Researching a Building or Site

Are you curious about the history of your apartment or another building that has meaning for you? Here preservationist and Eldridge Street intern Chelsea Dowell shares steps on uncovering information about a residence, business or any building of interest drawing.

As a graduate student at Pratt Institute’s Historic Preservation program, I’ve engaged in several projects centering on building and lot research. There is a wealth of information regarding individual buildings and specific lots and blocks, particularly in New York City. Many of the resources are not difficult to use; knowing that they are available is half the battle. This post should arm you with several tools in the research of a particular site.

Examine insurance maps

One of the best tools for looking at the changing built fabric of a city is to research historic insurance maps. These maps, commonly produced between 1850 and 1940, show an aerial view of the streetscape, often labeling street names, parks and large institutions in the area. Each lot depicts the footprint of the building that stands there at the time of the map’s production. The maps are also color coded to denote material – New York City’s maps show wooden buildings as yellow, brick as red, and sometimes make further color distinctions as well.  

To access the maps of New York, contact the Map Room at the New York Public Library, or browse online at The website is accessible from anywhere and includes a short video on how to use the online site. Pull the map of your area for as many years as you can find; these maps are a great way to determine a lot, block, or entire neighborhood’s evolution through time.   

Pull the Block & Lot folder

Each individual city lot is labeled with block and lot numbers. These numbers are entirely separate from the address and can be found by searching on this website: (for non-NYC addresses, ask your local Department of Buildings how to obtain block and lot numbers). Once you know your block and lot number, the folder for this lot can be pulled. Each city lot has its own folder. This folder should include papers on all activity and development that occurred on this lot. You may find deeds, building permits, alteration requests, records of disputes, blueprints, and other resources. 

In New York, these folders are located in two places. In Manhattan, block numbers 1 to 1000 are available at the Municipal Archives (212-788-8590). All other blocks are at the Department of Buildings (212-566-0042). For all other boroughs, the folders are all housed in that borough’s Department of Buildings. This information is in the public domain, so any individual can pull a block and lot folder of their choosing.

Look at tax photos

The city has commissioned photo projects several times that catalog the image of every lot in the five boroughs. These photos are housed at the Municipal Archives in Manhattan.

Synagogue tax photo

They are on microfilm and available for public use. The photos are organized by block and lot, and an archives employee should be able to assist you in locating the correct microfilm roll. These photos are an excellent way to get images of the façade of absolutely any building in the city, or a great way to see what used to stand on a particular lot.





Check local newspapers

Just like in genealogical research, newspapers like the New York Times can hold historic information about a specific building or address. Try searching for your building address in quotations (“12 Eldridge Street” for example) and see what comes up. When reading through the results, make sure that the article is referring to your exact address – sometimes a Times search for an address will yield results for a certain address in three different states.

Happy hunting. And if you have any other tips or interesting stories about researching a building, let us know!

Categories: Art & Architecture, Historic Preservation, History, Lower East Side

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