Minnesota Historical Society: Discovering Your Home’s History


When Amy Handford agreed to show her home on the Dayton’s Bluff Parade of Homes she wanted to include a brief history of her house for tour attendees. But where to begin? Handford was fortunate, in that, her home had been included in a historical review of the Dayton’s Bluff district done in the early 1980s, so she knew something of it’s past. “When we bought the house all we knew was the name of the family that had built it and the year it was built, ” said Handford. “The historical review gave us some very good information but nothing too detailed. I talked to some family members of the past owner and they gave me some information but I wanted to know more.”

Like Handford, many of us would love to know more about the history of our homes. When was it built and by whom? How much did it cost to build? What did the original owners do for a living? Where were they from? What did your home look like 100 years ago? Was the second floor layout always that way or did someone do some remodeling at some point? Was that back bedroom always a bedroom or did it used to be a pantry? Was that garage originally a horse barn or was it built later? Remember, there were no cars 100 years ago. By researching the history of your home it may be possible to answer some of these questions.

Dayton’s Bluff Neighborhood
Most of the homes in our neighborhood are built on a tract of land originally developed for residential use by land speculator Lyman Dayton in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Dayton’s Bluff quickly grew from a small colony of well to do businessmen, who built large homes along the ridgeline overlooking downtown St. Paul, to a mixed income development with homes of a wide range styles and sizes stretching well eastward from the river bluffs.

If you live in Dayton’s Bluff chances are that your home was built in the later part of the 1800s or early in the 1900s with the oldest homes generally being located nearer the Bluff itself. In the late 1800s Dayton’s Bluff was considered one of the preeminent neighborhoods in St Paul. Many of the city’s most wealthy and influencial citizens called Dayton’s Bluff home. This included Railroad magnet James J Hill who resided on Dayton’s Bluff in the 1890s while his famous mansion on Summit Avenue was being completed. At the same time, the 1880s saw St Paul’s population explode. An influx of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and Scandinavia flooded into the city. Many of these new Americans also built homes on Dayton’s Bluff, although, at a much more modest level than their wealthy counterparts.

The diversity in home size and home style is easily Dayton’s Bluff’s most noticeable architectural characteristic. A quick drive down any street in our neighborhood and it will quickly become apparent that Dayton’s Bluff is truly a melting pot of architectural style. One notices that on virtually every block there are one or two large Victorian style homes sandwiched between a variety of smaller houses in an assortment of architectural styles and characteristics. But, regardless of your home’s size or grandeur, there is a very good chance that it has a rich and interesting history.

Getting Started
So how do you begin your house history research? There is a variety of resources available right here in St Paul.

Building Permits
“The best starting point when researching your home’s history is with the building permit,” says Jim Sazevich, St Paul’s preeminent house historian. From 1883 forward every house built in the city of St Paul required a building permit. Ninety percent of these permits still exist. The building permits usually include information on everything from dates of construction, architect and/or contractors, original dimensions of the house, original ownership and cost. The Ramsey County Historical Society now holds these permits and index cards. This collection is not open to the public. You may obtain a copy of the original building permit (preservation fees apply) by contacting the Ramsey County Historical Society at (651) 222-0701 or send an e-mail to Jana Armstead at research@rchs.com. The Ramsey County Historical Society charges a $13.50 fee for each permit/index card copy you request. They have the permits dating 1883 to 1975. Anything after 1975 can still be retrieved from the LIEP (City of St. Paul License-Inspections and Environmental Protection Office).

For Minneapolis building permits, contact Minneapolis One Stop at 250 South Fourth Street, Room 300, in Minneapolis.

Another important source for discovering the history of your house is the home’s abstract. The abstract is the document that records all legal transactions associated with a given property. A lot of valuable information can be gained just by examining the abstract. Not only can you find out who owned a certain house, when and for how long, but many times you can also find out who built the house and if and/or when it has undergone extensive renovations. It’s a very good source to begin to find out more about the people who once inhabited your home. Most people were given the abstract of their home upon its purchase. If you’re a homeowner you already have access to your homes abstract. If your home does not have an abstract and is Torrens property, you can look up documents pertaining to the history of your home and lot at Ramsey County Property Records and Revenue Department at 50 West Kellogg Blvd.

For Hennepin County, search the property tax web database or call the Property Services Department at 612-348-3000.

City Directories
There are city directories for St. Paul going back as far as 1856. These directories are far more than your run of the mill telephone books. They list the names of all the adults in a household along with their professions. From 1929 forward the city directories even “cross index” so one can look up a listing by address not just the last name of the occupant. These directories are a great source if you want to know more about the past owners of your home. The Minnesota Historical Society Library has St. Paul Directories going back to the 1860s. They also have an early but selective directory, the Dual City Blue Book, which also has a reverse index. The Library has those directories for the years 1885-1923. The library is located in the Minnesota History Center at 345 Kellogg Blvd and is open to the public. It is the single best resource for discovering your home’s history.

Census Records
If the city directories don’t provide enough information on the past residents of your home maybe it’s time to check out the census records. Every ten years from 1790 forward there was a federal census taken across the county. For the years 1850 to 1930 these census records are on microfilm at the Minnesota Historical Society Library. You also have access at the MNHS Library to Ancestry.com Library Edition and HeritageQuest, both online subscriptions that include indexes and digital images of the federal censuses.

Tracey Baker, MHS Librarian and resident house history expert encourages researchers to look at the census for their house. “In the census you’ll learn about how many people lived in your house, where they and their parents were born, their ages and occupations,” says Baker. “It’s amazing to discover that a house you consider cozy was once a home to a family of eight children,” she adds.

Plat/Insurance Maps
Over the years there has been a number of detailed maps of St Paul. These maps, mostly made by insurance companies like the Sanborn Company, include detailed drawings of every structure within the city. This includes the Dayton’s Bluff area. If you want to see the footprints of your home 100 years ago, or if you want to know if the porch was originally open, this is the place to look. Again, these maps are available on microfilm at the MHS Library.

Over the years St Paul has been home to a variety of newspapers. This includes citywide papers along with local community papers. Sazevich points out that included in the pages many of these newspapers are a variety of articles that can be very helpful in your home history research. Events such as births and deaths are recorded and, in many cases, new buildings and even the doings of certain local architects were reported on. Again, these papers are available on microfilm at the MNHS Library.

The Minnesota Historical Society has photographs of many houses. You can view this online at Visual Resources Database. The Ramsey County Historical Society also has some photographs of the neighborhood. If at all possible, talk to previous owners, neighbors or long time Dayton’s Bluff residents. There’s a good chance your home made the background of at least a couple of pictures in someone’s family photo collection.

This certainly is not a complete list of sources for researching your home’s history but it will offer a good stepping off point for you to begin your work. Most of these resources are free and open to the public at the Minnesota Historical Society Library.

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