Tools to help you with your Research
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: chances are there are no remaining copies of plans for your house. And, most likely, you won’t be able to find individual photos of your house in any of the easily accessible public document collections.
But here’s the good news: there is a lot of information about your house if you’re willing to dig a bit and then follow the clues. Here are some suggestions of places to look and information to gather.
1. Multnomah County Division of Assessment & Taxation
501 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 503-248-3326
Microfilm on file here will reveal home ownership over the years, when and between whom it changed hands, selling costs, property valuation and other information. As you search through the early years of the 20th century, be sure to “watch” the rest of the neighborhood, not just your property. You’ll see some interesting changes.
2. Sanborn Maps
The Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. mapped Portland and hundreds of other American towns and cities from 1879 up until the early 1960s. These maps will come in handy, particularly when it comes to finding the original address for your house. The Portland street grid was completely renumbered in 1933, so if your house was built before then, the address you have today will not be of much help. Available at the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) Library (and on-line via the Mutnomah County Library System, but be sure to go look at the originals just for fun because they are beautiful and a sight to see).
3. Polk Directories
Even if you aren’t looking for your own house here, these directories read like an annotated history of Portland life. Compiled by street address, they list the name and profession of the people who lived in your house. While not an official public document like you’ll find at the County, these directories are quick and easy to search, and make for fascinating reading. You’ll find these at the OHS Library and at the Multnomah County Library. You can also find on-line copies of these at places like ancestry.com
4. Building Permits
City of Portland Permit Center, 1900 SW 4th Ave., 503-823-7660. http://www.portlandonline.com/bds/index.cfm?c=36656
You’ll be surprised how much you can learn about your house by looking at building permits. The folks at the Portland Bureau of Buildings are very helpful. Go up to the counter and tell them you’d like to look at the historic building permits and inspection cards for your address (be sure to tell them you are the homeowner).
This is an outstanding reference for contemporary information about your home and neighborhood, but the history nugget is the plumbing permit. Enter your address into the search bar. Then click on “permits,” and then “historic plumbing.” You can then scroll down to the earliest reference which often lists the home owner or builder and the date when the plumbing inspection permit was signed off on.
Once you’ve gathered the official information on your house, you can extend your detective work, which could include searches through biographical indexes, Oregon death records, US Census records (now available up through 1940), and obituaries. With a little luck these sources are going to lead you to real live people, memories, stories and, if you are determined and lucky, maybe even photos. As you conduct your search, keep good records and notes, keep an open mind, use your deductive reasoning, and have fun.
Here are some other helpful ideas:
If you get stuck and want a sounding board, drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or call at 503-901-5510. I do prepare house history studies for clients who would rather not do the digging themselves, or don’t have the time to do the work. But I’m also glad to help you get unstuck if you want to just drop me a note, or just offer some words of advice as you plan your own search.
(My house was built by William B. Donahue in July 1912 and lived in by five families since then, most of whom I’ve met. Your research will pay off!)
Want to conduct your own oral history with an elder Alamedan? Click here for a suggested list of questions.