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House & Building History Research: Getting Started

Preliminary Research

House construction, 1926.

Before coming to the Minnesota Historical Society Library to do research, consider the following tips:

-You will have to visit a number of research centers to do your house history research.  This may include a historical society, various libraries, and the county recorder’s office.   

-There are gaps in records and varying levels of documentation for some houses.  A house that was erected from stock plans by an anonymous carpenter may not have as much documentation as a house designed by a notable architect.

-Look at your abstract, if available, or Torrens title certificate and note the property's legal description and names of previous owners. 

-Look at the property tax statement or online county property tax records for legal and physical description, date of construction, building and zoning information, sales history, and assessed value.  A web search for your county name and the term property tax should take you to a website where you can search by legal description or address. 

-Ask your neighbors and previous owners about changes to the property, photographs of the building and street, and neighborhood history.

-Obtain a copy of the original building permit.  Building permits may be available at the local building permit office.  They will list the original owner, architect and/or contractor for the structure, and additional information about the original cost, scope, and construction materials used.  Visit the building tab of this research guide for additional information on accessing building permits.

Books & Other Publications

Survey of Architectural Sources in MHS Manuscript Collections, by William Gengler. 
St. Paul, Minn.: Minnesota Historical Society, Division of Archives and Manuscripts, 1981.
MNHS call number: Z5944.U62 M643

The House Research Guide:  A Step by Step Manual for Owners, Occupants and Other Old House Lovers, prepared by Brownstone Biographies.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brownstone Biographies, [1978?].
MNHS call number: D16.25.L6 B76

Drafting a House History, by Barbara Bezat
St. Paul, Minn.: Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota, 1979.
MNHS call number: D16.25.L6 B48

A Guide to the Architecture of Minnesota, by David Gebhard.
Minneapolis, Minn.: Published by the University of Minnesota Press for the University Gallery of the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Society of Architects, 1977.
MNHS call number: NA730.M6 G44

"The Secret Life of Your House: George Washington Probably Didn’t Sleep in Your House, But Here’s How You Can Find Out Who Has Passed Through Your Portals," by David A. Wood.
Mpls. St. Paul. Vol. 15, no. 1 (Feb. 1987)
MNHS call number: F614.M6 M56 v.15:2

Useful Terms

Abstract  -   A written history of all recorded documents and proceedings related to a property, kept in a single large document  (sales, mortgages, liens, and court proceedings, etc).  Abstract records are kept by the county recorder’s office.  Building owners may also have a copy.

Torrens - A newer, frequently used recording system.  Certificates of titles are kept by the county registrar and provide conclusive proof of ownership.  To document the history of a Torrens property one must look at a series of title certificates and other documents.  

Legal Description - The official definition of a parcel of land, including information about the property's location and boundaries.

Building Permit - A city-issued document allowing the construction of--or changes to--a structure.  Original building permits date to the time of construction.  Subsequent permits or recording on the original may document later work.

Online Property Info Search Links for Twin Cities Homes

Gale Family Library • Minnesota Historical Society • 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55102-1906 • 651-259-3300
Currently open by appointment only.