Who Lived in a House Like This? Building Research at The New York Public Library

By Philip Sutton, Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
October 14, 2011
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

The Library's Milstein Division is home to one of the largest free United States history, local history, and genealogy collections in the country, and many of our patrons are writing their family histories. Many reference questions pertain to building histories, especially in the light of genealogy. Afterall, those ancesters lived somewhere, and it's natural to wonder what it was like where they lived.

Sometimes patrons are curious about the buildings they live in, when the buildings were built, and by whom. They might wonder, "Who lived in my apartment building?," "What were they like?," and "What were their lives like?" We get these type of questions so often, I thought I'd put together a brief guide to the kinds of materials that you might use to research a New York City building's history.

Looking at maps, census data, city directories, land conveyances, photographs, newspapers, local histories, and all manner of ephemera available at The New York Public Library and beyond, it is possible to construct a history of your home. This guide is only a basic, select list of materials, institutions, and tips designed to help kickstart a research project. It is less about architectural history, and more about the history of the building and the people who owned and lived in it. For more information about the architectural history of NYC buildings, please visit The New York Public Library's Art and Architecture Collection, and speak to a librarian there. And please leave your favorite resources or tips in the comments section at the end of this blog post.

What was the neighborhood like when my building was built?

Rivington Street, young men in front of

Research begins (and often continues) with secondary sources — reference books: encyclopedias, guidebooks, dictionaries, and local histories. Kenneth Jackson's latest edition of the Encyclopedia of New York (2010) is a good first stop for all kinds of information pertaining to NYC history. Entries are short but rich in detail, well written, and usually include further reading suggestions. Another invaluable text is I.N. Phelps-Stokes's The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909, especially this six-volume set's index and chronology (volumes four, five, and six). This reference book records important daily events taken from contemporary sources, like historical newspapers, and features an index that includes information about land grants and farms, entries for streets, buildings, and individuals, and much more from the history of the island. This text is also available online, courtesy of Columbia University, and at the Internet Archive:

If you're researching the history of a building in Brooklyn, you will at some point need to consult a reprint of Henry Stiles's, A History of the City of Brooklyn: Including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburg (1869). This text contains a lot of very detailed information regarding the early days of Brooklyn, as well as information about individuals, farms, businesses, streets, and much more. A digital version is available through the Internet Archive. The Neighborhoods of Queens by Claudia Cryvat Copquin and The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn edited by John B. Manbeck are two examples of local history texts that examine NYC boroughs more closely, whilst Eugene Armbruster's Brooklyn's Eastern District (1942) is a good example of a book dedicated to a single neighborhood, and describes in great detail the development of Williamsburg in the mid-19th century.

In addition to reference materials, the Milstein Division has a collection of over 1,000 historic New York City guidebook titles, from the early 19th century to the present day, and includes not just general guides, but ones specifically for stores, restaurants, and entertainments. City guides may include demographic information, street directories, public institutions, maps, illustrations, and a whole gazeteer's worth of detail. This is in addtion to any number of architectural guidebooks.

Is my building in a historic neighborhood?

Perhaps you live in a building located in a New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission Historic District? If so it may be described in a Historic District Designation Report, available in the Library or on the Commission's website. Detail varies, but reports sometimes include information about when a building was constructed. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has also mapped "Individual, Interior, and Scenic Landmarks, as well as Historic Districts in all five boroughs", allowing you to search for data on buildings using a map search tool.

Discover New York City Landmarks

Discover NYC Landmarks

Discover NYC Landmarks

You can also tell if your building has Landmark status / is in an historic district by checking its Property Profile Overview at the New York City Department of Building's Buildings Information System

Why is my street called Henry Street?

Many patrons wonder how old their street is, and whom it was named for. Many general and local history texts, such as the Jackson, Stiles, Stokes, and Armbruster sources already mentioned, contain invaluable information about the history of streets, when they were laid out, when they were paved, extended, and so on. In addition to those texts, there are some books and websites that concern themselves specifically with the past and current names and origins of neighborhoods, streets, roads, lanes, parks, bridges, and more. Some useful titles are:

men listen along with children to story in the park, neighborhood buildings visible beyond, ca. 1910s., Digital ID 465199, New York Public Library

Who owned my building?

A good way to start researching the history of a building is to make a list of its various owners over the years. You might work backwards, starting with the current owner, tracing ownership back to a time when the land upon which the property is built was an as yet unmarked plot in the middle of farmland, then owned by a Dutchman or an Englishman. We can do this by looking at property deeds, otherwise known as land conveyances. Before we do that, we need to identify a few numbers.

