Researching the History of Your House
Researching the history of your house can be a pleasant and rewarding experience. Interest and satisfaction quickly arise as you uncover the many details that surround your house’s past. Most of the records needed for the research are not difficult to find. Others will be inaccessible, and still others will go unnoticed; but take heart, and do not allow minor obstacles hinder your investigation. Many facts can be uncovered if you simply persevere.
A house and property develop within a particular environmental context called the house’s “setting.” An important part of a house-history search is discovering how a house and its environment have changed together.
As you research the history of your house, you will quickly learn that the house and its property have “evolved” over time. The land on which the house is built may increase or decrease in size, new wings may be added to the house, sheds and garages may appear, or architectural detailing may radically change with the emergence of new fashions. Some house changes are so distinct that they can be perceived at first glance; other modifications are unobservable and demand research and investigation. A house that does not change over time is highly unusual.
As you investigate records of the sale and transfer of your property, a history of the house’s occupants will unfold. Starting with your own family, you may uncover a succession of occupants stretching back to the house’s original owners. More detailed research may unveil facts about the social status, lifestyle, and occupations of the people who lived in your house over the years.
There are many reasons why you should research the history of your house, but the most important one is for the sake of “preservation.” Preservation refers to the act of maintaining a building’s existing form, structure, and material, and possibly maintaining as well as its existing setting. This physical process includes such things as stabilizing or reinforcing a weak structure, re-painting and re-papering interiors, repairing architectural fixtures, and cleaning blemished surfaces. Some people may want to restore interiors to their original appearances by purchasing antiques or reproductions of period furniture, fabrics, and housewares.
Depending on its age, architectural integrity, and significance, your house could be eligible for a Historic Landmark Plaque. These plaques are awarded in Allegheny County by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. The property owner bears the cost of the plaque. (Call 471-5808 for complete information.) Learning the history of a house results in an increased awareness of the house’s importance to the environment, and will hopefully encourage a home owner to renovate a property which has fallen into decay.
II. A Case Study
The history of the Greek Orthodox Bishop’s residence in Shadyside illustrates one procedure for exploring a house history. However, the process described below is not the only approach; it merely represents the pattern followed by the author.
1. Site Name and address
The name of the house’s current occupants and its street address is the first and most vital information to obtain. For instance, a mansion in Shadyside is currently owned by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, and is used as the residence of the Pittsburgh diocesan. The address is 5201 Ellsworth Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
2. Site Description
The next step in the process is relatively simple, for it involves nothing more than poking around the grounds of the house and developing a general impression of the property’s character and layout. This step is very important because it establishes knowledge about the configuration of the property and the form of the house.
The bishop’s mansion sits on a corner site at the intersection of Ellsworth Avenue and Colonial Place. The property is rectangular in form, with the house situated approximately in the middle of the site but close to an adjacent property. A garage stands at the house, and is approached by a driveway that connects with Colonial Place. The house, L-shape in plan, is fronted by a large portico.
As you move around the property, you should take notice of any additions made to the house or portions subtracted from it. The removal of a porch will leave blemishes on the wall which often can be seen easily unless purposely concealed. Bricks or stone laid with mortar that is lighter in color than the mortar found in the rest of the wall usually indicates that a door or window has been filed in. Observing these important changes will help you discover how the house has evolved over the years.
Following an analysis of the physical characteristics of your property, you should draw a map as a means of documenting the shape of the site, its relation to nearby streets and intersections, the placement of the house, and the presence of outbuildings and other structures. The map should also include the dimensions of the house and grounds, and the distance of the house from local streets and roads.
The bishop’s mansion stands approximately 38 ft. from Ellsworth Avenue and 20 ft. from Colonial Place. The plot of land measures 80 ft. by 140 ft. The facade of the house with portico is 37 ft., 6 in. long, and the portico is about 14 ft., 4 in. wide. The left flank, the facade that faces Colonial Place, measures 55 ft., 6 in. A small entrance porch located along the left flank of the house is perfectly square, 10 ft. by 10 ft.
