John Captan has managed the Waverly Diner for 17 years.
Every day, Captan comes in and out of the building on the corner of Waverly Place and Sixth Avenue, not knowing much about its history.
"The one thing I know is that it is over 120 years old. That is all I know so far," he says.
It turns out the building’s history goes much further back.
"The building was built by a German immigrant who set up as a liquor dealer,” said Philip Sutton, the librarian of the Milstein Division of the New York Public Library. “He traded in the house in the front of the building and the back of the building he had built as French Flats and that was in 1870."
According to Sutton, one of the renters in those French Flats was a man named Tony Hart. The 1880 census shows Hart was an actor. After a little more research, Sutton found he was a pioneer of Broadway.
Sutton now teaches a class about researching the history of your home.
"You sat in your living room in a house that is 100 years old," he says. "You’re curious to know what else has happened in this room."
Sutton says the best place to begin researching your home is the Department of Buildings website, where you can access the buildings information system.
"Houses come up and down but a block and lot is a permanent identifier that helps you research that lot. If you have that number you can do a lot of research," Sutton says.
The website will help you find the new building number, which will grant you access to documents detailing the building’s origin and previous owners.
"If you go through the census, you can search by address, going as far back to about 1880 or 1870," Sutton says. "Then, you can see who actually lived in the property."
Sutton says the New York Public Library's Milstein Division is a great place to do more extensive research. There, you can find city directories, more than 200,000 photographic images and plenty of assistance to find your home's history. The best part is that it’s all free.
Captan can now give his customers a little history lesson with their entrees.
"That makes it kind of interesting for someone who comes over here," Captan says.
View upcoming genealogy classes at the New York Public Library, including "Who Lived in a House Like This? How to Research the History of Your New York City Home."