Over the years, interest in preserving older buildings in the United States has increased dramatically. Recent preservation efforts emphasize the rehabilitation of great numbers of structures that are not significant either architecturally or historically, rather than stressing the preservation of single monumental properties of national concern. Today, sites that reflect the local, ordinary life of Americans are being preserved. Protection is also being extended to entire blocks or districts that evoke a feeling of nostalgia and which were once prominent in the development of a community.

This increased awareness of the aesthetic and cultural value of older buildings has its roots in a rising national interest in local history. Since 1966, for example, the number of history and heritage preservation groups in the United States has risen from 2,500 to more than 6,000. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, a growing recognition of the importance of preserving tangible remains of the past has resulted in the establishment of Heritage Preservation Commissions. These commissions have the power to designate individual structures and districts as local landmarks. They also review building and demolition permit requests that affect the designated buildings.

A highly visible result of the growing enthusiasm for local history has been the accelerating restoration of housing in the nation’s inner cities, including areas in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Entire blocks of deteriorating Victorian-era residences have been rehabilitated by people who have recognized their charm and substantial construction. Turn-of-the-century workers’ cottages along Milwaukee Avenue in Minneapolis have been restored and revitalized. At the same time, house on St. Paul’s Dayton and Selby Avenues have been steadily undergoing rehabilitation, as have adjacent neighborhoods.

Interest in these renovated properties has often extended beyond restoration. Just as millions of Americans have become fascinated with the search for family “roots”, these new inner-city home owners have become interested in the history of their houses, many of which predate the turn of the century.

Often, people do not know where to turn for the records that will reveal the history of their houses. This guide has been prepared for everyone in the Twin Cities who may be contemplating house history research. Its purpose is to conduct the researcher through the sometimes baffling maze of county and municipal records to those which are the most likely to contain pertinent information for compiling a house history. It will also direct the researcher to those libraries and archives in the region that hold significant collections of books, newspapers, or manuscripts from which more information might be obtained.

This guide contains the chief sources of information to be found in government offices and institutions in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. By following the steps outlined, a good basic history of one’s house can be assembled – when it was built, who built it, who owned it, its dimensions, its cost, and materials used. A search might also lead to the discovery of changes subsequently made to the property, when these changes occurred, and what they cost. A search might even uncover the original floor plan and exterior appearance. Suggestions for additional research are provided for diligent researchers who want more information about styles, the architectural history of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the nation, or the political and social history of the cities, the states, or their neighborhoods.

There is no guarantee that an exhaustive scrutiny of these sources will reveal facts about everyone’s house. Lost records, lack of data in existing records, or the mere fact that documents were never created for some houses can complicate the search. Incomplete records, smudged or illegible data, or a house that was erected from stock plans by an anonymous carpenter can also frustrate the researcher. Some possible courses of action have been suggested for such uncertain and confusing situations.

This guide can be used in searches for information about buildings other than private residences. It may also be pertinent in other regions of the United States because the kinds of records and depositories mentioned are typical of what will be found in most other localities. There may, of course, be local variations in names of records offices. Certain types of institutions may not exist. Some parts of the country may be blessed with far more records and sources than one would find in either Minneapolis or St. Paul. However, with a little imagination, the seeker of house history information should find this guide applicable regardless of where s/he resides.

The house historian should keep this guide at hand for it can be used to search for missing information during idle moments in a busy schedule or when one of the sources mentioned is nearby.

Addresses of sources mentioned in this guide are appended at the end along with a reading list containing books, newspapers, and periodicals which the seeker of house history information might find helpful in the search.


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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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