Joan Hostetler is fascinated with old houses and her enthusiasm is contagious. The Indianapolis resident, who owns Heritage Photo & Research Services with husband John Harris, discussed “Researching Your Historic Home or Building” at the Batesville Memorial Public Library Oct. 10.
She loves being a detective to glimpse a structure’s past. “That’s what everybody wants who live in historic houses: They want the pictures, they want the family stories.” The researcher, who earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in museum studies and imaging arts from Rochester Institute of Technology, has learned how to dig up the truth.
Attendees came to pick up advice. Davied Engelking reported, “My house was built in 1850.” According to Irene Krieger, “The one I’m living in was built in 1922.” As a girl, she inhabited a house with an interior section of logs. BMPL genealogist Denean Williams noted, “We have a historic building uptown … the Kramer building,” which now houses All About Water. “It used to be an old dry goods store” in the early 1900s.
Hostetler said, “I’m always mining good sources to help us date our houses.” She discussed eight areas:
• Inspect. View the home and surrounding neighborhood. “You have to put it in context. You can learn something about the house from where it sits.” She suggested, “Take lot measurements. Get a photo of anything unusual or datable. Look for similarities or differences. Is it the oldest house on the block? Look at setbacks,” landscaping, trees and out buildings.
• Determine the architectural style. That can give clues on when a home was constructed. Hostetler explained the Italianate style wasn’t built in 1850, but was common in the 1870s. Williams believed their building was a Queen Anne. Others have guessed it was built around 1910, but Hostetler advised Queen Annes started appearing in the 1880s and were popular in the 1890s.
• Research. “Find out if research has been done already. Don’t re-invent the wheel ... If there’s a neighborhood, they might have already done some research.” She added, “These people love to help”: a local librarian, county historian, Indiana Landmarks and Indiana Department of Natural Resources Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology. The speaker observed, “It’s best if you don’t do ... (research) in isolation. Talk to other people who have buildings nearby. You can divide up the work.”
• Explore property records. “Don’t dress up and don’t wear white” to look at “old, sooty books” at the courthouse or historical society. Mortgages, building permits, liens, vintage city directories and phone books all are useful. “Tax records are a gold mine,” she said. Polk’s Indiana State Gazatteer for several years can be found online, broken down alphabetically by town. “Sometimes it lists just the landowners, though,” but not addresses. U.S. censuses are valuable, but the 1890 Census was destroyed by fire. Krieger added, “You might find assessor’s books by township, then by section. I found my family farm in Kosciusko County” in a book, which detailed number of acres and value of improvements. Assessor’s records revealed around 1859 a barn was added and in 1864 “the price jumped a lot” when a two-story house was constructed.
• Consult legal records. According to Hostetler, “Sometimes this is the most fruitful, but the most frustrating part of the research.” An abstract shows all owners, but abstracts became obsolete around 1950. Deeds can be found at the county recorder’s office. “Some counties are better than others” at organization.
• Use maps. Maps can help date a building or lead to other research avenues. An 1870 Indianapolis map shows in the Cottage Home neighborhood, streets were laid out, but not named yet. The presenter urged, “Look at the proximity of establishments near your property. If you’re near a church, go to the church archives.” Sanborn maps “are just the greatest things since sliced bread for doing your research.” Indiana’s fire insurance maps started around 1880. “They mapped the whole town and drew an outline of every house.” Colors told the type of structure: pink, brick; yellow, frame; green, concrete or stone. Other codes show number of stories and type of roof and accessory buildings. Another vintage maker of insurance maps was Baist, but the maps aren’t as detailed. Indiana University, Bloomington, “is the biggest repository for these fire insurance maps.” Most have been scanned up to 1923 and some may be able to be viewed online.
• Interview past residents. “That’s really the fun part,” because stories are told. BMPL has online help ranging from familysearch.org to www.heritagequestonline.com to discover past owners and relatives. Persons may come to the library or use a library card on a home computer to access ancestry.com. Once located, researchers can chat with descendents. Using an obituary, Hostetler tracked down one relative in Chicago. “I tape-recorded her on the phone with her permission.” An Irish contractor and his family had lived in the home she was investigating. “A very sad thing happened … around 1890 three children died of diphtheria and Daniel had an appendicitis attack.” An emergency appendectomy was performed at home, but “he died on the kitchen table. She could tell me stories like the color of the wallpaper, and they had the first phone (in the neighborhood) and chickens in the back.”
• Collect photos. They could show how a home used to appear. Resources, some online, include a library, historical society, Indiana Historical Society (see ArchIE architectural database and Bass Photo Co. Collection), Indiana State Library and aerial photos at the Indiana Department of Transportation and Indiana State Archives. Some cities have Facebook memory pages. The expert suggested, “Instead of saying (to relatives), ‘Will you send me a photo?’ say, ‘Can I come over and look at your photos?’ They edit too much” and don’t provide enough pictures, which could show a house’s early shutters and front porch pillars. “The best way to find photographs is to talk to the people who lived across the street.”
House research shouldn’t be kept a secret, according to Hostetler. “It’s up to all of us to record the histories of the houses we’re in. Type up what you know. Give it to your family members and give copies to the library and historical groups.” Her current house dates to the 1890s. To provide future owners with details, “I painted the story on the closet behind the wallpaper.” Another idea is to hide a printed history under a light switch plate. “You can take a metal box and put photos in a time capsule in heating grate.” Of course, research about a home can be passed with less intrigue to an owner at the real estate closing table.
Debbie Blank can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.