How to Trace a House Genealogy
Many people search for historical information about homes and property. Who originally owned the land? How old is the house? Who built it? Who has lived in it?
To find the answers to these questions, many different types of records can be examined. There is no single place to find this information. Is this easy? No! Can one source be searched and “poof” everything is revealed, No. Is it all on “the Internet” No!
The following pages will provide information about:
- What records are available.
- Where are the records located.
- What history can be revealed about a house in Allegheny County.
In Pittsburgh and Allegheny County information about houses can be found in following historical records:
Each time that a property, a lot and/or buildings, was sold, a record or deed was made of that transaction. By searching deeds back in time, a list can be made containing prior owners of the property and the dates of purchase.
The deeds are bound in large volumes and located in the Recorder of Deeds Office in the Allegheny County Office Building or county archives.
Check the deed of the property in question for reference to the date, volume and page of previous sales of the property. Check each deed for addition volume numbers of previous sale references until a completed list is made. If there is not a reference to a volume or the property was sold in a Sheriff’s Sale, ask at the Information Desk for the deed indexes to re-establish the search. Deed indexes are also used to locate deeds when only the prior owner’s name is known.
City Directories contain an alphabetical list of residents, much like a phone book. They usually note the person’s occupation and home or business address. Directories for Pittsburgh and Allegheny City (current North Side) begin in 1815. They were published irregularly until just before the Civil War. Beginning in 1856, they were published annually until 1975. After 1929 a separate listing by street was included, which meant searching can be done by address and/or name.
Boroughs and townships outside of the Pittsburgh city were included in the Pittsburgh Directories on an irregular basis. The Pennsylvania Department has an index to the microfilm which indicates which ones were included.
The Pennsylvania Department has city directories for Pittsburgh and Allegheny City, as well as directories for other communities on microfilm. The Historical Society also has directories. If your house is located outside the city limits, you should also check your local public library or historical society for community directories and information on local families.
The federal census was taken every ten years beginning in 1790. Census records from 1850 to 1930 can provide further information on the families who owned and lived in your home. The census will provide the name of each person living in the house, their age, occupation, place of birth and more.
Census records for all states are accessible through the Ancestry Library Edition database. It can be used in any library in Allegheny County (NO remote access). Book indexes and microfilm copies of the Pennsylvania Federal Census are available in the Pennsylvania Department.
Historic Maps and Atlases
Deeds can also refer to a certain lot number in a plan of lots, which can be helpful in determining an approximate date of construction. Bound volumes containing lot plans are available for searching in the offices of the Recorder of Deeds. Buildings already constructed on land to be divided will be noted on the lot plans. If the house being searched is not shown, it was built after the plan of lots was filed.
Other useful maps which show house locations are
- Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
- G. M. Hopkins Atlases for Pittsburgh, Allegheny City and Allegheny County
- Warrantee Atlas of Allegheny County
- The 1876 Atlas of Allegheny County
These maps label streets, property ownership and building/structure names. The maps can be checked for several years to see when a structure was built on a specific property. If a property is not on the 1876 map, but appears on 1886, then there is a decade to focus on to find the exact year of construction.
Many streets changed names over the years especially after 1907 when Pittsburgh annexed Allegheny City. The index of the 1911 Atlas for the City of Pittsburgh lists old and “new” street names and old and “new” ward numbers.
The Warrantee Atlas of Allegheny County, 1914, identifies the original land owners and the location of their property by township. In the Allegheny County Warrantee atlas, property ownership can be traced to 1788.
Building permits record when a house was built, who built it, the original cost and building type. The architect is not usually named. Records of permits are maintained in the borough or township where the house was built.
In Pittsburgh, building permits from 1948 to the present are on file in the City Bureau of Building Inspection. Permit records from 1895 to 1917, are available at the Archives of Industrial Society, University of Pittsburgh. Unfortunately the records from 1917 to 1948 have been lost.
WPA Survey Books
In 1936, a survey of buildings was conducted in Allegheny County by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Records exist for the entire County except for the First and Second Wards of Pittsburgh.
