[10 on Tuesday] 10 Tips for Finding Clues to Your Home’s History

Posted on: May 21st, 2013 by Sarah Heffern 6 Comments

Last week, after completing our series on how to buy a historic house, we embarked on the next step in the process: deciding whether to restore or rehabilitate your home. Once that’s decided, the fun really begins, since it involves playing detective. There are clues all around to what your house may once have looked like; you just need to know where to look.

We covered the go-to-the-library angle before in our 10 Ways to Research Your Home’s History toolkit, so today we’ll look more closely at what your house and its immediate surroundings might be trying to tell you.

1. Inspect the exterior. Is the outside of the house all one architectural style, or are there a couple of different styles visible? More than one architectural style may signal a later addition to the original structure.

2. Match up the interior to the exterior. If the inside of the house has a section in a different architectural style and the outside does not, that suggests a major remodeling in one area, but perhaps not an addition.

Astilbe and old milled clapboard. Photo courtesy smilla4, Flickr.
Astilbe and old milled clapboard

3. Know your materials. Are the exterior walls all made of the same thing? Or are they different? Any differences -- even subtle ones like larger or smaller clapboards -- could indicate an addition to the house.

Tip: This might not apply if you bought a Queen Anne-style house, as they are known for incorporating many different materials.

4. Examine the floor plan. Is the layout of the house consistent with its style? For example, if your Georgian house -- which should have a symmetrical floor plan -- is asymmetrical, that would imply a significant alteration.

5. Check out the walls and flooring. Are the walls uniform, or are there thinner or thicker areas that could show a door or window has been filled in? What about the floors? Do the boards all run the same direction within a room? Are they the same size throughout? Inconsistent walls and/or floors can hint at an earlier design.

6. Look up. Are there changes in ceiling height? This could demonstrate several different things: that a wall has been removed, an addition built, or mechanical systems added.

7. Peek behind molding and switch plates. Clues about old paint colors and/or wallpaper are often lurking behind molding and switch plates, which can suggest both the earlier look of a room and what its original use was.

Crown molding at Riversdale Mansion in Maryland. Photo courtesy Steve Snodgrass, Flickr.
Crown molding at Riversdale Mansion in Maryland

8. Investigate interior trim. A change in baseboard trim, window/door frame styles, or other altered embellishments can lead you to either an addition or a thorough remodeling.

9. Spy on your neighbors. Or, more specifically, on their property. Are their walls and fences identical to yours? This could reveal that a larger property -- perhaps yours, if your house is the oldest -- was sub-divided for development.

10. Scour your yard for clues. Are there changes in grass color, depressions in the ground, or other markers indicating a lost wing of the house or an outbuilding? Is there any abandoned, overgrown, or clearly removed foliage? This could help you locate a garden or orchard.

Have you had the opportunity to play detective in your historic home? What clues did you find?

Adapted from The New Old House Starter Kit by Richard Wagner, AIA.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern is the social media strategist for the National Trust’s Public Affairs team. While she embraces all things online and pixel-centric, she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having fallen for preservation in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class. Follow her on Twitter at @smheffern.

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6 Responses

  1. may

    May 21, 2013

    Our home was built in 1842. It is a Greek Revival and the Alabama Historic Commission says that it is a “Yankee Greek Revival” Style. There was remodeling done in 1937 and we have hardwood flooring in 4 different widths from the original 6 inch down to 2 and a quarter inches wide. We are always digging up items in the yard when we are planting our garden. Just wish we could find some Creek Indian relics since they were on the property with Andrew Jackson before the Treaty was signed at Ft.Jackson, now known as Ft.Toulouse. Enjoyed you tips on finding the age of your home. I will be looking behind light plates and moldings. Our home was listed in HABS for the Library of Congress. I want to start an application for the National Register of Historic Places.

  2. JCMenzer

    May 21, 2013

    Just this past weekend I got to visit the house my great-grandfather built for the first time. The current owner had just removed part of a wall to work on a duct, and discovered a room he didn’t know was there. In the room was a sink and medicine cabinet, a chaise lounge, and an old lace-up corset! My great-grandmother’s…?

  3. PresNation

    May 22, 2013

    May — Wow, sounds like you’re already a regular Sherlock Holmes when it comes to your historic home! Thanks for sharing your great story with us.

    JC — Familial homesteads, hidden rooms, old corsets … sounds like the start of a gripping mystery!

    Julia Rocchi
    Managing Editor, Online

  4. DAnsley

    May 23, 2013

    I am conflicted as to how to preserve our family home in Maine. It was built around 1800 and is listed as a historic home by the National Trust. The paint on the clapboards are in terrible shape and need repainted. It has been suggested that I should replace the clapboard as the paint is so compromised. When is it appropriate to replace clapboards on a historic home.

  5. PresNation

    May 24, 2013

    Hi DAnsley,

    I checked in with our Forum Reference Desk, and they recommended hiring a craftsperson or construction person well-versed in historic wood homes to get the best advice on whether or not replacement is advisable. There may be some kind of water infiltration that is easily fixed and would prevent further damage to the wood.

    They also recommended you check out “Preservation Brief 10: Exterior Paint Problems on Historic Woodwork” (http://www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs/10-paint-problems.htm). This is an excellent overview of different exterior paint issues and talks about levels of severity and recommended treatments.

    Good luck!

    Julia Rocchi
    Managing Editor

  6. Serviced offices in Singapore

    June 3, 2013

    WOW!! These are really helpful tips to make our home safer and it prevents some additional costs.