Researching Historic Properties

Some basic techniques and resources required for researching a historic property. Whether the research is intended for personal or academic interest, or for the nomination of a property to the National Register of Historic Places,the following information will help the researcher get started.

1. Asking the Right Questions:

Research for a National Register nomination must demonstrate the property’s historic significance, defined as the importance of the property to the history, architecture, archeology, engineering or culture of a community, a State or the nation. Significance is based on four criterion: association with historical events; association with a significant person; distinctive physical characteristics of design, construction or form; and the potential to yield important information.

A nomination must also place the property in its historic context, establishing the property’s direct connection with the designated area of significance; clearly set the boundaries of the property’s period of significance; and demonstrate the property’s integrity, defined as the authenticity of the property’s physical characteristics. To evaluate the property’s significance, the researcher must answer the following questions:

  • How large is the property, where is it located, or what are its boundaries?
  • How many buildings, structures, and other resources make up the property?
  • When was the property constructed? By whom was the property designed and/or constructed?
  • Does the property have a historic name or names? What is the source of those names?
  • What are the property’s historic characteristics?
  • What changes have been made since its initial construction and when?
  • How have these changes affected the historic integrity?
  • What was the historic function/use of the property? How is it used today?
  • What is the current physical condition of the property, including the exterior, grounds, setting and interior?
  • Who occupied/used the property historically? Who is the current owner?
  • Was the property associated with any important events, activities, or persons?
  • In what areas of history is the property significant?
  • How does the property relate to the history of the community in which it is located, of the State, and/or of the nation?

2. Preliminary Resources:

With a list of questions prepared, the researcher may then begin to identify the primary and secondary resources needed to answer those questions. Some initial hints include:

  • Begin with the most crucial primary source: the property itself.
  • Compile a detailed description of the physical characteristics of the property’s grounds and setting, including the exteriors and interiors of all buildings, structures on the site. Note any distinctive features, obvious alterations or changes, and any signs of previous buildings or activities, (foundations, wells, paths, vegetation, roads, etc.).
  • As early as possible, establish the property’s date of construction, if only initially a rough time frame (for example, 1835-1850). Also, discover the names of any persons or institutions associated with the property and any alternate names by which the property has been known. This information will immediately provide a focus to the field of inquiry, facilitating the research tasks.
  • If possible, talk with current and/or past owners, neighbors, and long-time residents of the community. In addition to the physical records (deeds, abstracts, building permits, receipts etc.), personal recollections can contribute greatly to your understanding of the social and cultural significance of the property and lead to new sources of information.

3. Locating Primary & Secondary Sources:

Researching a property entails the careful examination of both primary (archival & original) and secondary sources of information. The following list identifies potentially useful types of materials:

  • Abstract of Title
  • Architectural or Construction Drawings
  • Architectural Journals
  • Building Permits
  • Cemetery Records
  • Census Records: Population, Agricultural, Manufacturing
  • Church Records
  • City, Township, or County Records
  • Commercial Histories
  • Community/County Histories
  • Corporate/Business Records
  • Court Documents
  • Deeds
  • Directories and Gazetteers
  • Estate Records: Wills, Inventories, Appraisals, Estate adminstration
  • Family/Personal Papers: Letters, Diaries, Ledger Books, Bibles
  • Genealogical Records: Biographies, Family Histories, Photographs and Drawings of Home and Family members
  • Insurance Records
  • Interviews and Oral Histories
  • Land Records
  • Maps and Plats: Town Maps, Property Plats, Private Maps, Land Ownership Maps, Birds Eye View Maps, Developers’ Town Layouts, Tourist Maps, Landscaping Plans, Sanborn or Baist Insurance Maps
  • Military Records
  • Newspapers
  • Postcards
  • Tax Records

4. Local Sources of Information:

  • A Guide To Centre County Architecture
  • Elpern, Dennis, ed. Historic Resources of the Centre Region. State College, PA: The Centre Region Planning Commission, 1982.
  • Lee, Joan Elaine. Centre County, Pennsylvania: A Bibliography and Guide to Sources of Information. Bibliographical Series No. 8. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Libraries, 1980.
  • Miller, Ruby M. Pennsylvania Maps and Atlases in the Pennsylvania State University Libraries. Bibliographical Series No. 5. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Libraries, 1972.
  • Ramsey, Gregory, ed. Historic Buildings of Centre County Pennsylvania. University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1980.

* available through the Centre County Historical Society

5. Location of Local Materials & Collections:

Materials and collections relating to local historic properties are housed at the following locations:

Centre County Governmnet, Bellefonte

Centre County Genealogical Society

Centre County Historical Society

Centre County Library & Historical Museum, Bellefonte

Penn State University Libraries, University Park

Penns Valley Area Historical Museum

Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, Harrisburg

Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg

Philipsburg Historical Foundation, Philipsburg

Schlow Memorial Library, State College

6. Additional Sources:

Architectural: Guides & Dictionaries:

Blumenson, John J.Identifying American Architecture: A Pictorial Guide for Styles and Terms, 1600-1945. Nashville: American Association for State & Local History, 1981.

Gottfried, Herbert & Jan Jennings. American Vernacular Design 1870-1940. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1988.

McAlester, Virginia & Lee. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Poppeliers, John C. S., et. al. What Style Is It? A Guide to American Architecture. Washington, DC: The Preservation Press, 1983.

General Sources:

Burns, John A., ed. Recording Historic Structures. Washington, DC: The AIA Press, 1989.

Hart, David M. “How to Date an Old House,” Handout distributed by Old House Journal, Brooklyn, NY, October 1976.

Maddex, Diane, ed.All About Old Buildings: The Whole Preservation Catalog. Washington, DC: The Preservation Press, 1985.

_____. Landmark Yellow Pages: where to find all the names, addresses, facts and figures you need. Washington, DC: The Preservation Press, 1983.

National Register Bulletins:

The following publications are available on-line through the National Park Service’s National Register Bulletins

#15 How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation.

#16 Guidelines for Completing the National Register of Historic Places Form.

#39 Researching a Historic Property.