There are many components to the history of a house. Who were the former owners? When was it built? Did any interesting events take place there? What style is it? How does it fit into the neighborhood’s history?
A good way to start researching your house’s history is to trace the chain of titles back through time, deed by deed. This will provide the names and dates that can be used to locate and validate other information about the property.
Step 1: To begin the process, you will need to obtain some basic information about the property. Start by going to the Allegheny County Assessor website at http://www2.county.allegheny.pa.us/RealEstate/search.aspx. Type in your home address and click the Search box. After verifying that it is the correct property, write down the following items: Parcel ID (Lot and Block Number), Sale Date, Sale Price, Deed Book, Deed Page and Lot Area. This is the information you will need to trace the ownership back through time. Then click the “Building Information” tab and write down the “Year Built.” Keep in mind that the year displayed may not be correct, particularly with older homes, but will be valuable in narrowing down the search for a building permit.
Step 2: Begin tracing the deeds back one by one. The Allegheny County Recorders website has transactions listed back to 1986 that can be searched online for free at https://pa_allegheny.uslandrecords.com/. There are several ways to search. Click “Free Search” and start a name search. Find the correct transaction and write down the grantor, date of sale, deed book, and deed page.
Step 3: Unfortunately, the County does not provide free online access to records before 1986. While you can access its database online at home by subscribing, it is so expensive that most people will opt to go downtown to the Allegheny County Recorder’s Office, where you can search for free. The office is currently closed but is expected to reopen soon, so be sure to call first.
The recorder’s office is on the first and second floors of the County Office Building on Ross Street. It is best to start in the deed office on the second floor, where most of the deed books are located. There are computer terminals scattered around the office, so you will need to find one that is not in use to continue your search. Start by doing a new name search using the oldest grantor name you have and collect the same information as before. Repeat this process as many times as you like.
It should be noted that you may run into occasional problems. There is no legal requirement that a deed be recorded, which sometimes happens with inherited property or when there is an effort to keep the transaction secret. Luckily, most deeds are recorded due to financing requirements and for liability protection. Also, deeds are not recorded for treasurer’s sales. There is a separate set of indexes for these. Feel free to ask the County staff for help if you need it.
Step 4: It may come to a point where you need to use the County’s deed record books instead of the online records. There are two sets of indexes: “Deed Direct” to search by grantor and “Deed Absectum” to search by grantee. These use the Russell Key Index System, which limits the number of names that must be searched by generating a code based upon the name. There are instructions at the beginning of each index. The index will direct you to a deed book volume and page to continue your search.
PLAN OF LOTS
Residential lots were typically carved out of a larger lot as part of a subdivision. These subdivision plans were recorded and may be found on the mezzanine level of the County Office Building. One place to find the subdivision name and page is on the 1939 Hopkins map on the Historic Pittsburgh website, https://historicpittsburgh.org/maps-hopkins/1939-volume-2-plat-book-pittsburgh. Plans are outlined in blue and coded with a letter which may be looked up on the reference table.
Plans are outlined in blue and coded with a letter that may be looked up on the reference table.
In most cases, a building permit would have been needed to authorize construction of the house. Local governments were diligent about this requirement, not so much for public safety, but because they wanted to be aware of new construction so they could begin taxation.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Historic Pittsburgh website, historicpittsburgh.org has permits online for 1870-1916. These are year by year and are images of the original permit books. Permits are listed chronologically and do not list the modern-day address but rather the general street location along with the owner’s name. The website also has permit books for 1981-1992 that have not yet been scanned but may be viewed at Pitt’s Archives & Special Collections facility at 7500 Thomas Boulevard.
A large gap remains where municipal records are not available. Most permits were also listed in local newspapers, so you may find them there, but it may take special software to do so.
City directories were published each year from 1856 to 1975. A few others date back as far as 1815. They are an alphabetical listing of residents, noting the address where they lived and occupation. Directories may be searched and viewed on the Historic Pittsburgh website at https://historicpittsburgh.org/collection/historic-pittsburgh-city-directories and may also viewed at Carnegie Library.
Censuses were taken every 10 years beginning in 1790. They include the name of every occupant, age, occupation, place of birth, marital status, and other interesting information. Many organizations sell this information, but some records are available for free.
1850-1880 census records can be downloaded here from the Historic Pittsburgh website: http://exhibit.library.pitt.edu/census/
1940 records are at U.S.Census Index, http://us-census.org/pub/usgenweb/census/pa/allegheny/1940/city/
Microfilm records may be viewed at Carnegie Library.
HEINZ HISTORY CENTER RECORDS
The Heinz History Center has a large volume of records and maps to help build your story. Entrance to the library is free if you let them know that you are only using the library.
CARNEGIE LIBRARY PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT
A wide variety of historical records can be found in the Pennsylvania Department on the third floor of the Carnegie Library in Oakland. You can use their computers to search online records if you have a library card.
G. M. HOPKINS MAPS AND SANBORN FIRE INSURANCE MAPS
Hopkins and Sanborn maps are excellent collections of maps showing streets, lot lines, dimensions, buildings, addresses, and many other features of the local area. Structures are color-coded to indicate their type of construction.
Hopkins Maps may be searched online on the following websites:
ULS Digital Collections, https://digital.library.pitt.edu/collection/gm-hopkins-company-maps
Pittsburgh Historic Maps, https://www.arcgis.com/apps/View/index.html?appid=63f24d1466f24695bf9dfc5bf6828126
Various Sanborn maps can be viewed on these websites and elsewhere:
Penn State Digital Collections, https://digital.libraries.psu.edu/digital/collection/maps1/search/searchterm/Pittsburgh!Sanborn%20Fire%20Insurance%20Maps/field/geogra!collec/mode/all!exact/conn/and!or/order/nosort
Death records can contain valuable information about the people who lived in your house. Here are a few places to look:
Find a Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/
ADDITIONAL “HOW TO” REFERENCES
There is a myriad of other resources online and elsewhere that can help you develop your house history.
If you need further guidance, an excellent resource can be found on the Squirrel Hill Historic Society’s website. In February 2017, Kelley Stroup, founder of House History, gave a presentation on how to research a house’s history. The video can be viewed by clicking on the “SHHS Past Events by Year” link, then 2017, and then February. A link to her website has been added to our resources.
The Pennsylvania Department of Carnegie Library has put together a very good list of available resources that can be found at The Pennsylvania Department House Histories—A Pathfinder, http://www.info-ren.org/projects/btul/Pennsylvania/houses.html. The list of resources remains accurate although some locations may have changed since the report was compiled in 1997.HOUSE HISTORY RESOURCES