Many visitors come to the NHA Research Library to research the history of a house – sometimes because the Historic District Commission (HDC) has asked for documentation to support a proposed change to a building’s exterior, but often because of the homeowner’s burning curiosity about the house’s past. Whatever the reasons, people want to know how the house has changed over the years, and something about the lives of the people who lived there.
The best first step is to check what information you may already possess. The previous owner may have old documents such as deeds and letters, which can provide rare information. Also, check to see if a title search was done during the last purchase or sale of the property. Next, do a preliminary investigation of the holdings at the NHA Research Library. Many houses already have extensive historical investigation records. In case your house may be one of these, look in the database on our Web site (www.nha.org/librarydatabases.htm).
If there’s very little completed research available on your house at the Research Center, the Registry of Deeds (in the Town Building on the corner of Broad and Federal Streets) is the place to find out about former owners and boundary issues by creating a “chain of deeds.” Every sale of land and buildings is recorded in the ledgers in the Registry office. Beginning your search with the present owner and the most recent deed, you trace ownership of the property. Start with the “Nantucket Maps” book to locate your map and parcel number, then use the “Nantucket Owners” book, recording all the information there. The deed will lead you to previous owners and ultimately answer the basic questions of when the house was built and who built it. It’s tempting to skip this tedious step, but if you really want a complete house history, there’s no substitute for researching the deed chain.
After you have this information, you can flesh out the skeleton of history at the NHA Research Library. The following is a list of resources available.
Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and Preservation Institute: Nantucket (PI:N) reports. These two programs have studied the histories of many island houses. The HABS program was established in 1933 by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior, as a job program for architects, draftsmen, and photographers during the Great Depression. PI:N is an ongoing University of Florida School of Architecture summer program in historic preservation. Both programs involve creating detailed architectural drawings of buildings, extensive photographic documentation, and researching ownership. Each report is individually catalogued, so simply entering your house address into our database will tell you if such a report already exists. Several hundred buildings and neighborhoods on Nantucket were surveyed by these programs.
Sanborn Maps. The Sanborn maps are drawings of the entire town of Nantucket (and in the later maps Siasconset and Wauwinet), compiled in 1887, 1892, 1898, 1904, 1909, and 1923. What constituted “town” was much smaller than it is now, chiefly being the downtown area. If your house is located within those areas, these maps provide a “footprint” of your house and its surroundings as changes were made over the years. The NHA Research Library staff will assist you with this resource, which is available on microfilm or computer file.
Grace Brown Gardner scrapbooks. As a retired academic with an avid interest in history, Grace Brown Gardner (1880-1973) created many scrapbooks, chiefly of clippings, arranged by topic. Her scrapbooks on streets include clippings of advertisements for small businesses that operated out of your house.
Library “Blue Files.” A subject file of information, available upon consultation with library staff, these files contain articles, clippings, and random bits of information on people and houses.
Reference Books. Clay Lancaster’s The Architecture of Historic Nantucket, research papers by Hobson Woodward and Betsy Tyler, among others, and many books are available for reference.
Photographic Collection. Probably the most used and enjoyed resource is our extensive collection of photographic images, some of which have been scanned and individually catalogued onto our image database. Of the images yet to be scanned, photocopies, arranged by subject or address, are located in binders.
Genealogical and Biographical Resources. After you’ve researched the house, you may choose to research the people who lived in it. We may have personal letters, diaries, and business ledgers written by someone who lived in your house. You may find details of furnishings bought for the living room or bills for coal delivered to the back doorstep a hundred years ago.
The staff of the NHA Research Library is available to assist you with your research. Investigating your house history is a worthwhile endeavor, bound to create interesting stories to share with family and visitors for many years.
Originally published in the “Keeping History” column of the Inquirer & Mirror, summer of 2004, by Georgen Charnes.