Tracking down the historical details of a New York address that has personal significance to you can seem tough, assuming that address isn't, say, the Chelsea Hotel. Thankfully, and unbeknownst to many would-be researchers, there are free and easily accessible tools for mining the history of less celebrated corners of New York, too. At the very least, you can probably find some photos of the exterior of your building back in the day, or perhaps the building that was there before.
Here are five of the most accessible and comprehensive tools for starting your search.
Last month the city Landmarks Preservation Commission launched an updated version of the interactive map it first released in 2016. The new site offers more detailed information on close to 34,000 landmarked buildings and buildings in historic districts. The map makes accessible over 50 years of landmark designation reports, which describe the historical significance of buildings and neighborhoods, and were previously only available as scanned documents.
Information by address includes a given building’s architect, construction date, architectural style, and whether any major alterations have been made since construction.
The New York Public Library’s Digital Collections portal is a rabbit hole of historic photos navigable by keyword, place, and topic, among other options. It's vast and well organized, but difficult to browse. OldNYC.org, on the other hand, offers an interactive map of New York with red dots denoting every address the library system has a photograph of, making for a fun nostalgia tour of the city.
Find Your Next Home
Perhaps predictably, Manhattan has the densest concentration of photographed addresses, but the outer boroughs have plenty of building and street photographs as well. The library launched the site in 2015, and CityLab called it "addictive" not long after. Users are encouraged to comment on the 40,000-some photos, which span well over a century.
An iPhone app by the same name offers historic photos of the user’s current location.
The Nooney Brooklyn Photographs consist of 576 gelatin silver prints, mostly intimate portraits inside borough homes, shot in the 1970s. The collection is a thorough survey of local life at the time, showing Brooklynites sitting in their bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens, as well as many images of empty but clearly lived-in rooms.
The Brooklyn photos–and three pictures of Breezy Point–are nicely mapped on the library's Photo Geographies site, which also features the work of a number of other photographers. The photos can all also be found in the full digital collection.
The mother of all historic photo collections, New York’s Municipal Archive is a trove of loosely organized tax photos ranging from gems to low quality shots of street corners plastered with tax lot information. This is a potpourri for the curious and though it's among the most difficult to navigate resources on this list, it’s also easy to get lost in, and fun for anyone looking for a journey through vintage pictures.
If it’s specifically the 1980s you're interested in, this site consists of more than 100,000 street segment views and 800,000 building photos from the Municipal Archives’ Department of Finance Collection. Buildings with additional information and stories available are clearly marked on the map.
For further research
For more in-depth home history research, this NYPL guide and this guide by one Christopher Gray detail a number of other, more technical tools for building-specific research. Highlights include the Department of Buildings' Buildings Information System, the NYPL Map Warper, the Department of Finance's Automated City Register Information System, Columbia University's New York Real Estate Brochure Collection, and the Office for Metropolitan History. The Museum of the City of New York and the Library of Congress also have great collections of historic New York images.
Finally, The Brownstone Detectives is a for-hire research team that offers House History Books, made-to-order books that consist of 30-50 pages of written research on the lineage of your home and its former owners. A book will set you back $750-$4,950.
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