Curious about your townhouse's (maybe sordid) history? Call in a detective

By Virginia K. Smith  | August 13, 2014 - 9:59AM

We've all wondered about the people who lived in our apartments before us—how much did they pay in rent? what did the place look like then? did anything sinister happen?—and the older the building, the more mysterious its history. If Brian Hartig's work with the Brownstone Detectives is any indication, the truth is even stranger than you'd think.

The service—which offers to dig up the back story of your Brooklyn brownstone, and ultimately, put together the findings into a House History Book for the coffee table—launched in spring of 2013, in part the result of Hartig's research into his own home in Bed-Stuy. "When the house was being renovated, every night I went through and sifted through the rubble, looked under the floorboards, everywhere," Hartig tells BrickUnderground. "I was trying to find as much stuff as I could to tell me about the people who had lived there before."

Ultimately, he found artifacts from each family that had lived there over the years—Victorian children's blocks from the 1890s, a shoe catalog and receipt from the 1910s, etc.—and he later managed to track down city records showing that when the property was still farmland in the 1700s, it was owned by one of New York City's earliest mayors. 

The Brownstone Detectives will research your home and put the findings into a coffee table book

Of course, not every part of New York history is a charming family anecdote, and Hartig, who works in the city's Department of Homeless Services, also came across some unsettling information about another brownstone on his block. "A man was cut to pieces in one of the houses, and they eventually identified him by the laundry marking on his clothes," he says. "I haven't told the neighbor who lives in that house yet, and I'm not sure that I'm going to."

On the site's blog, building and neighborhood histories cover everything from the life and times of a Bed-Stuy Hall of Fame player to a 6'7" "giantess" convicted of murder in the 1890s to a protracted, Prohibition-related legal battle at the Republican men's club at 666 Macon Street. "You'd never know the things that have gone on in your own house," he says.

Hartig's search also took him to dusty tomes buried at the Department of Buildings, where he realized he could put his research know-how to use for other curious homeowners. Currently, he's available to work on homes in the vicinity of Bed-Stuy, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill, with plans to eventually expand the operation city-wide. Detective services range from a free consultation to initial research for $425 to a full history book, which can cost between $2,450 and $4,900, depending on the case.

Hartig also offers up some advice for amateur sleuths: the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library has back issues of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle electronically archived, and if you search for your address, you can pull up every mention of the home, from sales listings to fires that made the news. "When you see the stories that pop up, it's really a sign of the times," he says. "You'll have people from the 19th century looking for kitchen help and specifying 'Irish preferred.'"

It's more of a slog, but you can also look into property record books at the DOB, provided you've got your block and lot number handy, and how many feet your building is from the corner, an important measurement in older records. That's where the chain of title lives, says Hartig, and where to find the name of every person who's owned your building since it went up. (By contrast, online city property records usually only go back to the late 1960s, but you can look up the block and lot number here.)

There's endless information to find about any Brooklyn home, says Hartig, and "You never know unless you look."


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