If you own or are buying a historic Detroit home, it’s worth knowing the home’s history.
When was it built? Who designed it? Who lived there? Knowing the answers to these questions can also be a rewarding experience and better connect you to the place where you live. Fortunately, there are resources available to find this information out.
Researching a historic home can be a time-consuming and convoluted task. But by following these essential first steps, you’ll be well underway in uncovering the story that your house has to tell. Many of these resources are free; those that require a fee or offer a free trial are noted.
Find your pre-1921 address
On January 1, 1921, the city of Detroit overhauled its outdated numbering system and every building received a new address. Find your original address in the back of the 1920 city directory, which listed the old and new address for every property in Detroit. A copy is available at the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection, as well as Fold3.com (subscription required, but free trial available).
Search city directories
City directories have included a reverse address lookup section since 1888. Find your address in these sections to build a list of its occupants for every year available. Check Silas Farmer’s The History of Detroit to see if your street name has changed.
Search Detroit Free Press archives
Every edition of the Detroit Free Press since 1831 has been digitized and made available at freep.newspapers.com. Like Fold3.com, it’s a pay site, but you might get away with a free trial. Search the archives for your old and new addresses and the names of past owners.
Obtain your property’s legal description
Access online property tax data here and find your property’s legal description. It will find your subdivision and lot number, which you will need for the following three steps.
Find your subdivision plat map
Use this online search tool to find the map made when your area was subdivided from a large plot of land (usually a farm) into small building lots.
Obtain past deeds
Go to the Wayne County Register of Deeds (400 Monroe Avenue, 7th floor) with your full legal description and take a number for “search and copy services.” When called, ask for a copy of every deed recorded for your property, which will establish the chain of past ownership. Fees apply.
Find building permit information
Detroit’s building permit index is available on microfilm at the Burton Historical Collection for 1880-1908. Ask the librarian for microfilm series BHC#960, reels 1-4. Find your address in reel #4 (the “index to the index”), which will give you the date your permit was issued. Then use that date to find the index entry in reels 1-3.
Find your neighborhood in old Sanborn fire insurance maps, available online here. Note that “volumes” are not chronological, but refer to different sections of the city.
Access genealogy records
Learn about your home’s previous owners using genealogy sites like Ancestry.com, which can be accessed for free in most libraries. Census records list each occupant, rather than just heads of household, as directories do.
Find old photos
It’s unlikely that an old photograph of your house exists, but it’s worth searching for your street in the Detroit Public Library Digital Collections and Virtual Motor City. PlacePromo.com has images from 1976. If all else fails, descendants of previous owners may have old photos they are willing to share.
Paul Sewick writes about the historical development of Detroit and its suburbs at detroiturbanism.blogspot.com.