If your research uncovers documentation of the house and property dimensions that do not agree with the dimensions you measured, the size of the house and property have changed over time.
4. Interior Layout
Your “on-site” investigation ends with an exploration of the house’s interior. Walk through all the rooms of the house and note their sizes, shapes, and relations to one another. Look at architectural details such as moldings, plaster work, window and door frames, ceiling panels, and fireplace mantels. The spatial configuration of your home and the details that adorn it can help you identify the architectural style, and possibly place the time that your house was built.
In the bishop’s house there is a large central hall on the ground floor, with a dining room and kitchen situated on one side and a living room on the other. The dining room is connected to the kitchen by a swinging door. A massive staircase located at the end of the hall is divided into two flights of steps that are connected by a landing. There is a rectangular window, divided into three panels of stained glass, on the landing wall. The second floor contains four bedrooms, each with fireplace adorned with pilasters and a cornice. A third floor also contains four rooms, one of which appears to be a study.
Remember that alterations are not restricted to the exterior of the house. Inside, you may find rooms that have been divided, closets that have been added or enlarged, or fireplaces that have been sealed.
A portion of the parlor at the bishop’s house has been partitioned from the rest of the room in order to create space for a small chapel. Spatial changes like this one can significantly after the original character of the house.
5. Searching Through Written Records: Deed Research
After completing an investigation of the house and property, you will be equipped with enough information to begin an examination of written records. Written documentation falls into two categories, archival records and public records. Archival records are found at local libraries and historical societies, while public records are housed at City and County offices. Experience shows that public records contain the bulk of the information that opens the door to many other sources. The public record that proves to be the most informative is the deed.
A deed search begins in Room 106 of the County Office Building on Ross Street in downtown Pittsburgh. You must first obtain a “deed blotter” from a clerk in this office, who will request the address of the house which you are researching and the name of its current occupant. The deed blotter lists the “lot” and “block” numbers of the house. These numbers are necessary for finding the date of the most recent property deed. A clerk in Room 107, located on the mezzanine of the County Office Building, will take the blotter and present you with a slip of paper indicating the year in which the most recent deed was recorded. A large hall on the second floor marked “Recorder of Deeds Office” contains most of the deed volumes for the City of Pittsburgh (other volumes are located on the mezzanine level) and the “grantor/grantee” indexes that will be necessary for necessary for locating the volume that contains the most recent deed. Grantor/grantee indexes are arranged numerically according to year, then alphabetically according to the last name of the “grantee” or recipient of the property.
The latest deed recorded for the house at 5201 Ellsworth Avenue was made on May 11, 1956, with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese listed as the grantee of the property. A search for a 1956 index containing a list of property recipients a list of property recipients whose last names begin with the letter “A” revealed that the May 11th deed was recorded in Volume 3522. The document found in this volume indicated that the house was sold to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, Inc. by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in the Sixth Diocesan District of May 11, 1956, for the sum of $25,000. The property extended eastwardly 80 ft. along Ellsworth Avenue to the property line of Mary E. Moorhead, northwardly 140 ft. along the line of Moorhead’s property to the property line of Frederick W. McKee, westwardly 80 ft. along the line of Mckee’s property, and then southwardly 140 ft. along Colonial Place.
Existing structures included a three-story brick residence and a brick garage. The deed also indicated that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Sixth Diocesan District bought the property from Edward A. Azen by a deed made on June 30, 1955 deed listed Edward Azen as the grantor, or seller of the property, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese as the grantee, and a price of $33,000 for the house and grounds. The dimensions of the property and the number of existing structures remained the same. A reference to a previous property transferal indicated that Norman H. Azen granted the property to his son Edward A. Azen on August 7, 1951 by a deed recorded in Volume 3296 on page 365.
Every deed contains a reference to a previous deed that was made when the present grantor of the property purchased the real estate parcel from a previous grantor. Thus, a whole chain of deeds can be uncovered, extending as far back into the past as the year in which the property was first formed.
