This is a guest blog post by our Fine Arts Specialist, Sarah Hagan. This post covers researching this history of your home, and the people who lived in it. The next post covers information about how your home might have looked and restoring it.
Maybe your family has owned a home for generations, or maybe you are living in a brand new to you home? No matter your situation, you may be curious about your home’s past. Who built your home, how has the neighborhood changed, who lived in the home before you did? You can find out some of this information online, using the resources in this guide.
Note: the Boston Public Library’s collection of blueprints for buildings circa 1900-1966 has moved to the Boston City Archives in West Roxbury. For more information on how to access the blueprints through the Boston City Archives, please email email@example.com. Post-1966 building plans have been microfilmed by the City’s Inspectional Services Department. They are located at 1010 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, MA 02118 and their phone number is (617) 635-5300.
First, let’s talk about some challenges to researching your home.
Challenges to Researching Your Home
One of the challenges to this research is that the boundaries of Boston neighborhoods have shifted over the years. Some street names/numbers have changed and documents may be missing or destroyed. Another challenge is that in 1872, a fire gutted Boston’s commercial district, destroying many official and private building documents. No permits or plans or reports will exist in the archives for pre-1873 buildings.
The best source for information on early Boston buildings is the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds. There you can find Land transaction surveys, 1860-present, Legal documents of ownership, 1634-present, and Boston building contracts, 1820s-1860s. The registry is located at 24 New Chardon Street, Boston, MA and their phone number is (617) 788-8575.
Many boundaries of Boston neighborhoods and street names in Boston have changed names over the years. Numbering systems for streets may also have changed. Consulting a map of the era you are researching helps you to avoid this pitfall.
Neighborhood Houses - Boston Landmarks Commission Reports
In the 1980s, the Boston Landmarks Commission did surveys of Boston neighborhoods. The surveys included information on some, but not all, historic homes in the areas. The BPL owns the books about the following neighborhoods; to access these books, please email firstname.lastname@example.org:
- Hyde Park
- Jamaica Plain
- North End
- Parker Hill/Mission Hill
- Roxbury-Moreland Street district
- Roslindale/West Roxbury
- South Boston
Boston Streets Collection - Houses by Address
Historic Building Permits
Boston building permits can be found at the City of Boston Inspectional Services department. Historic building permits contain information such as who built the home, the architect, the number of stories, and much more construction information.
Building Inspector’s Reports (BIR)
If your house was newly built in Boston during the years 1879-1901, the Building Inspector’s Reports (BIR) may offer a rich source of information to you. The reports offer as-built inspection reports with vital information such as construction dates, architect’s & builder’s names, and building descriptions. Bound with the reports are original drawings and blueprints (usually floor plans).
You must have an appointment to view these reports. Please contact email@example.com to see if your home is included in these reports. In your email, please provide:
- (Original) street address with nearest cross street
- Date built (if known).
- Name of original owner and architect (if known)
- Your name, address, day-time phone number
Someone will be in touch with you to let you know if your home is included in the reports and, if so, how to make an appointment to view the report.
Architectural Drawings in Special Collections
The Boston Public Library holds the archives for several famous architects, including Peabody & Stearns, Maginnis & Walsh, and others. Unfortunately, these materials are unavailable until at least mid-2021 due to a renovation at the library. If you suspect your house has been built by a famous architect, email firstname.lastname@example.org, and a librarian will be happy to check the finding aids to see if there is anything of interest in the collection for you.
Urban atlases were published for the fire insurance and real estate industries in the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries. The atlases include building-level information that can be very helpful in researching your home. The Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library holds the largest collection of atlases for Boston and its’ surrounding towns. These have been digitized and available via web app, Atlascope. Other towns are available via research appointment.
Massachusetts State Library Atlases Online
The State Library has digitized the majority of its Massachusetts real estate atlas collection. These materials are now available online in PDF form through its institutional repository, DSpace and with individual page images (jpgs) via its Flickr site. The digitized collection of atlases includes 167 volumes with over 6,000 maps and other illustrations. They contain information on property boundaries, plot sizes, ownership, building shapes, and materials used. They include statewide, county and municipal atlases from throughout the commonwealth, with the majority published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Who Lived in a Home?
City directories were the forerunners of modern phone books. Entries include a person or organization's name, occupation or organizational focus, commercial and residential address within Boston, and in surrounding towns and cities. Some directories allow you to search by address in addition to a search by last name. View our city directories libguide for more information.
Among our other holdings are:
- Biographical dictionaries
- Business and trade directories
- Census population schedules for New England
- Genealogy and local history
- Newspapers, with a concentration on Massachusetts newspapers, including neighborhood newspapers
- Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlases
- United States city directories
Boston Streets is an initiative by Tufts University to digitize materials related to Boston’s people and places. Nine Boston city directories (1845, 1855, 1865, 1870, 1872, 19875, 1885, 1905 & 1925) are included in the Boston Streets Collection. This is a small sampling of the directories available for the city of Boston, and include over 2 million unique entries in their personal sections alone. This website also has maps and other items of interest.