Researching the history of your home in Chicago
The world’s first modern skyscraper was erected in Chicago in 1885. Now, the city’s skyline shares space with an array of architectural styles from Late Modernism to Millennium Modern and the Chicago School. At the neighborhood level, it’s common to see Prairie School houses, as well as workers cottages and Chicago bungalows.
No matter where you call home, every building has a story. “Learning the history of your home can help you to appreciate it more deeply, helping you to place it within a larger story about Chicago,” says Max Chavez, director of research and special projects for Preservation Chicago, a not-for-profit organization committed to protecting and revitalizing Chicago’s historic architecture and urban spaces.
Interested in learning about your Chicago home? Learn about the resources available throughout the city and online with advice from the city’s experts.
Start by gathering essential information
“A homeowner's first step involves assembling the tools and terms they need to search their home's history,” says Chavez.
This includes the present-day address and former addresses. Depending on the home’s age, it’s possible the street name could have been changed. If the home was built before 1909, the year Chicago city planners renumbered many streets, your home may have also had a different number.
You should also note the property’s PIN number, which you can easily find on Cook County's Map Application.
Search with free local resources
The bulk of Chicago’s urban area was constructed before 1920. Fortunately, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has digitized the microfilm rolls of the "ancient" building permits, which are free to peruse online. The Chicago History Museum is another resource that allows visitors to view their microfilm rolls and get help from their research librarians.
The Chicago Public Library offers a collection of historic maps that are available online and searchable by address, which means some research can be done from the comfort of your home. “All you need is a library card,” says Emily Wallrath Schmidt, preservation program manager at the Chicago Bungalow Association, which equips homeowners with energy efficiency programs and educational resources to maintain and preserve their homes and neighborhoods.
Wallrath Schmidt’s favorite resource is The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. “Most neighborhoods have editions from at least the 1920s and ’50s, so you can see how your building and neighborhood changed,” she explains. “In addition to showing the footprint of the building, because they were insurance maps concerned with flammability, they also detail building materials.”
Another essential tool, according to Chavez, is the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. “It is searchable by street, year of construction, architect, style, and neighborhood and can help fill in some of the gaps during research.” He also suggests looking up Chicago museums, local historical societies, and preservation organizations. “Places like the Chicago History Museum, the Newberry Library, and the Art Institute all have extensive records and archives that can be accessed by the public,” he says.
Newspapers.com, an online collection of decades of easily searchable newspaper scans, is another popular search tool. From construction announcements to obituaries, newspapers can provide all sorts of clues about the history associated with a certain address.
Discover stories about your neighborhood
The beauty of learning the history of your home is discovering some of the stories connected to your home.
“As a preservation organization, we are always helping Chicagoans who have uncovered fascinating histories and want to dig deeper,” says Chavez. One such story involves the Phyllis Wheatley Home, which was included on Preservation Chicago’s 2021 list of Most Endangered Sites in the city. “The owner had no idea of its extensive history as a settlement for Black women during the Great Migration when she purchased it, and now it's a confirmed part of Chicago's rich Black history,” he shares.
Wallrath Schmidt has also uncovered her share of stories. While researching the history of the converted graystone apartment she once rented in Uptown, she discovered that a former occupant's live-in cook committed suicide by taking poison on her son's grave on the one-month anniversary of his death back in the 1910s.
Wallrath Schmidt now owns a frame bungalow in the Portage Park neighborhood, where she learned that the whole block was built by a father-son architect and developer team in 1921. This led her down the rabbit hole on a quest to find out everything she could about the architect, Niels Buck. “He had a long residential architecture career, but the article that floored me was the one from 1922 detailing the armed robbery of his home by ‘bandits’ who made off with $11,000 worth of alcohol,” she shares. “That's the equivalent of almost $180,000 today. You can't make this stuff up!”
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Megy Karydesis a Chicago-based writer who specializes in travel, food, wellness, and design for publications such as Architectural Digest Pro, Eating Well, and House Beautiful. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter or visit her online portfolio.
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