Building Information System: The NYC Department of Buildings address searchable database Building Information System (BIS) is where you should begin your building research. It is where you will discover (amongst other things: see below) your building's Block and Lot number. The Block and Lot number is vital to your research, the number that best identifies property through shifting geographical and electoral boundaries, and changing street names and numbers. All being well, the BIS databse should also identify your building's New Building number (the number associated with the original application for its construction): it is located under Actions.Make note of these numbers, as you will need them during the course of your research.

The BIS database will tell you whether or not your building is landmarked, or in a historically designated landmark area.

NYCityMap: An alternative starting point is the NYCityMap portal, a digital information hub in the form of a map, that also links to BIS. Here you will find information pertaining to current building ownership, basic building history details, the building's Block & Lot number, and a wealth of information pertaining to the building's structure, and to the community it is located in. This database covers the five boroughs of New York City. NB, the date of the building's construction listed in both BIS and NYCityMap, may be an estimate: the entry might say 1920, but your building could be older. 

ACRIS: The Automated City Register Information System (ACRIS) allows you to search property records and view document images for Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn from 1966 to the present. You can trace ownership back to the 1960s: check Property Records. You will need your building's Block and Lot number to search this database — keep an eye out for the Deeds amongst all the mortgage stuff. Again, coverage is for the five boroughs of New York City. 

Property deeds on microfilm: Prior to the 1960s, you will need to visit the City Register offices for each of the five boroughs to look at indexes and then deeds on microfilm.  You will need to consult the Block and Lot Indexes using the Block and Lot number (for Brooklyn the indexes are on microfilm, or in print at the Queens City Register) and then check the Liber and Page numbers listed in the Index to access full land conveyance records. Land conveyances and their availability across the five boroughs of New York City are described in more detail in this separate blog post. Make a note of the owner of your building  listed in ACRIS, to help you begin your search of the Block and Lot Indexes.

Atlas of the city of New York, borough of Manhattan. From actual surveys and official plans / by George W. and Walter S. Bromley. , Digital ID 1512200, New York Public Library

When was my building constructed? And by whom?

One of the most common questions, and, potentially, one of the most difficult to answer, pertaining as it does to the identities of the person or persons who commissioned the construction of a building, and the person who designed it, the architect. If there was one. If you happen to live in Manhattan the Office for Metropolitan History Buildings Permit Database: 1900-1986 is a great resource for discovering who built your property and when.  Christopher Gray, founder of the OMH, describes the database: " the permits digitized there cover all of Manhattan [...] some addresses may be on a renumbered street, or by metes and bounds.  [...] [R]emember these are just applications for permits - the actual building might not have been completed, or been completed by another owner or architect. " (See comments below).

If you suspect your building was erected before 1900, then you can visit the Municipal Archives, and consult their collection of Manhattan Borough application docket books, 1866-1959. You'll need the NB number to search the microfilm for your building, and this is found in the "Actions" section of your building's "Property Overview File," found on the Buildings Information System (BIS) database, mentioned below. Please be aware though, that the NB number may also refer to an alteration to your building.

The microfilmed docket books describe who built and designed your building. They are arranged chronologically, and by plan number, and take the form of an entry in a ledger book. Each entry is rich in detail, also descibing construction materials, what type the building was (e.g. French Flats), and when the application was made, and much more besides. If you find an entry for your building, check that the plan was completed, i.e., that the entry you are reading is for a building that was built, and then reported by an inspector from the Department of Buildings. Some microfilmed docket books for Staten Island are held at the NYPL St. George Library Center.

Real estate sections in historic newspapers sometimes contain news about the construction and sale of property, especially if your building is more recent — The New York Public Library has many newspaper titles. In addition to this, trade papers may contain information about a building's construction — the Real Estate Record (1868-1922), digitized and made available free online by Columbia University, is a particularly useful example. If you're really stuck, tax records, such as the Assessed Valuation of Real Estate,1789-1979 records at the Municipal Archives might help you estimate when a building was built. Very broadly speaking, if a plot of land is assessed at a low rate one year, then a much higher rate the next, it follows that the property (the plot of land) may have been developed, i.e. a building has been erected.

You can research the names of architects in indexes available at the Library. Architects in Practice, New York City, 1840-1900 / Dennis Steadman Francis (1980), for example, lists the architect's dates, the addresses of their offices, professional associations, and other biographical references. In addition to searching the library's catalog, databases, and special collections, you can also search for articles and obituaries in digitzed historic newspapers: these may list your building, and other works by the architect or his or her firm.

