Your Old House Has a History

Historic Newport DistrictDo you live in an historic home, landmark district, or one of Chicago’s architecturally  iconic buildings?   Researching the history of the homes I sell is a topic that frequently comes up in the search and ultimate purchase of historic Chicago homes.

In putting together resources to aid the process, I came across “Your Home Has a History,” a research document & process on the Chicago Landmark Commission’s website at www.cityofchicago.org/Landmarks. For anyone that wants to do the legwork to research the history of their home, this document provides a step by step process.

No surprise that permit and record keeping was not formally put in place (in Chicago) until after 1871. Fresh start, I guess – right?  If your home was built before that, there is another bevy of challenges in digging through archives.

Below, I have paraphrased some of the Chicago Landmark pamphlet to whet the appetite of true history nerds. Step one is pretty straightforward.  Beyond that, it gets more detailed as you move from step to step.


You own a lovely home that you’re proud to call your own. But someone owned it before you. Someone built it, cared for it, and made changes through the years to it. And now you’re interested in finding out the “who, when and what” of your property.

Researching your house can be fun, fascinating and completely engrossing

However, beware! Research can become addictive. It can also be frustrating. You may exhaust every source possible and still not find the answers to your questions. But no matter how many questions remain unanswered, you will have unearthed some interesting information, learned a little more about your community, and become familiar with some important public institutions in the city.

So, have fun, and good luck.

Before you launch your research, it would be good to have a general idea of your house’s style and the approximate date of its construction.

If your house is newly purchased, the real estate listing undoubtedly had a date typed into the appropriate box. While you shouldn’t assume that this date is correct, it may help get you started.  The architectural style of your house can also provide you with clues to its approximate age so you know where to begin your research.

Some common styles in Chicago and their most distinctive features

  • Front Gable or Worker’s Cottage (beginning 1870s) – narrow house, steep roof, off-center front door
  • Romanesque Revival (1880-1900)- large arched openings, masonry walls, towers with conical roofs, asymmetrical façade
  • Italianate (1860-1900) – widely overhanging eaves, decorative brackets, tall, narrow arched windows
  • Queen Anne (1880s-1990) – steep roof usually with a prominent gable, porches, variety of building materials
  • Prairie (early 1900s)- low pitched hipped roof, wide overhanging eaves, horizontal detailing
  • Bungalow (early 1900s)-low pitched roof, wide eaves, brick walls, and bay window with art glass
  • American Four-Square (1900- 1930)- cube shape, hipped roof, broad front porch, little ornament
  • Colonial Revival (1880-1955)- cube shape, gabled roof, symmetrical, prominent front door

Step One

Checking the Chicago Historic Resources Survey

The very first place to look for information on your house is in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. A copy of this book is in every branch of the Chicago Public Library and can also be viewed at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks office. An electronic version of the survey is available on the City of Chicago’s website at: www.cityofchicago.org/Landmarks/CHRS.  If the survey lists the date and architect for your building, you’re in luck. That means a permit was found by Commission researchers and additional information may be on file in the Commission Offices….

A Good Mystery

Historical research is often compared to reading a good mystery. By now you should know who did it, where, with what, and maybe why. But your search may have just begun. Our city, and its world renowned architecture, have a rich and engrossing history. The people and institutions you’ve used to do your research are ready to help you continue. Make good use of our public libraries, our museums, our government agencies and our universities. They are a wealth of information preserved for us and our children.

 Source:

“YOUR HOUSE HAS A HISTORY

A Step-by-Step Guide to Researching Your Property”

COMMISSION ON CHICAGO LANDMARKS


Again, this is just a tease to illustrate that researching your home, who built it and who lived there over the years is not as daunting as it may seem.   There are six steps that end with researching the history of your neighborhood, which can provide a terrific snapshot of the years that have rolled over the economic and demographic changes that shape the varied neighborhoods of Chicago.

Soldier on and see what you find.  If you have specify questions, let me know.  Good luck!

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