The deed made when Norman Azen granted his property to his son in 1951 indicated that he had purchased the house and grounds from Gretchen Park Rose on August 2, 1948. An examination of the 1948 deed revealed that Gretchen Park Rose received the house from her brother Albert Park upon his death in 1941. It also indicated that both Gretchen and Albert were the children of an earlier owner–Cora M. Hubbard–who bought the 80 ft. by 140 plot from Frederick W. McKee on April 1, 1901.
Frederick W. McKee, in turn, bought the property from Edward B. Alsop in January 1, 1900, but the plot of ground which he purchased measured 80 ft. by 220 ft. Because the length of the property was reduced by 80 ft. in 1901, it is obvious that Mckee retained some of the land for himself when he sold the plot to Mrs. Hubbard.
A statement found in the 1900 deed indicated that the property purchased by Mckee was only a small portion of land bought by E. B. Alsop from both George S. Griscom and Mary H. Moorhead in 1897. Alsop combined the parcels of land to form a property which extended eastwardly 200 ft. along Ellsworth Avenue, northwardly 590 ft. from Ellsworth to the southern line of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, westwardly along the southern line to a neighboring property, and the southwardly 725 ft. from the railroad tracks to Ellsworth Avenue. Earlier deeds showed that all of his property was originally owned by Maxwell K. Moorhead, a wealthy iron manufacturer who acquired large parcels of land throughout the city of Pittsburgh.
6. Written Records: Plat Maps, Books, etc.
The deed search uncovers valuable information which can be used to facilitate your investigation of other materials. For instance, plat maps and Sanborn insurance maps, which diagram existing properties and structures in relation to major streets and intersections, are arranged according to city divisions known as “wards.” Information about the ward in which your property is located can be found on the deed. An 1883 deed recording the sale of Shadyside property to Maxwell Moorhead indicated that the land was situated in the 20th Ward of the city of Pittsburgh. This information was used to find a plat map of the property that was made before Moorhead sold a portion of his land to George Griscom. The library at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania in Oakland possesses several volumes of plat maps made for the city of Pittsburgh in the year 1890. A diagram of Moorhead’s property was in a volume marked “Wards 16, 20, 22, 23.” Maps dating from other years were easily obtained simply by knowing the number of the ward in which the property is situated. A Sanborn fire-insurance map dating from the year 1935 showed how the property appeared when owned by the family of Cora M. Hubbard.
Information obtained from a deed research can also help you piece together facts and details about the evolution of your property and the building of your house. The most informative sources available for dating the construction of your home and identifying its architect and builder are published histories, magazine articles, and building journals.
A short piece written about the bishop’s mansion and its neighboring twin was found in a local history entitled Landmark Architecture: Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, published by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (1985).
According to the author, Edward B. Alsop divided the property he purchased from Griscom and Moorhead into 12 individual lots. He built two identical houses (one of which is now the bishop’s residence) in 1898 as monumental showpieces to announce a new development named “Colonial Place.” A Pittsburgh architect, George S. Orth, was chosen to design the homes for Alsop’s new residential court.
A magazine article written about Colonial Place, which was found by chance at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, reinforced the information presented in Landmark Architecture but provided some extra details. The house, according to the author, was designed in the Colonial Revival style, popular at the turn of the century. George S. Orth was described as a successful local architect who designed several notable houses within the city.
By learning the identity of the man who built the bishop’s mansion, it is possible to uncover other hard-to-find documents. A building permit made on November 2, 1897 under the name of E. B. Alsop was found in a “Building Permit Docket” at Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh, Oakland. The permit recorded the construction of two brick houses, each three stories high, 37 ft. wide, and 55 ft., 6 in. deep.
On one singularly successful day of research, luck intermingled with fate to uncover a rare piece of documentation. A book entitled Pittsburgh Illustrated, dating from the year 1889, was found in the Pennsylvania Room at Carnegie Library. It contained a photograph of Maxwell K. Moorhead’s Shadyside residence. His house, an eclectic mix of Queen Anne and Second Empire styles, stood on the property for several decades before Alsop laid out Colonial Place.