Another wonderful resource from Columbia University, is their digitized New York City Real Estate Brochure Collection. The collection consists of over 9,200 advertising brochures, floor plans, price lists, and related materials that document residential and commercial real estate development in the five boroughs of New York and outlying vicinities from the 1920s to the 1970s.

Have there been any changes to my building over the years? What was there before?

Street and fire insurance maps (amongst other kinds) will describe a building's location, construction materials, and use over a period of time, as well as the names of some business, factories, churches, and the boundaries of former farmland — useful if you're going right back in time. Visit The New York Public Library's Map Division to look at these and other maps, or consult them digitally, via the Map Division's collections of Fire Insurance, Topographic, Zoning, and Property Maps of New York City. In addition to NYPL's collections, Queens LibraryBrooklyn Public Library, and the Brooklyn and New York historical societies all have great map collections.

NYC Buildings Building Information System property profile section will include building permits, certificates of occupancy, complaints, inspections etc., amongst a whole wealth of other documents, pertaining to changes in your building.

What is an I-Card?

If between roughly 1900 and 1935 your building was a multiple dwelling, with three or more residential units , it may have been surveyed by an inspector from  the New York City Tenement House Department, and the results captured on an Initial Inspection Card (aka I-Card). The cards, available online from the website of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development describe the living conditions of the occupants, including information pertaining to light and ventilation, fire safety, plumbing, and sanitary facilities, interior layout, and more besides. The cards usually contain floor plans. Below is an I-Card, including  floor plan, for a frame house in Brooklyn made up of 3 apartments (and still does to this day - it is my own apartment). The floor plan describes a different layout from the one that exists today. Search the HPD website using the building address, under "Complaints, Violation, and Registration Information", selecting "I-Card" from the menu to the left of the results. Some I-cards also give information about the building's date of construction.

Who lived in my building?

You may have been able to construct a list of people who owned your building based upon property deeds, mortgage records, and so forth, but of course it doesn't neccessarily go that a building's owners actually lived there. There are a number of ways of working out who lived in your building.

City directories - available through NYPL Digital Collections, subscription databases like Ancestry and Fold3, and on microfilm in Room 119, here at the library - will generally list the head of household, their occupation, and home and business addresses. They run from the late 18th century through the 1930s and are a pre-telephone telephone directory: read more about city directories here. Telephone directories began in the late 19th century and are located in the Milstein Microform Reading Room, as are Address directories starting in 1929. Address directories, as the name suggests, are searchable by address and will indicate immediately who lived in your building — or rather, the head of household. If you want to discover the identity of the people who lived with the person listed in the directory, and everyone who lived at an address before 1929, you might consider looking at the US Federal and New York State censuses.

Concord Hall, Southeast corner Riverside Drive and 119th Street ; Plan of first floor., Digital ID 464736, New York Public Library

Searching New York State and United States Federal Censuses by address will reveal the occupants of a (residential) building at the time the census was conducted. To do this, however, you will need to discover what Enumeration District the building was in at the time the census was conducted — this is known as the ED number, which changes from census to census. You can do this by referring to an ED number generator, available at a site called One-Step, or by consulting election maps and indexes, in print or on microfilm, in NYPL's Milstein Division. Censuses are available free at FamilySearch, and through subscription databases like Ancestry Library Edition. For more information see this how-to guide:

Searching the Census by Address

Obituaries, biographical details, and stories pertaining to a building's owners and occupants (and for that matter the building itself) may be found in old newspapers. The New York Public Library provides free  access to numerous historical newspaper databases, including America's Historical Newspapers and ProQuest Historical Database. Between them, these databases contain digitized copies of most major American newspapers. You can research lists and the avialability of all US newspapers, from 1690 to the present, at the Library of Congress website Chronicling America. Smaller New York area newspapers have been digitized at the website Fulton History. For Kings County researchers, the Brooklyn Public Library has digitized the full run of the original Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1841-1955) over at  Brooklyn Newsstand. Wikipedia has a useful list of (mostly free) digitized newspapers. Many newspapers are often not digitized, and may be found on microfilm or microfiche in The New York Public Library Microforms Reading Room.

