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“When was my building built?,” and other tricky research questions

The following is a re-post originally written by Sheryl Woodruff in 2011:

An old photograph can help you find out more about the history of your building.
An old photograph can help you find out more about the history of your building.

The New York Public Library, whose digital gallery we here at GVSHP turn to quite frequently when looking for images to assist in our own research, recently included an article in their November newsletter entitled “Who Lived in a House Like This?” with tips on researching the social history of your home  and neighborhood. It is an excellent overview of the sources available for those interested in genealogy or even to those looking to learn who lived in their apartment before them. But for those looking to learn a little more about the architectural history of their building, we thought we would share some tips we’ve gained over the years.GVSHP has a number of resources on our website that are worth checking out at the start of your search. Perhaps your building is located in a designated New York City or State or National Register of Historic Places historic district, or is an individual city, state, or national landmark. You can find the designation reports for all of these in the East Village, NoHo, and Greenwich Village on the GVSHP resources page. The information in these reports varies, but most have historic information about each building in the district. The AIA Guide to New York City, by Norval White, Elliot Willensky, and Fran Leadon, the latest addition of which was published in 2010, lists and describes many of the outstanding buildings in New York City, and is also a good place to check for information on a building’s history.

Not sure if your building is in a historic district? New York CityMap allows you to see at a glance information about your building, including landmark status, district name, year built, and zoning. But a word of caution. Buildings built before 1900 are often labeled 1899 or 1900 in city databases.

So how do you find the real date of construction, if you happen to be searching for information about a building not in a landmark district? Your next step might be to look at the building’s file at the Department of Buildings. The Manhattan Department of Buildings was created in the 1865, and from that year forward, DOB has kept a record of all new buildings, alterations to existing buildings, demolitions, and other changes to sites.  A fairly-reliable (though inc0mplete) list of permits that DOB issued from 1865 until about 1989 can be found on DOB’s website. This is just a list, though. To see the actual permits in person, you’ll need to request the block and lot file from the NYC Municipal Archives.

Permits listed on the Department of Buildings website.
Permits listed on the Department of Buildings website.

To access the list, enter the DOB’s Building Information Search.  Type in the building address or block and lot to bring up the property profile. Scroll to the bottom and click on “Actions.” This brings up a list of many of the permits filed for the building from about 1865 until 1988. The most important permits are:

  • New Building Permits, or “NB”, which is what is filed when a new building is being constructed
  • Alteration Permits, or “Alt”, which is what is filed when an existing building is modified
  • Demolition Permits, or “DM” or “DP”, which is what is filed when an existing building is demolished

Each permit is numbered by the type of permit it is, the number of the permit, and the year it was filed.  For instance, NB 101-03 is the 101st permit filed in 1903.  Likewise, Alt. 44-94, is the 44th permit filed for in 1894. The century that the permit was filed in can be confusing.  Since the Department of Buildings was created in 1865, any year in the decades of the 00s, 10s, 20s, 30s, 40s, or 50s you can assume is from the 1900s.  Likewise, the Department of Buildings stopped using this system about 1990, so any permit with a 90’s year is probably from 1890s.  The decades for the 60s, 70s, and 80s, can be permits from the 1800s or the 1900s, so you may have to either make a guess by looking at the building or by doing further research. These permits will also allow you to see what, if any, changes were made to your buildings, such as an addition or the removal of a stoop.

Tax photos compared to a current photo help determine changes to 23 Downing Street.
Tax photos compared to a current photo help determine changes to 23 Downing Street.

What if you want to take a look at what your building looked like in the past? There are a number of sources for historic images. The New York City Municipal Archive tax photos – taken from 1939 to 1941 and again in the mid-1980s, were taken to appraise property for tax purposes. Every building in the city was photographed. This is a wonderful record of how your building looked at the time and might help you determine what the windows or stoop used to look like. Need a photo from another time period? While there is no other photography survey of this magnitude, the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, the Museum of the City of New York’s Collections Portal, and the LaGuardia and Wagner Archive all have extensive photography collections. While it is tempting to search using the street number and address, we have found that you get better results searching on the street name and cross street.

There are plenty of other resources out there for finding out more about the architecture of your building. If this search tips here are not leading you in the right direction, feel free to contact us with a specific request.

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