- None! Just an inquisitive mind.
- An hour, or maybe two, or if you really get into it, a weekend.
The house I grew up in had three bedrooms, a Saltilo-tiled sunroom added on by previous sellers in the early ‘90s (explaining both the terra cotta and cobalt color scheme and the skylights that kept the space basically unusable on hot summer days), and a marble-clad fireplace. It was bright, comfortable, and, in the grand scheme of things, unremarkable—except for my bathroom.
There, pink tiles stretched from the floor to the middle of the walls, with pink paint continuing up and across the ceiling. The tub was pink, and so was the toilet—not a chalky, pastel pink, but a warmer, rosier shade. I knew the house was built in the late 1940s,, and the bathroom tile was probably about that old. But why was it pink? Why did other houses in our neighborhood also have pink bathrooms, or decorative dovecotes perched atop the pitched rooflines, or carved wood gingerbread trim around the front windows even though this was Los Angeles and not Alpine Switzerland?
The answer, as it turns out, does have roots in Alpine Switzerland, or at least in the American conception of it: while many homes in Southern California built in the 1940s and 1950s have a Modern-inspired look, a lot of them (including mine) were built in a style known as "storybook ranch," which is a standard ranch-style house finished with trim and detailing out of a fairy tale–think low, pitched roofs, diamond-pane glass in the windows, and candy-colored paint inside and out.
There are a little more than 80 million single-family homes in the United States, and half of those were built before 1980. The one I lived in was built in 1948, and in the years since leaving home I’ve lived in a 1910s brownstone, an 1890s limestone mansion subdivided into apartments, and a classic urban tenement building with clanging radiators and original hardwood floors. I’ve taken the time to learn the history of each dwelling: who the builders and first owners were, names of previous tenements, whether the facades were Greek Revival or Italianate. Uncovering the history of your house is—if nothing else—a great way to procrastinate while feeling productive, but it’s also a way to cement your place in the building’s history, and to think of the place where you live as part of a larger built ecosystem.
Google, Part One
If you’re going into this knowing nothing except your home’s address, that’s okay! Popping it into Google and pressing the search button can be surprisingly fruitful—you might find old real estate listings that tell you when the house was built, newspaper clippings identifying businesses that might have once operated there (if you live in a city apartment building, it’s possible your ground floor was once a retail spot or an office), or even names of former residents. Set aside some time to simply nose around: If results related to neighboring houses appear, they might tell you more about the time and place in which your house was built. (My childhood house, for example, was the last on the block to be constructed, and the only one built by that specific developer, which might account for the fact that it has brick cladding instead of wood.)
"First, take a look at your house," advises Karyn Norwood, an educator and preservationist who runs the popular Instagram account @What_Style_Is_That, which helps its nearly 40,000 followers learn how to identify architectural styles based on details like windows, doorways, and rooflines. "What do you notice? What's it made of? Can you determine an architectural style?" Most residential buildings aren’t going to be perfect examples of a style—you might see a 1920s Craftsman house with Edwardian-era wood trim, or a Spanish-style house with a mid-century Modern shape. If you want to brush up on your architectural fluency, Norwood recommends picking up a copy of Virginia Savage McAllester’s A Field Guide to American Houses, which is exactly what it sounds like. McAllester breaks down, in easy-to-understand (and easy-to-remember) detail, the major American architectural styles and how they look when applied to homes and apartment buildings.
Make official databases work for you
Your town or city’s building department—it might be called the Department of Buildings, the Building Inspections Division, or something else, but there’s a good chance it will have ‘building’ in the name—will usually have a record of major changes to your home, including its original construction date, the date of additions or expansions, and whether or not it is included in a historic district. If your city’s DoB database is digitized (the one in New York City, for example, is available online), you’ll be able to pull up scanned images of your home’s original building permit and certificate of occupancy, which will tell you who built the house and who its first residents are. Some cities haven’t digitized their records, but making an appointment to view them in person is a fun way to spend an afternoon. Libraries, too, are a wealth of information—many of them have vast collections of maps, some of which will detail changes to a particular street. "See if you can spot your house," says Norwood, and "look at maps from different years to compare changes over time."
Google, Part 2
Once you have more information to go on, like a building date and an architectural style, refine your search. Norwood loves putting an address into the search bar at Chronicling America, an online archive of newspapers run by the Library of Congress, where you might find mention of your street or even specific house in the news or in an advertisement. If there’s a particular detail about your house you’re especially enamored with—say, a pink toilet—searching for that object or image plus the approximate date of your home’s construction might tell you more about how and why it came to be, and whether or not it’s typical of houses like yours or an unusual detail that might have a personal story behind it.
Houses change over time; paint colors come in and out of fashion, technology renders once-crucial features irrelevant. By living in a house, you become part of its story, whether it's one that began 40 years ago or one that began 140 years ago. Taking the time to think about the life your house lived before you lived there is the perfect way to prepare for the next chapter.
Photo by Federica Carlet