If the person you are researching did not get an obituary, you can construct a narrative of their life using other records, including the census, passenger lists, city directories, vital records (birth, marriage, and death records), and local histories. The census, for instance, will not only tell you who lived in your building, but often how old they were, where they were born, where their parents were born, whether they rented or owned their home, what they did for a living, what language they spoke, did they own a radio, when they bacame a citizen, and so on. You might also compare data from these records with local, social and oral histories, stories of a particular community, neighborhood, or individual that have already been written, to get a better idea of what it was like to be the person that once lived in your building. Katherine Greider's recent book, The Archaeology of Home: An Epic Set On a Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side (2010), is about the history of a building and the communities around it, and is a very good example of how the research we are discussing might be done. Tip: check the author's references for research resources and ideas.

Another way of searching for a building's residents, is to consult the City Record Supplement List of Registered Voters, for New York City. The original print copies are kept offsite, but are available on microfilm (*R-USLHG *ZAN-G9430) in Room 119, the Milstein Division's microform reading room. Arranged by Ward, Election District, and Street, the supplements list the names of any one eligible to vote living at a given address. The registries cover the five boroughs, and cover the years 1884, 1889-1890, 1898-1899, 1904-1954. The Brooklyn Historical Society has Brooklyn voter regsitries going back even further.

What did my building look like?

The Milstein Division alone has over 200,000 photographic images. The biggest collection is Photographic Views of New York City, accessible online at no cost through the NYPL Digital Collections website, where you'll also find digitized historical property maps. The bulk of the photographs in this collection were taken between 1910 and 1940, but some are from as late as the 1970s. You can search for an image of a building by entering the street name (not the building number) and a cross street, then browsing for your building. You can use a map to search for photos from this collection using the website OldNYC: Mapping Historical Photographs of Old New York City.

The Milstein Division has a number of smaller, not yet digitized collections, images either reproduced in pictorial histories (i.e. books, arranged on card catalogs), or on microfilm, such as the Acker collection. This collection is the work of a professional real estate photographer, mostly taken during the 1930s and 40s, and includes both interior and exterior shots of buildings. Ask for this collection at the Reference Desk in the Milstein Division, Room 121. 

Clippings collection: This is a large collection of newspaper clippings, pamphlets, images, and other random material on New York City topics arranged by subject. Sometimes you’ll find lots of useful information, sometimes not, but it’s always worth checking. Request these files at the reference desk in the Milstein Division, by neighborhood name, street name, or other subject.

292 Marlborough Road, Brooklyn, tax photograph, c. 1940

Tax Lot Photographs: Desperate to find a historical picture of your NYC home? Then there very likely is one. Between 1939 and 1941, as a means to assess real property for tax purposes, the city took photographs of every building in NYC's five boroughs, producing 720,000 black and white images. These can be accessed online at the New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery. Your building, provided it was standing during this period, should be there - use the block and lot number to find it. A similar exercise took place between 1983 and 1988, this time producing 800,000 color photographs. Note, the microfilm quality of the images to view onsite at the archive is fairly bad, but you can order prints for a fee that are very good quality. You can search for tax lot photos of NYC taken in the 1980s using - you guessed it - a map, at the site 80S.NYC: Street Views of 1980s New York City.

The Museum of the City of New York's Collections Portal is an excellent source of digitized images of New York City, as is the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online collection.

If you really can't find any images, then historical property maps will help you understand what your building looked like. They describe what the building was made of, the number of floors, where it was in relation to other buildings (churches, schools, places of business, etc), and even what kind of building it was, whether that be tenement or brownstone. Old Maps Online and the NYPL Map Warper have great tools for helping you search for old property maps available free online.

Garden apartment buildings for the Queensboro Corp., Jackson Heights, Queens, N.Y., Digital ID 464795, New York Public Library

This is just a selection of the materials available to you in the Milstein Division and beyond. Numerous texts, including histories of NYC, historic guidebooks, and much more, are available at The New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. In addition, other institutions, such as the libraries of the New York Historical Society,  Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn Public Library's Brooklyn Collection, and the Archives at Queens Public Library will have materials pertaining to your research.

How can I learn more?

That's all very well, you might think — this is just a list of resources. How do I actually do the research? Well, the institutions mentioned are all staffed by librarians and archivists who can help you. Librarians in NYPL's Art and Architecture collection, Map Division, and Milstein Division are primed to offer invaluable research advice. They often teach classes in researching the history of buildings. The Milstein Division offers a monthly class, titled Who Lived in a House Like This? How to Research the History of Your New York City Home based on this blog post. Using a particular building history as an example, students are shown how to research the living history of a residential building, its owners and occupiers. 

Further reading

A guide to researching the history of a New York City Building / Christopher Gray

This post was last revised 2/14/2018