I'd appreciate suggestions from anyone who has traced the history of houses, multi-family residences, and commercial buildings, on how to find more information about buildings which no longer exist.

One of the pieces of information I use when searching for my focus people and their cluster or FAN (friends/associates/neighbors) is the street address, both of their residences and of their places of employment. In addition to recording any street address in my person-centric records like the census, BMD records, draft registrations, etc., I use City Directories and other resources associated with that place to see who else is living nearby and to trace who else might be employed at the same company.

If property tax records are online, I look at the city's record card showing what buildings are on the property, which can include notes about building style, an estimate of when the building was constructed, and photos of the buildings. Some towns have tax maps which can be downloaded. I also check the addresses against the USPS Zip Code finder, which will report back if the historical address is not currently deliverable.

Many of the families I am studying in the period from 1880 - 1930 lived in company housing which has since been torn down. If I were in the town itself, I could go to the local public library, consult the historical society, or the local genealogical society. And I would guess that there is a department in the city itself which would have issued permits for the building demolition, though the records may not be accessible, or still extant for buildings that vanished 100 years ago.

Q1: What might be a good way for a long-distance researcher to find out more about these buildings? I'd like to find as much as I can on my own before I ask locals to do things on my behalf.

Q2: What other resources might there be for the local researcher?

  • 1
    There was a webinar about 6 months ago that showed a free website with U.S. building descriptions, intended for realtors, but accessible to the public. I think it was a LegacyFamilyTree webinar, but I don't remember the details, sorry.
    – bgwiehle
    Dec 2, 2013 at 14:34
  • Sites for realtors would give information about buildings that still exists. Useful for buildings that still exist, certainly.
    – Jan Murphy
    Dec 2, 2013 at 17:01
  • 1
    Perhaps building permits? I'm not sure where you would get archived permits though (maybe county records office?). This obviously wouldn't have all the info you want, though.
    – Luke_0
    Dec 2, 2013 at 19:11
  • I did find some clues on Google Books (lists of contractors who had gotten contracts to do building demolitions). The information isn't absolutely necessary, but knowing that a particular building or address didn't exist after 1935 saves one from searching for your family at that address in the 1940 Census or in any City Directories after that date. Tracking street name changes and re-numbering can also provide clues to "where people went".
    – Jan Murphy
    Dec 2, 2013 at 23:38
  • A keyword search of the local papers for the name of the town and the term "demolished" turns up lots of car crashes, and an account of an apartment building that blew up because of a gas leak.
    – Jan Murphy
    Dec 7, 2013 at 5:03

2 Answers 2


For a non-extant building, the "National Register of Historic Places" will probably help you only if the building was registered and then later destroyed in some catastrophic way. http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/about.htm

However, you can also try the "Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey". There are descriptions and field studies and/or photographs and/or architectural drawings of said antique buildings, engineering projects, and landscaping. Many of them are no longer extant. It began as a WPA project, I believe, and continues to collect data today. The data is in the Public Domain, though there are restrictions on some images. Be sure to read the descriptions.

"HABS/HAER/HALS Collections", video - http://ncptt.nps.gov/blog/archive-of-digital-data-for-habs-haer-and-hals/

“In Pursuit of the Complete Resume of the Builder’s Art”, webinar - http://www.nps.gov/history/hdp/webinar.htm

Search the collection - http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/

If you know of buildings or any other constructs in the built environment that deserve to be documented, the collection accepts submissions: http://ncptt.nps.gov/articles/c2a/soi-documentation-guidelines/

  • 1
    I should have mentioned that the "Historic American Buildings Survey" collection doesn't just include studies of the homes of the wealthy, but also homes of the non-wealthy, barns, even corn cribs. It's quite an accessible collection and great fun to explore. Dec 18, 2013 at 6:01

A blogger who writes about the town I'm researching posted a list of named apartment buildings, taken from a 1950 City Directory.

So -- just like a residence event for a person -- this establishes those buildings as still standing as of the time that information was collected, and gives me a list of addresses to cross-check with the residences I have in my database. On the principle of 'start with what you know' I could work backwards in time to see what other directories they are listed in, and see if other Named Buildings 'appear' in the list in the City Directories as I work backwards in time.

These buildings could also be searched for by name in newspapers, directories, and other published material. If they have been torn down to make way for other buildings since 1950, articles about them are likely to mention them by name.

A research plan might be:

  1. choose a building from the list of named buildings
  2. check the street name changes list
  3. check the locality's property tax records and note the type of building and date of construction
  4. work forwards or backwards as needed in the City Directories to see when the building appears and disappears in the Named Lists (always keeping in mind, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence") to narrow the window
  5. search for newspaper articles for events mentioning the building by name

One advantage of tracking the 'life' of buildings vs. that of people: most of the time they stay in the same place. Unless the boundaries of the municipality change, you have a much better idea of where they are 'born' and 'die'. There are exceptions -- one large house in my own community was moved several blocks away from its original location -- but on the whole, buildings are much less mobile than their occupants, and when they move, it's far more likely to make the local news.

See also:

How to Research the History of Your House at This Old House, which has many good ideas for sources of information about buildings, including the Sanborn Maps.

New York City Land Conveyances 1654-1851: What They Are and How They Work -- a Research Guide from the New York Public Library. (Land conveyances might be a way to work backwards from the current owner to the historical period in one's research.)

Newspaper articles have been the most productive source of information so far. The blogger I mentioned above posted about one of my areas of interest; through her posts I learned about a fire that damaged a building I was researching, and when it was torn down. Her posts gave the dates that the story was written up in the local papers, which made the articles much easier to search for.

Another possibility is the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. Several series of maps exist for the locality I want, but I haven't been able to locate copies online, so this is one of the tasks on my To-Do list.

A post on the blog Upfront with NGS: Highways and their impact on cities: so many neighborhoods no longer exist talks about the problems of researching in cities where whole neighborhoods were wiped out by highways or whole cities were drowned by reservoirs.

A project at The University of Oklahoma, 60 Years of Urban Change: Midwest has now-and-then sliders for several midwestern cities that allow the user to compare before and after pictures. This post includes links to some cities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. There are "More then-and-now sliders" with navlinks to the Northeast, Oklahoma and Texas, the Southeast, and the West.

The "now" and "then" pictures are laid over one another -- they are not a side-by-side comparion -- so use the slider widget in the center of each pane to see the entire "before" or "after" picture.

Other finding aids and search strategies:

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