Building Background

How to

Investigate the history of a building.


Be a house detective.


Gwen gives tips on dating a house.


What do we really know about any building? Is there a shady past? Do you sense a false front? It's time for your house to come clean. 

The inquiry will have two stages: Investigation and Corroboration.

1. Investigation

Tracking down clues directly connected with the physical structure, architecture, or construction.

This includes the year it was built, names of the architect and builder, the materials used, the cost to build, additions and changes over time.

2. Corroboration

Gathering facts that confirm (or refute) the theories generated by Investigation.

Focus on the big picture: owners, occupants, and shifts of cultural scenery. But don't overlook trace evidence of daily life, relationships, and events on site or nearby.

Pursue every lead to the bitter end, and you still won't uncover the entire truth. But you will be able to prove some things - and claim the distinction of being a true History Detective.

Investigation, from the ground up:

  • Start at the bottom, looking for brickwork in the foundation and basement. Smaller bricks may be older; two sizes signal two construction cycles.
  • Look for the obvious. Is there a year imprinted in the sidewalk? Or an address plate with a patent number or manufacturing date? Look inside the fuse box too.
  • Check mileage to the city center. The farther you are from the original core, the younger your house is likely to be.
  • Look around. Do you see familiar styles and features anywhere? Is there anything with a known date, contemporary to the style of your home?
  • If focal features are still original (staircase, fireplace, entryway) look at the techniques used in metalwork, or the carving in wood details for suggestions of vintage.
  • In very old buildings, consider a timber dating analysis to determine age.
  • Check details of design and construction on window casings, doorframes and lintels. These are almost always done in the prevailing style of the time.
  • Remnants of wallpaper patterns and paint color-schemes can be traced to a period style.

History Detectives Tips

  • If building materials are inconsistent with a documented construction date, the house may have been rebuilt after fire or flood damage.
  • To find the color of original exterior paint, look underneath windowsills and behind the meter box, doorbell plate, and mailbox.
  • Look under door hardware to find original wood finish or paint. If necessary, take the door off its hinges to check the bottom edge.
  • Shine a strong light source on upper walls at an oblique angle. You may find signs of stencils, dadoes, friezes and other features.

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