Who Lived Here – and When? Lots of Help Available for Curious Homeowners

Staffers who work with patrons on a daily basis in the James K. Hosmer Special Collections Library at Minneapolis Central Library report that a large percentage of their patrons are at the library to research the history of their homes, property or neighborhoods or to ask about a specific building or historic or utilitarian value.

I’m one of those patrons, constantly seeking information about the Windom Park neighborhood and surrounding environment so I probably inflate their statistics – and I haven’t even attempted house searching yet

These wise professionals are also quick to point out that the James K Hosmer Special Collections Library is not the sole source for researchers.  They have prepared an extremely useful guide to the resources of Special Collections and to other options within the information community.

The complete guide, available online, covers a wide range of research strategies, tools and resources.  Experienced staffers strongly  advise that that searchers call in advance (612 543 8200) so that staff has time to locate the information needed.  Remember there are miles of shelves packed with 125 years of carefully collected reference data!

These in-house and online resources are accessible at or through the James K. Hosmer .  All of this information is provided by library staff, with the slightest of tweaking on my part – just so I can say I had a hand in sharing the information with potential patrons.

Original building permit index card:  Searchers will start the process by obtaining a photocopy that lists the legal description of the property and every permit pulled. Permits are also available from the Minneapolis Development Review which is searchable online.

The Development Review Office is located in Room 300 of the Public Service Building, 250 South 4th Street, Mpls).  That Office can provide building permits (1884-1973), building, moving and writing permits or house’s architect, if there was one, as well detailed information provided through the 1934 Works Progress Administration (WPA) survey which included the condition of the building and yard, type of heating, availability of water and sewer connections, refrigeration, number and necessity of the occupants.

Architecture:  Check Special Collections for information on a building’s architecture.  This is also available through the Northwest Architectural Archives at the University of Minnesota, a repository that holds the city’s most extensive collection of information about Minnesota architects, contractors, and their projects.

Newspaper clippings.  Special Collections houses the dailies as well as a good collection of Minneapolis neighborhood newspapers.  These provide access to clippings for a particular address, homeowner, architect or neighborhood.  Newspapers are listed on the library’s online catalog or ask a Special Collections librarian (in advance) to access the historic clippings.

Online photo database Special Collections provides access to approximately 10,000 photographs that date back to the 19th Century.  The librarians also suggest other resources including the Hennepin History Museum which “houses a significant collection of Minneapolis home and building photographs.” The Museum photos are not online but searchers may call to see if they have the desired photos.

Special Collections librarians also note that the Minnesota Historical Society supports several online image databases (look for their finding guide online)  while the University of Minnesota’s IMAGES database and Minnesota Reflections offer other search options.

Remember the camera is not a new technology – photos abound!

Minneapolis City Directory (1859-2003)   The Directory lists the previous occupants of a house and often their occupation.  Beginning in 1930 the reverse directory makes it possible to look up an address and find the names of residents.  Available on microfiche on the 4th floor of the Library.

Dual City Blue Book (1885-1924).  Private directory that lists the names of the city’s wealthier residents alphabetically and by address.  Available on microfiche on the 4th floor.

Platbooks.  The Library also has digitized platbooks (1885-1898-1914) online or view paper copies.  There are additional platbooks on the 4th floor next to the information desk;  some platbooks have been digitized.   The University of Minnesota Borchert Map Library also provides access to an online collection of local platbooks.

Historic maps and atlases (1850’s to 1920’s). The collection includes property boundaries, roads, railroad tracks, streetcar lines, names of businesses, and geographical attributes.  The oldest maps of the city are available online through Minnesota Reflections.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Database (1950’s to 1920’)   Property boundaries, roads, railroad tracks and streetcar lines, the names of businesses and geographical features.  These are available in the James K. Hosmer Special Collections as well as at the Borchert Library and the Minnesota Historical Society Library.

Lot Surveys on Microfilm (1916-1965)  Surveys contain original footprint, dimensions and outbuildings of a property or building.  Because surveys are arranged by permit number, not by address, searchers must obtain the home’s original building code permit number to access the lot survey (see above.)  Available on microfilm in the general periodicals department on the 3rd floor.



The Hosmer Special Collections librarians also suggest the following possible avenues to research a house, farmstead, public land, or neighborhood.

  • Minnesota Historical Society which provides an excellent guide to Building and House History resources including its new Placeography wiki.  It’s an information-backed start for exploring the incredible resources of MHS.  [Because of the State Shutdown it has impossible to get access, much less plumb the depths, of the MHS – perhaps later when the doors and website are open again.]
  • Aerial photographs from the 1930’s to present show in detail the evolution of neighborhoods over time, physical and social features of the land including road maps, land use maps and demographic maps.  A wide selection is available at the John R. Borchert Map Library at the University of Minnesota,
  • Public Land Survey System (1848-1907).  Information about the land which a property is sited with original public land survey maps.  Handwritten notes recorded by public land surveyors are available on microfilm and index in the periodicals department at Wilson Library at the University of Minnesota.  Surveys are available online.
  • Social Explorer.  Information about the demographic characteristics of a neighborhood and how they changed over time in a fun format.  Based on census information 1790 through 2010.  Everything you wanted to know about the Census, the American Community Survey, religious persuasion, population and housing characteristics for redistricting, carbon emissions and a whole lot more!
  • Northwest Architectural Archives.  The Archives include  records of architects, engineers, contractors, landscape architects and interior designers from Minnesota, western Wisconsin, northern Iowa and the eastern Dakotas.  There is a partial list of building plans created by Minneapolis architects and builders (1909-1993) online.

This post is based entirely on the work of the library staff at the James K. Hosmer Special Collections Library and to their forebeaerrs to whom I am eternally grateful – for their spirit of service, their care of the collection and their commitment to preserving the story of this city. MT





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