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

4.   Building Permits

City of Portland Permit Center, 1900 SW 4th Ave., 503-823-7660.

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.

Other Sources

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:

Bureau of Development Research Suggestions

Multnomah County Library Research Suggestions

If you get stuck and want a sounding board, drop me a note at  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.

6 responses

  1. I love the story of your porch! Wanted to share with readers that the Architectural Heritage Center (AHC) offers a program on “How to Research the History of Your House” and LOTS of other old house renovation, historic preservation, and neighborhood history programs. To get on their mailing list, send contact info to Its a non-profit org and a great place to network, too.

  2. Great site; thanks for putting it together. I live in Rose City Park, but just a short distance from the Alameda Ridge, where I jog and take the baby for strolls to admire the old, big houses.

    I’ve become interested in the geologic history of the Ridge, especially the Missoula Floods that created it. Part of my interest is just curiosity, but it also has some practical implications for us: the gravelly soil on the Ridge deposited by the Floods is making it hard to get sewer work done on our street, and may be related to the higher-than-normal radon levels in our neighborhood.

    Do you know of any good books or other resources on this topic?

    Thanks. –Erich

  3. This is a great website – and as a old house voyeur as well as working and volunteering in the restoration trade, I really appreciate your research! Thank you!

  4. I am impressed with the winter scene of blocked roads. I am writing stories and this would fit nicely onto one page of the book. “I’ll be Home for Christmas”
    I wonder, could I have your permission to use this? I would really appreciate this.

  5. Hi Doug,
    You and I went through my childhood home on 41st several summers ago. Now cleaning out records I have found the original title and trust book for one of my parents’ homes in the area. I don’t know for which one it is( on 41st or 44th) and would like to know if you would be interested in having it.

  6. Doug: Thanks for the info on address reconciliation from “the great change of 1933”. I am doing ancestry research and the info filled in the blanks for two addresses of the same people in my research. Del Schulzke, (not Bill)

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