Since its establishment in 1976, the Boston Landmarks Commission has systematically identified, documented, and analyzed more than 30,000 historic properties within the City of Boston. Known as Boston's Cultural Resource Inventory, this multi-volume document is available for review at the Boston Landmarks Commission (Room 805, Boston City Hall, office hours: Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m to 5:00 p.m.). The Inventory provides broad coverage of Boston's residential architecture, identifying both common and exceptional examples of various house types within each neighborhood. While not all-inclusive, it is a good place to begin your search. The following guide provides research tips for documenting the construction date and history of Boston properties not yet included in the Inventory.
When conducting research on buildings, two distinct types of information are sought: 1) architectural data, such as date of construction, name of architect, builder or housewright, building dimensions, construction materials, and physical changes over time; and 2) historical data, such as information on the original owner, residents over time, or any interesting events associated with the building or area. This guide focuses on the use of primary sources, such as public records, atlases, and historic photographs that, if used correctly, will yield information on almost any building.
Fire Insurance Atlases
State Library of Massachusetts Special Collections Department
Compiled by private surveyors (such as Bromley, Hopkins, and Sanborn), these maps depict lot lines, building foot prints, and building materials for all parcels within the City of Boston. Boston's first fire insurance map dates from 1867; subsequent maps were published every five years. This collection is a valuable resource for dating individual buildings as well as the topographical development of whole areas. Incomplete atlas collections are held by the Bostonian Society, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Boston Public Library.
State Library of Massachusetts Special Collections Department
Published sporadically between 1789 and 1800, and consistently thereafter, the city directories list heads of households alphabetically and by street address along with their occupations and ages. The business sections contain addresses and advertisements of city merchants, artisans, and manufacturers.
Inspectional Services Department
Building Document Room
617-635-5300 extension 1301 Monday-Friday 8:00am-3:00pm.
Located at 1010 Massachusetts Avenue, this department is the repository for all building/alteration permits issued from 1886 to the present. Filed by street address, permits are stored in manila jackets. Original building permits are especially useful, listing the original owner, architect, builder, construction cost, dimensions, materials, and date. Alteration permits provide clues as to the building's physical evolution over time. While reviewing these documents, don't forget to check the document jacket for a "bin number." Save this number as it corresponds to a storage bin at the Boston Public Library where the original blueprints may still be filed.
The Inspectional Services Department's Building Permit Database allows researchers to look for and retrieve images of historical permits.
Contact the Boston Public Library's Fine Arts Department (617-859-2275) for assistance in locating these plans and the Boston City Inspector Reports. Please note these reports reference new construction only.
Fine Arts Department
Boston Public Library
This department's extensive card file entitled Index to Boston Architecture provides references to Information and images of Boston's built environment (buildings, monuments and their architects/creators), past and present. Access is via architect,street address, and building type or name. BPL patrons also have access to online databases such as the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals and Art Index Retrospective/Art Full Text.
Architectural books, periodicals, microforms, and special collections, as well as reference services, remain centered in the Fine Arts Department. The collections of the Fine Arts Department include Boston Landmarks Commission Reports. Researchers should also consider resouerces in the Government Documents,. Microtext. And Prints/Photograhs, Rare Books and Manuscripts, and the Social Sciences departmernts.
Post-1974 titles can be found in the online catalog at http://www.bpl.org; pre-1974 holdings are generally found only in the department's card catalog. Special collections are not included in any of the public catalogs at this time.
The department's collections also contain the personal papers of several architects and architectural firms that were based here in Boston. Researchers may access these collections by appointment only, and requests must be for specific architectural projects. You can see a list of our special collections at http://www.bpl.org/research/special/index.htm.
Boston Landmarks Commission
National Register of Historic Places
You may live or work in one of Boston's forty-plus National Register districts (contact BLC staff at 617-635-3850 to learn if your property is listed). All National Register nomination forms contain basic historical information and a bibliography; newer forms contain specific information on all the properties within the district. Reports of the Boston Landmarks Commission are available in the Fine Arts Department of the Boston Public Library.
Boston City Hall
The tax assessor's records provide information on present ownership, lot size, and building and land values. Suffolk County Registry information (i.e., deed book and page numbers) is available for parcels that have changed hands within the past seven years. This information provides a useful head-start for any title search work.
Registry of Deeds (Pemberton Square)
Suffolk County Court House
Though often a tedious process, a title search is the only exact method to establish a chain of ownership for a piece of property. In addition to securing all owners over time, deed research reveals construction dates, original owners, changes in value and uses, and plot plans for parcel subdivisions. While all Boston title search begin at the Suffolk Registry of Deeds, many research efforts will require a trip to either the Middlesex County Registry (repository for Charlestown's and Brighton's pre-1874 deeds) or the Norfolk County Registry (repository for West Roxbury's pre-1874 deeds; Roxbury's pre-1868 deeds; Dorchester's pre-1870 deeds; and Hyde park's pre-1912 deeds). The procedure for tracing a title is as follows:
Beginning with the present owner's name and the building address, consult the most recent Grantee Index, an annual list of all Suffolk County property transactions (organized alphabetically by purchaser's name). Proceed backwards in time until a transaction involving the present owner and subject property is located; this will yield a reference to the book and page where the deed for the present owner is recorded. Locate this deed. Each deed contains the book and page number of the previous property transaction.
This process is repeated until the original owner is found, with careful attention given to the description of the buildings and parcels conveyed as well as changes in boundaries or price. Buildings can be dated by noting the shift in a property's description from "a parcel of land" to "a parcel of land and the buildings thereupon." Retain a record of each deed reference, noting the following: book and page number; names and addresses of sellers (grantors) and purchasers (grantees); dates; prices; and property descriptions. Breaks in the chain of title occasionally occur, indicating unrecorded transactions or inheritance of a property by an heir (see Probate Records). The registry clerks are available to assist you.
Probate Records (Pemberton Square)
Suffolk County Court House
Probate records relating to the inheritance of property are often necessary to complete the chain of ownership. The name of the deceased person is listed alphabetically within chronological volumes of an index, yielding a case number. The numerically indexed volumes listing these case numbers in turn provide volume and page references for each instrument related to the probating of the deceased estate (will, inventory, division of estate, etc.). These volumes are then consulted for copies of the instruments.
Photographs and Prints
Early photos and prints are often useful in documenting the historic appearance of and subsequent changes to buildings and areas. Large and well-indexed collections of architectural photographs can be found at the Historic New England (formerly SPNEA) and the Bostonian Society; smaller but still useful collections exist at the Boston Athenaeum and the Print Department of the Boston Public Library.
Micro Text Department
Boston Public Library (Copley Square)
Contemporary newspaper articles and obituaries can provide descriptions and other detailed information on buildings and biographical data on architects and owners. Complete copies of virtually all Boston newspapers are available on microfilm, however only obituaries are indexed. Thus it is helpful to establish the date of construction before searching for relevant articles.
Historic Preservation Organizations
This information is provided by The State Library of Massachusetts.