Tag Archives: building research

The Provenance of New York City Buildings

Old and new building illustration Library Manifesto

What’s one thing city streets have in common with research? Sometimes there are dead ends.

On October 7th as part of Archives Week the Brooklyn Historical Society held a free workshop event hosted by Librarian Elizabeth Call. I left the event feeling curious about the history of the places I’ve lived, who lived there, and when they were built.

If you’re interested in a landmarked neighborhood or building, The Brooklyn Historical Society archives landmark neighborhood and building reports. For non-landmark buildings, atlases and land conveyances provide information, for instance when property changed hands. At the Othmer Library, a landmark itself, wood paneling, columns, and high ceilings shape the ambiance for research. Information about their in-house collection can be viewed here.

For researchers who can’t make it to the Society, there are many options to pursue online. It’s often helpful to go beyond the address for a property and find the building and lot number. The NYC Department of Buildings provides that and other really basic, but useful information.

Once you look up a property there may be a link to see “Actions” that include digitized files available as PDFs. Call warned that sometimes these PDFs are mislabeled and often the quality is so low they may be illegible. The Department of Buildings has many records on site at 210 Joralemon Street, but other records are located in Jamaica, Queens. Researchers might travel back and forth more than they’d expect to. Here is an example of a random address, 219 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn, searched on the NYC DOB website.

Department of Buildings Screen Shot

On NYC DOB search an address on the bottom left

Department of Buildings Screen Shot

Click on “Actions” on the left bottom column to find PDFs

Department of Buildings Screen Shot

Certificate of Occupancy for 219 Dekalb

The Department of Finance offers ACRIS, an online database of property ownership records. ACRIS allows you to search property records and view document images for Manhattan, Queens, Bronx, and Brooklyn from 1966 to the present.

A fun visual supplement to document research comes from the Tax Photography Collection at the New York City Municipal Archives. First completed in the 1930s and 40s (way before Google put cars on the road for their maps), these photographs captured each building in New York City for tax appraisal evaluations. The Municipal Archives took on the task of restoring the old 35mm negatives (720,000 or so) and they’re now available on microfilm. In the 1980s the project was repeated. Elizabeth Call showed us a photograph of a charming brownstone house that in the 80s was boarded up. It’s striking to see the history of a building when it’s down on its luck and then on its comeback. Below you can compare 219 Dekalb Avenue, from the example above, in the 1980s and then a more recent image from Google Maps. The liquor store signs remains.

Tax Photography Colection Screen Shot

219 Dekalb circa 1980 from the Tax Photography Collection

Google Maps Street View

219 Dekalb circa 2013 from Google Maps

Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library is another well of research materials for the real estate biographer. Real Estate Records and Builders Guide has thousands of property articles dating from 1868-1922 and the NY Real Estate Brochure Collection which covers 1920-1970 and includes floor plans, price lists, and commercial property brochures.

See the excellent research guide from Brooklyn Historical Society of what’s available outside the library.

P.S. Architecture historian and writer Christopher Gray created this practical guide for researching New York City buildings. Check out some of his research finds on the NY Times.

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