House and Building Research
House history research is an extremely popular research topic at BHS. The Othmer Library and archival collections document Brooklyn’s development from a major agricultural center to a significant urban metropolis. Whether you are interested in learning the history of your home or want to research a particular neighborhood’s history, the Othmer Library has a great variety of useful materials. For a detailed listing of library materials related to Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, blocks, and buildings as well as other useful resources, click here.
House and Building Research at BHSHouse and building history is one of the most popular subjects of research at BHS. Our library and archival collections include a significant variety of materials useful in piecing together the history of Brooklyn neighborhoods, blocks and buildings.
The following is a guide to the resources most frequently consulted by researchers of Brooklyn property and buildings. You can scroll through the entire page, or click on the links below to take you to the description of a particular resource.
Brooklyn Land Conveyance Collection
Brooklyn and Long Island Scrapbook Collection
Real Estate Brochure Collection
Additional House and Building Research
If your building is within a landmarked neighborhood, it will be helpful to consult the designation report published by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. Our library contains print copies of most reports, which you can search on our online catalog. All reports are freely available on the LPC website and the Neighborhood Preservation Center database.
You can also purchase a copy of your neighborhood's report at NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission's website.
Historic Atlas collection serves a multitude of purposes and is
particularly helpful when trying to determine the age of a
building. The atlases are also helpful in determining addresses,
many of which changed circa 1871-1872. A bulk of the atlases at
BHS are bound fire insurance maps, which show Brooklyn block-by-block.
As the atlases advance chronologically, they also advance in technical
sophistication. Depending on the level of detail, atlases can include
information such as the material content of buildings, houses and block
numbers, content and condition of pavement, street status and
usability, locations of sewers and water mains, locations of subway and
rail lines, plate boundaries, section and ward division lines, original
farm lines, and locations of churches, schools and factories. An index
of the atlas collection, including years, surveyors and neighborhoods,
useful resource available at BHS is our Land Conveyances
Collection. This collection documents Brooklyn land ownership
from the late 17th century to 1896. Organized by block number,
these abstracts show seller (grantor) and buyer (grantee)
information. It is sometimes possible to discover the original
owner of a particular plot, which may lead to builder information and
the date a particular building was built. These conveyances are also
useful when focusing on the social history of a particular property.
More information about the collection is available here.
BHS library collections include several types of city directories, spanning from 1822 to 1913, with one 1796 directory and one bound directory from 1933. A bulk of the directories are devoted to the city and borough of Brooklyn, and a handful for Manhattan, Queens, Long Island, and Newark, New Jersey.
City Directories—Residential. Organized alphabetically by last name, similar to the phone book, these directories list the name and address of an individual, often a resident’s occupation and work address, and sometimes an indication of race.
Business Directories. Most are organized alphabetically by trade, then under each trade alphabetically by last name, and list business address information. Finding the relevant trade listing can sometimes be tricky. For example, when searching the address of an ancestor’s drinking establishment, no trade listing is found under “Bars,” “Public Houses,” “Taverns,” “Liquors,” “Saloons,” or any other alternative term for a business premises where alcohol is served. Then, by either creative thinking or by accident, the address is found under the non-intuitive and antiquated “Wine and Liquors.”
By Address—"Elite Directories" (1873-1913). These directories, issued by the Elite publishing company, are organized by address instead of by last name. By providing information on former residents, these are often helpful when tracking the social history of a particular building, and are often comprehensively cross-referenced with the “by name" directories.
Blue Books (1904-1962). As suggested by the name, these directories are a collection of society listings. They do have a "by address" search in the back of the book, which is helpful when trying to discover who might have lived at a particular address.
scrapbooks are a collection of newspaper clippings arranged by BHS
librarians between the 1860s to the early 1970s. The complete
scrapbooks have been transferred to microfiche and are searchable by a
subject card catalog index in the library. For building research,
the scrapbooks card catalog includes numerous subject headings for
individuals and Brooklyn addresses.
library has a number of useful reference books about architecture in
general, and about Brooklyn architecture in particular. You can browse
the titles by searching our online library catalog.
For example, if you are researching a building within "Brownstone
Brooklyn" (i.e. Fort Greene, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Clinton
Hill, etc.) Francis Morrone's An Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn is a fruitful starting point.
This collection primarily features advertisements for new apartment buildings, including some blueprints, and is organized by neighborhood. A hard copy index is available with exact street addresses of the buildings included in the collection.