7. Architectural Style and Furnishing
After you pinpoint the construction date of your house, you will probably want to identify the style of its architecture. Many books written about the styles that constitute our nation’s rich architectural past serve as useful guides for identifying American architecture. Every century produces architectural styles, each of which enjoys a certain amount of popularity. Knowing the year that your house was built can help you identify its style, but you must also examine its form, ornamentation, and detailing.
For example, the bishop’s residence was built in the 1890s, a decade in which the Colonial Revival style achieved popularity. The house exhibits such elements as a portico, quoins, a Classical cornice, and sash windows divided into small panes. These architectural features and the house’s date of construction indicate that the residence was designed in the Colonial Revival style.
A discovery of your house’s architectural style may prompt a desire to reconstruct the interiors as they appeared in the past. One way of finding out what a furniture styles prevailed during the time your house was built is to look at newspapers, magazines, and mail order catalogs from the period. A 1916 edition of the Pittsburgh Gazette Times, found on microfilm at the Carnegie Library, contained an ad for “friends Furniture.” It included illustrations of bed and dining sets that were designed in the most popular styles of the day. Advertisements found in newspapers and magazines can prove to be very helpful when putting together a period-style interior.
8. Researching a Family House: City Directories and Social Registers
When you have finished thoroughly researching the history of your house and property, you will want to begin a detailed investigation of its past occupants. The deed research provides you with a list of names, yet it offers no information about the lives of the people who once resided in your home. The chain of occupants which you uncover must therefore be used as a basis for further investigation.
The house at 5201 Ellsworth Avenue was owned by many people, but only members of the Hubbard family resided in the home for a long period. Consequently, the Hubbards became the focus of an in-depth look at the house’s occupants.
City directories and social registers found at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania offered interesting details about the Hubbard family its lifestyle. A listing of prominent families from 1916 indicated that John Winslow Hubbard, husband to Cora M. Hubbard, belonged to several prestigious clubs in the United States. It also listed the names of his two children, Cora Winslow and Albert Pack. A 1911 city directory showed that Hubbard was president and owner of Hubbard and Company ax manufacturers.
Other material written about John Winslow Hubbard was found in several biographical texts in the Pennsylvania Room at Carnegie Library. The Book of Prominent Pennsylvanians, published in 1913, includes a picture of Hubbard along with a short description of his past life and recent accomplishments. Another book, Men and Women of Wartime Pittsburgh, discusses the contribution of Hubbard and his many companies to the World War effort.
Since Maxwell K. Moorhead was the original owner of Hubbard’s property and a notable Pittsburgher, information about his industrialist was uncovered to shed more light on the property’s past. A book entitled Palmer’s Prominent Pittsburghers of the Past contained a nineteenth-century photograph of the contented old fellow, and indicated that he was president of the Monongahela Navigation Company.
The discovery of biographical records on the occupants of 5201 Ellsworth Avenue concluded the search for the house’s past. Overall, a sufficient amount of material was uncovered to help the researcher assemble a house history from bits and pieces of available information.
The research process described here will provide you wish some ideas on how to approach your own house-history search. If you are still uncertain about which documents you should investigate or what information they contain, review the outline presented in the following section. It provides a detailed definition of each record, and indicates where the record may be found.
1. Written Records
City directories include the names, addresses, and occupations of heads of households of the city. Volumes were published annually in the past, but were replaced by telephone directories in recent years.
A large collection of city directories can be found at both the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Division at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
The Pittsburgh and Allegheny [and later, Pittsburgh] Blue Book was the local social register, published from 1887 to 1975. It lists all family members and their homes.
Published histories document the history of cities, counties, and regions. They frequently provide the history of specific buildings and landmarks.
Published histories on the architecture of Pittsburgh and the surrounding regions include Landmark Architecture: Pittsburgh and Allegheny County; Landmark Architecture of Allegheny, Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh; an Urban Portrait; and Life and Architecture in Pittsburgh. These and other texts can be found at the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Hunt Library at Carnegie Mellon University, and the Hillman Library and Frick Fine Arts Library at the University of Pittsburgh.
