marriages, adoptions, and naturalizations are filed in the offices of the district court. Some of the documents listed in the Abstract of Title are wills or estate proceedings, in which case the records will be kept by the clerk of the probate court. With some luck, an inventory of household goods may turn up as a result of a disposition proceeding. Back to top
Photographs, maps, and stock plans are among the materials included in the following suggestions. These are possible avenues of exploration to be used in compiling a more detailed house history.
Information about the people who lived in the house might be obtained from sources mentioned earlier. The reference libraries at the Minnesota Historical Society and the Minneapolis History Collection in the central library contain biography-obituary card files. These indexes are arranged alphabetically and give references to an article or obituary and the date and publication in which it appeared. Mention of a hitherto unknown relative, address, or circumstance may open another possible line of investigation.
Personal interest may lead to compilation of information about the neighborhood in which the house stands. There are very few neighborhood histories available, although there are many neighborhood organizations in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Some issue regular publications about their communities, but these - and the organizations - vary widely in their emphasis on local history.
Talking with long-time residents of the neighborhood about their memories of the area might be useful, bearing in mind that reminiscences may not always be entirely accurate and that information gathered in this way should be verified when possible from documents or reliable secondary sources.
In Minneapolis, the "Hennepin County Historic Plat Maps" show the city and suburbs as they appeared during the times of major growth before the turn of the century. There were six mappings between 1860 and 1890; copies may be consulted at any Hennepin County library and at the Hennepin County Government Center. Hennepin County Central Services, located in the Center, will reproduce the maps for a fee. Copies may be ordered directly from the Central Services, or through the county libraries.
The search for the history of one's house may have kindled an interest in the study of architecture in general. A possible date for construction may be derived by identifying the basic architectural style of the house and the time when it was popular. This method will not give an exact date, but it will help to narrow the time period to within a decade or two. A vast amount of literature exists for the exploration of all aspects of this topic. Some of the best introductory publications are included in the "Reading List" at the end of the guide. Most of these are available in college, university, and public libraries and historical societies.
The search may have been stimulated by an interest in house restoration, an interest that is increasing rapidly throughout the country. There is a wealth of information concerning the renovation and restoration of old dwellings. Public libraries contain many publications pertaining to historic preservation. The Minnesota Society American Institute of Architects, whose office is in Minneapolis, could refer interested persons to an architect who specializes in restorations.
PHOTOGRAPHSThe Audio-Visual Materials Collections at the Minnesota Historical Society and the Minneapolis History Collection have the best photograph collections in the Twin Cities and contain many photographs taken before 1900. Although it may be difficult to locate photographs of individual houses, street scenes often show rows of houses which may include the one being sought. These street scenes also convey an idea of the early appearance of the house and the street.
PLANSThe Minnesota Historical Society, the public libraries and the University of Minnesota library have copies of magazines that regularly published house plans, including House Beautiful, Ladies Home Journal, and Keith's Magazine. Publications such as these, issued around the time one's house was built, may contain either similar or identical floor plans and interior arrangements which might furnish proof that the house was erected from stock plans.
The Minnesota Historical Society also holds collections of Minnesota architects' and contractors' papers in its Archives and Manuscripts Division. Among these collections are the records of the Architects Small House Service Bureau, a national cooperative program begun in 1920 to supply plans for small, low-cost homes. The plans for many small "anonymous" dwellings may be present in this collection. These, too, must be used at the Archives and Manuscripts Division and cannot be loaned.
COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETIES AND BRANCH LIBRARIESCounty historical societies and branch libraries are more limited resources of information for house histories. They sometimes hold files of local newspapers (as will the libraries previously mentioned), clippings, and photographs which may disclose additional accounts of the area and the people who lived in it, and, for this reason, should not be overlooked in any search.
At the beginning of this guide, the reader was advised that success in searching for one's house history was not guaranteed. Whether the desired information is found or not, the searcher will have gained a valuable introduction to research methods and a familiarity with record-keeping practices of government and institutions that may be applied in later pursuits.
This guide is intended as a beginning aid in constructing a basic outline to which one can add details in the future. Like a genealogy, a house history will provide a fascinating glimpse into the past and make that past more personal. Repositories and Government Offices| Publications Back to top