While BHS holds numerous materials for productive building research, the following is a select list of resources outside of BHS which are highly recommended:
NYC Department of Buildings (DOB)
You can begin your research with the Brooklyn office of the DOB online by searching their Buildings Information System.
Just type in your subject address to pull up the DOB report, which
provides block and lot numbers, certificates of occupancy, work orders,
building violations, landmark status, etc. However, be aware that
many of the scanned certificates have been incorrectly matched with the
addresses; make sure to read the certificate closely to see if it is
indeed related to your block and lot.
The Brooklyn office of the DOB is on the 8th floor of 210 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn, where you can request the files for a particular block and lot. Many of the files for older buildings are kept off-site, which will require a return visit. These files will give you additional information often not available online, and can give you clues as to previous uses of a particular building, such as whether it was ever a multi-family dwelling. Unfortunately, these files often do not include architectural plans.
NYC Department of Finance (DOF)
Like the DOB, the DOF also has a useful online database,
ACRIS. This database is searchable by block and lot number and offers up land deeds going back to 1966.
For land deed information from approximately 1900 to 1966 you will need to visit the Brooklyn office of the DOF at 210 Joralemon Street in Brooklyn. The DOF occupies two different spaces in the building; start your research in the City Register's office on the 1st floor (to your left once you enter at the main entrance). In this room are block and lot indexes, which show buyer/seller information from approximately 1900 to 1959. These indexes reference a liber and page number, which indicate the location of a particular land deed. To view the land deed, take the liber/page numbers upstairs to room 203 on the 2nd floor. Here you can request the microfilm of the deed. Copies of the microfilm are available at $1 per page.
Kings County Surrogate's Court
looking into the social history of a building, you may want to see if
any previous owners or residents had a will probated in Kings
County. If they did, you can find it in room 109 on the bottom
floor of the Surrogate's Court.
Wills may provide such details as contents and furnishings in the
subject home, or if a particular property was a rental.
In addition, Brooklyn probate records for the years 1866-1923 have been digitized and made available online at the Kings County Estate Files website.
NYC Municipal Archives
If you are interested in obtaining or viewing a photograph of a particular block and lot, the NYC Municipal Archives has the Tax Photograph Collection.
In the 1930s and 1940s, a photograph was taken of every block and lot
in the five boroughs. You can visit the archives in person at 31
Chambers Street, New York to view the image on microfilm, or you can order a print directly from their website.
Brooklyn Collection of the Brooklyn Public LibraryThe Brooklyn Public Library has scanned and made freely available the full run of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1841-1955), Brooklyn’s largest newspaper and one of the most useful resources available for any type of 19th and 20th century Brooklyn research. Searching the Eagle often yields a wealth of information about past residents of a particular address, construction and architectural details, notable events and occurrences at the building, or advertisements seeking maids or boarders.
BPL has also digitized its collection of Brooklyn City Directories for the years 1856-1908. The PDF files are large and may take time to download, but are handily keyword searchable.
In addition, the Brooklyn Collection of the Brooklyn Public Library has a number of materials useful in doing building research. You can browse their website or contact them directly for details.
NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC)
If the property you are researching is within a landmarked neighborhood, you can contact the LPC to see if they have any files on that particular neighborhood.
If you live within a landmarked neighborhood within the five boroughs and you have a question concerning what you can and cannot do with your property, you can contact an information officer at the LPC directly.
Neighborhood Preservation Center
The Neighborhood Preservation Center offers an excellent searchable online database of fully scanned LPC reports. They also have a small library open to the public. For more information, visit their website or contact them directly.
Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library of Columbia University
If you want to read more about building research, the staff at the Avery has compiled an excellent research guide for researching NYC buildings. A major online resource is the Real Estate Record & Builder’s Guide,
described as “a weekly report of building activity in New York City and
its environs,” dating between 1868-1922. Also useful is The New York Real Estate Brochure Collection,
a digitized collection of advertising brochures, floor plans, price
lists and related material that document residential and commercial
real estate development in the five boroughs and outlying vicinities
from the 1920s to the 1970s.
Another newspaper resource is Fulton History, a vast, unwieldy, but often ripe NYC and New York State online collection of digitized newspapers on microform.
Lastly, two online map resources worth searching are the New York Public Library Real Estate Atlases; and OasisNYC, which creates detailed hypertextual community maps using updated data sources.