Newspapers and Magazines
Newspapers provide a context for the house history. They list major events that occurred during the house’s inception and development. Newspapers also contain advertisements for home furnishings which can be used by the researcher who is putting together a period interior.
The Carnegie Library has available on microfilm a large file of newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Gazette, and New York Times. Editions date back to the nineteenth century. Look also at Pittsburgh society publications such as the Bulletin and the Index.
Dairies, Journals, and Biographies
Letters, account books, and household records may provide details about the house and changes that were made over the years. Biographical text provided information about the birth, education, occupation, and notable accomplishments of prominent individuals.
The largest collection of biographical material in the city is housed in the Pennsylvania Division of the Carnegie Library.
Deeds are used to document the ownership of a property. Information on a deed will include the property owner’s name, his place of residence, the date of the property transfer, and a legal description of the property at the time of its transfer. The deed may also include the information about births, marriages, divorces, and deaths. Deeds which are viewed sequentially can provide a chain of property owners. The index for a deed collection is usually based on a grantor/grantor system. “Grantee” is the term used to describe the recipient of a property, who can be either a buyer, heir, or donee. The term “grantor” refers to the disposer of a property, or one who acts as the seller or donor. The most recent deed recorded for a property can be bound by looking for the last name of the current owner in a grantor/grantee index.
A collection of deeds for the city of Pittsburgh is housed in the Recorder of Deeds Office at the County Office Building.
A building permit contains information about a building’s dimensions, construction materials, architect, and builder.
A large file of permits recorded up to the year 1915 can be found at the Archives of Industrial Society in the Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh. Building permits dating from 1915 onward are housed at the Department of City Planning in the Public Safety Building.
2. Oral and Visual Documents
Plat Maps and Sanborn Insurance Maps
Architectural plans diagram the layout of a house and indicate the placement of openings such as doors and windows. Drawings illustrate the form and appearance of a house.
The Fine Arts Library at Carnegie Mellon University contains a large file of architectural drawings and other documents in its Architecture Archives. Plan books and blueprints can be found at the Recorder of Deeds Office in the County Office Building, or at the Archives of Industrial Society in the Hillman Library.
Photographs and Artwork
Photographs, illustrations, prints, and postcards document the appearance of a house and its surrounding environment. Some photographs and prints may present an aerial view of an entire region while others will focus on a particular street or property.
An extensive collection of postcards and pictures can be found at the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh possesses the largest collection of photographs in the city. The City Photographer Collection at the Hillman Library includes thousands of street scenes between 1905 and 1937.
Guides to American Architecture
Books which chronicle the history of American architecture can provide information about the style of a particular house. A number of architectural guides are available, including: Identifying American Architecture: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms, 1600-1945; American Architecture Since 1780: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms, 1600-1945; American Architecture Since 1780: A Guide to the Styles; and A Field Guide to American Architecture.
An oral history is simply a verbal account of a house and property’s past. The stories and rumors which contribute to a house’s history can sometimes be learned by speaking to past occupants or nearby residents.
IV. Addresses of Resource Centers
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
4400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
Pennsylvania Division: (412) 622-3154
Art and Music Division: (412) 622-3105
Carnegie Mellon University
Architecture Archives, 4th Floor
5000 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
Department of City Planning
200 Ross Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Maps: (412) 255-8650
Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania
Heinz History Center
1212 Smallman St.
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
Library & Archives: 412-454-6364
Recorder of Deeds Office
County Office Building, 2nd Floor
400 Ross Street
Pittsburgh, PA 355-4220
University of Pittsburgh
Frick Fine Arts Library
Frick Fine Arts Building
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Forbes Avenue and Schenley Plaza
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Archives of Industrial Society
Hillman Library, Room 363
Researched and written by Walter G. Ritchie, May 1988, For the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation
Updated January, 2007