The records are arranged by ward/borough/township, then by street, and finally by house or building number. The survey considered various details of construction including type, floor and roof materials, plaster, heating source, plumbing, electricity, basement, and whether owned or rented. The recorded information includes the dimensions and outlines of the buildings. Searches of the survey records which are house
d in the County Records Center can be done by contacting the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society.
Western Pennsylvania Architectural Survey (WPAS)
In 1932, Charles Stotz and a team of architectural historians began a survey of buildings constructed in the region before 1860. The survey was completed in 1936 and formed the basis of the book, The Early Architecture of Western Pennsylvania: A Record before 1860 Based Upon the Western Pennsylvania Architectural Survey.
Materials collected by this survey have been deposited in two local collections:
The first repository is the Pennsylvania Department of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. It has an index to the collection and photographs and field measurements, arranged by county and building type. Other materials from the survey are in the archives of the Oliver Room.
The Western Pennsylvania Historical Society Library, in the Senator John Heinz History Center, owns the Charles M. Stotz papers, 1901-1975. This collection includes materials from the 1932-1936 architectural survey.
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation Historic Site Surveys
Between 1979 and 1984, the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (PH&LF) conducted an extensive survey of thousands of historic buildings and neighborhoods in Allegheny County. For each building surveyed, a Historic Resource Survey Form was completed and placed on file at the James D. Van Trump Library. These forms include a picture of the building, a site plan, a description of the prime architectural features, and biographical information on the original owners or builders. Eligibility recommendations for listing on the National Register of Historic Places may also be included. PH&LF has many other architectural surveys and studies available as well.
Knowing the architecture of a house may be helpful in determining its age. In the same way that designs for clothing and cars change over the years, architectural styles become fashionable and then fall from favor. Knowing the style of a house can usually date it to within twenty years. Home improvements are popular and can alter the appearance of a house.
A famous house or a house lived in by prominent people, may have been described in a local architectural periodicals such as “The Charette,” “The Builder,” or the “Architectural Record”, or in books on local architecture or in library clippings files. These resources can be found at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society Library, and the Architecture Archives, Hunt Library, Carnegie Mellon University. The Architecture Archives also has a growing collection of architectural plans for buildings in Western Pennsylvania. These including some house plans by well known architects such as Alden and Harlow, Louis Stevens, and Peter Berndtson.
Photographs will help tell a house’s story. Ask neighbors, former owners or their children for any old photos of the house. The Pennsylvania Department, the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society and the Archives of Industrial Society all have historic photographic collections and you may be lucky and find your street and house.
The digitized, online photographic archives of the Historic Pittsburgh collection now contains the photo collections from the Western Pennsylvania Historical Society/ Heinz History Center; the Archives of Industrial Society, University of Pittsburgh; Chatham College; Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Houses sometimes bear the names of the people who either built them or lived in them. Clippings files and biography indexes available in the Pennsylvania Department and the Historical Society which indicate if a person is listed in any of the standard printed 19th century biographies. Various published county and local histories, business publications and social registers which will provide information on civic and business leaders, first families and prominent citizens are also available for searching for information about the houses and the people who lived in them.
How to Trace a House Genealogy Using Repositories
Office of Property Assessments
County Office Building, Third Floor
542 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Department of Real Estate
(formerly Recorder of Deeds Office)
County Office Building
200 Ross Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
For Copies: http://www.alleghenycounty.us/re/copy.aspx
University Libraries, Fourth Floor Hunt Library
Carnegie Mellon University
4909 Frew Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890
ARCHIVES OF INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY
Archives Service Center
University of Pittsburgh
7500 Thomas Boulevard, 2nd Floor
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
CARNEGIE LIBRARY OF PITTSBURGH
4400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
Pittsburgh Photographic Library, Pennsylvania Department
Gil Pietrzak, 412.622.3154
CITY OF PITTSBURGH
Bureau of Building Inspection
200 Ross Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA
SENATOR JOHN HEINZ REGIONAL HISTORY CENTER
Library and Archives Division
1212 Smallman Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222