Researching Your Old Building
Researching the history of your old building may seem challenging, but it can be a fascinating adventure. The best source of information about your building is the building itself. How your building is assembled and its style can help you to determine an approximate date of its construction or major alterations.
A deed search should be one of the first tasks you complete. Many local deeds in Maine are available online making it fairly easy to create a chronological list of the owners of your building. Vital records, census data, city directories, newspaper archives, and local history books can help you learn more about the lives of the owners of your building. Historic photos and maps can help to identify changes in your building’s appearance.
The National Museum of American History developed a helpful guide House Detective, Finding History in Your Home to help owners learn more about their building's history.
A house visit by Landmarks Advisory Service can help to answer your questions on the style of your building and the identification of features that are later additions.
Architectural Style Guides & Historic Images
It is important to identify an approximate construction period of your historic building. Using an architectural style guide and comparing the form, layout, and details of your building you can discern the style of your home. Keep in mind that houses are often altered and there may be a few surprises behind your walls! A historic image can be a great help in determining what your building may have looked like before any alterations. A good source for historic images in Portland are the 1924 Tax Photos available on Maine Historical Society's Maine Memory Network. Other sources of historic photos are listed below.
- Greater Portland Landmarks
- Portland Public Library
- Maine Historical Society
- Maine Historic Preservation Commission (MHPC)
- Westbrook Historical Society
- South Portland Historical Society
- Cape Elizabeth Historical Society
- Gorham Historical Society
- Falmouth Historical Society
- Scarborough Historical Society
- Historic New England
- Library of Congress
Historic Resource Surveys & Maps
Many local buildings may have been documented in a historic resource survey. Consult local repositories that collect building histories or building plans to see if there is existing information on your building. If not, the next step includes deed research and consulting historic maps. Some historic maps from the 19th century label building owners. Maps are available at several local libraries and historical societies. Historic maps are available online at the Osher Map Library, the UNH Library, and Historic Mapworks.
Building History Databases
Recorded Deeds & Other Public Records
Deeds are being made available online by most Maine counties. Start with your deed and trace the ownership history using the seller’s name and legal description of the property. Then find the seller’s deed and note whom they bought it from, working your way back to the original owner. A change in the value of a property can mean a building was added to the parcel or an existing building was expanded. Sometimes a property will pass from one owner to the next through a will. In that case probate records are helpful.
Ownership History of Buildings & Land
City Directories & Census Records
Once you have determined the owners of your building, you can learn more about who lived or worked there by consulting city directories and United States Census records. These documents usually record a person's occupation, place of work, and place of residence. For owners of residences, you can learn more about the families that lived in your home through vital records (records of birth, marriage, and death), family histories, and cemetery records. Keep in mind that alterations to homes occupied by the same family for several generations often took place when a house changed hands due to an owner's death or the marriage of a son or daughter. You may be able to determine when an addition or stylistic change may have occurred using this information.
ARCHITECTS OR ARCHITECTURAL PUBLICATIONS
If your building is substantial in size and style, it might have been designed by an architect. If you are fortunate enough to learn the name of the architect that designed your building, there are several biographical sites with information on prominent local architects. Many buildings were built based on plans in architectural publications or catalogues in the 19th and early 20th century. In the 19th century, building books by Asher Benjamin and Andrew Jackson Downing were very popular. The most well-known of the 20th century catalogues are those advertising the Craftsman kit homes sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. For more information on these craftsman kits, click here.