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How to research your Chicago home’s history online

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We’re all spending a little more time at home—here’s what you can learn about your historic house online.

Carmen Troesser

Chicago is the home of well-read architectural styles like Prairie School and Miesian Modern but it also features vernacular designs like simple workers cottages and bungalows. There’s no question the place you live tells a story—so how do you find out more about it?

In fact, there’s a lot you can learn just through different sources on the internet (which is perfect while we’re all spending more time at home for a while). We’ve gathered some advice about how to start researching your home, or any building you’re wondering about, according to an expert.

Matthew M. Wicklund is an expert at researching homes in Chicago—he’s a preservation planner and architectural historian. Since 2012, he’s written over a dozen Chicago landmark designation reports and several nominations for places on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Every building has its own story and it can tell the history of Chicago from its early days to the present,” he said. It’s not so much about the building type—condos, cottages, two-flats—they’re all interesting. There’s so much to think about like the context of the neighborhood, the owners of the buildings, and what it all might mean for the people living there now, he said.

1. Search the Chicago Historic Resources Survey

If you live in an older building or in a historic district, there’s a chance that you’ll be able to find the year your home was built and the architect. However, don’t get your hopes up, says Wicklund. About 17,000 properties were cataloged in the survey which was a decade-long effort finished in 1995. You can find a paperback version of the survey at the Chicago Public Library, but an online version exists where you can search by street, architect, year, neighborhood, or style.

If you don’t have luck there, Wicklund says the next step is to request building permits or a property’s deed records to get information. These documents will also give you the ownership history, lot dimensions, construction costs, and ownership history. To get this information, you’ll need to call the Cook County’s Recorder of Deeds and make a request.

2. Double down with library resources

One of the best free resources available for research? The Chicago Public Library. It’s possible to search old newspapers from around the time your house was constructed which could give you more clues about what was happening in the neighborhood, what type of people lived in a particular home, and what careers they had, says Wicklund.

What’s great is that there’s an extensive collection of photos and documents online—you can find that here. The Chicago Collections offers online access to materials from not only CPL but the Chicago History Museum, the Art Institute, Newberry Library, and Roosevelt University.

In some cases you might be able to access mid-19th century historic maps that outline the footprints of houses. This is helpful in determining whether any additions were made to the home your researching, says Wicklund. Wonder why that turret doesn’t look quite right? Or maybe the staircase is just a bit off? There could be something in the original floor plans that finally gives you the full picture.

3. Figure out your building’s true address

Not finding much information with your current address? That might be because your street was re-numbered. In 1909, city planners changed the grid in an attempt to make streets easier to navigate. You can see evidence of this by looking at the etched stone or stained glass in older buildings—Forgotten Chicago has a few examples in Wicker Park.

You can learn more about the street re-numbering and renaming through this conversion guide here. If your home was built before 1909, figure it’s former number by looking it up on this table which catalogs both old and new addresses.

4. Take an investigative eye to your home

Just as a mismatched exterior might be able to provide some context—so can an interior. Look around the basement, pull open the pocket doors, and, if you dare, cut a hole in the wall, Wicklund says. These are all ways the researcher himself has found hidden answers—worn letters in Swedish, old photographs of the home, trinkets from previous occupants.

“You can read the structure,” says Wicklund. “What type of trim? Does it match? Was a doorway added here? Why? When was a kitchen added here? It’s possible to peel all this back in some way.”

5. Don’t get stuck on one answer. Follow an organic path.

Wicklund’s most important piece of advice: “Persistence is required.“

The process of research isn’t straightforward at all, he says. It often starts with a question and leads to more questions. “Information does not just give itself up,” he said. There will be a lot that remains unanswered, and that’s okay. What you do learn can lead you to other interesting facets of architecture, your neighborhood, or cultural history.