1 Building Permits

The original owner’s name, the approximate date of construction, and the name of the architect are the first pieces of information that are required in a house history investigation. This information is found on building permits, documents that grant permission to construct or remodel a building or, sometimes, to demolish one. Building permits are issued by building inspection departments. In St. Paul, building permits were first issued in 1883, and in Minneapolis in 1884.

Minneapolis permits have been microfilmed and copies may be requested by permit number from the inspections department staff. The Ramsey County Historical Society holds the St. Paul building permits and permit index cards; you must call in advance to make an appointment to obtain copies. Building permits are filed by permit number, not by street address. You must first locate a permit number before requesting a permit copy. To do this you should consult the “building index card” for the structure you are researching.

Building index cards list all the permits issued for the structure and, in St. Paul, are now housed at the¬†Ramsey County Historical Society; the building index cards for Minneapolis are kept in the Special Collections Department of the Minneapolis Public Library¬†(MPL house history research). These cards are filed by street address and contain the following information: the date and the number (permits are filed numerically) of the original permit, the contractor’s name, the cost, and the legal address of the house. It is important to note that this card does not list an architect’s name; this information is available only on the permit. The researcher may request a copy of this building index card so that the permit numbers are readily available.

The original permit and any subsequent ones issued for remodelling or other structural changes are helpful if one wants the names of the architect or owner, which appear only on the permit. This information, however, is not always included on the permit.

Some permits have been lost over the years, and permits were never issued at all for the area bounded by 54th and 62nd Streets, and 46th and Xerxes Avenues until Minneapolis annexed it from Richfield in 1927.

Most of the suburbs hold either incomplete or very short-run files of building permits. Many permits are dated no earlier than the 1930’s, and few suburbs require the architect’s name on the permit. Exceptions are the cities of Golden Valley, Wayzata, White Bear Lake, and West St. Paul, which have taken care to maintain backfiles of older permits.

If there is no building permit, a rough estimate of the construction date can be made by checking building permits for other houses on the block. If the samples show dates within a few years of each other, the house may have been built about the same time. Another useful group of sources for pinpointing the date of construction in the absence of building permits are the “assessment rolls” of the county taxation departments, containing the assessed value of a piece of property and of any structure on that property. From them, one might find sudden increases in value as improvements were made, such as initial construction on the property or major additions to existing structures. The tax assessment rolls for many counties have been microfilmed and may be consulted at the Minnesota Historical Society. However, the rolls for Ramsey County are not available.

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Drafting a House History Copyright © by Compiled by Barbara Bezat and Alan K. Lathrop is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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