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Researching Historic Properties

Chase County CourthouseNational Register Bulletin:  Researching a Historic Property

Researching a historic property for nomination to the national and state registers must focus on gathering information that determines the property's historical significance.

A nomination must be placed in its historic context to support that property's significance.  Historic context means information about the period, the place, and the events that created, influenced, or formed the backdrop to the historic property.  The discussion of historic context should describe the history of the community where the property is located as it relates to the history of the property. 

To develop a historic context and arguments about a property's significance, begin by asking these types of questions:

  • What was the property called during its period of significance?
  • How many buildings, structures and other resources make up the property?
  • When was the property developed or constructed?
  • When did it attain its current appearance?
  • What changes have been made to the property over time?
  • How was the property used during its historic period and how is it used today?
  • How does the property relate to the history of the community?
  • Who occupied or used the property?

To find answers to these questions, consult the following research sources:

Investigate the Property
A building may have a date of construction or inscription with useful information set into an exterior wall.  This can provide important clues to the date of construction, or the original owner, or to the original function of the building. A date stone, however, is not always reliable evidence and should be cross-referenced with other information.  In addition, careful inspection of the physical fabric of a building can reveal evidence of physical changes that have been made. Differences in the types of materials and detailing used in different portions of a building, along with changes in the roofline slope, can be indications that additions have been made.  Frequently, blocked up windows and doors can be detected.   Abrupt changes in floor level or proportion can indicate that alterations have been made.  Some familiarity with architectural styles can assist the researcher to changes, such as the removal or addition of porches, changes in windows and doors, removal of roof ornaments, etc.  Finally, internal inspection of the structural system can provide clues about the period of construction.  The attic and basement usually are good places to investigate the structural system.

Legal Records
The property's legal description, the chain of title, associated building permits, mortgages and probate records, and other sorts of legal materials can be an important source of information about the property's history.  Begin by obtaining the name of the present owner and the property's legal description, which is available from the Register of Deeds at the county courthouse.  For properties located in towns and cities, the legal description references block, lot number and subdivision.  For rural properties, this usually references township number, range, and break down with the section.  With these two pieces of information, a researcher can perform a title search. 

The chain of title the list of buyers and sellers of the property. To obtain this list, you begin with the present owner. His or her name will appear in the deed index (located in the Register of Deeds office) as the purchaser (grantee) of the property. Make certain that the legal description cited is the same as that for the property you are researching to insure that you are on the right track (some persons own more than one property). There will be a reference number to the deed. The deed will contain information on the date of the property transfer, the previous owner (grantor), sale price, and possibly improvements associated with the property. The name of the grantor will now appear as the grantee in the deed index as you proceed to the next transaction associated with the property. Look this name up and proceed to record the information on the deed, and then move on to the next grantee, and so on, until you arrive at the original owner.

Be aware that the deed refers to the land and not the building. Thus, the original owner of the land may not have been responsible for the construction of the building, or the building may not have been constructed directly after purchase of the property. Changes in valuation of the property from transaction to transaction may indicate approximately when the building was built, although all such valuations must be considered in light of economic condition in the given period. Still, when definite information about building construction date is not available, it may be possible to arrive at a reasonable date range through the information obtained from the chain of title.

If there is an abstract for the property, the tedious process of working out the chain of title can be avoided. The abstract is the summary of all transactions involving the property. Abstracts are prepared by professional abstractors to document the property title, usually for a title insurance company. The abstract gives references to all legal records associated with the property. The abstract for a property, if one exists, would probably be in the possession of the owner or the holder of the mortgage.

Tax, mortgage, and probate records may contain relevant information relating to the history of the property. Increases in tax assessment can indicate improvements or new construction; mortgage records can indicate when improvements were made or periods of financial difficulty; probate records can sometimes suggest something about the activities of the deceased or give information about personal property that may have been associated with the building (like furnishings).

Some communities may have begun requiring building permits during the period the building was constructed. If so, these records will be useful in determining construction dates and the identity of the builder or architect. Even if the building was already constructed by the time building permits were required, information regarding later additions or other improvements may be contained in the permit files.

Universities, libraries, and historical societies may have historic maps that can help establish when a building was built and how it and its environs developed over time.  Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, for instance, are an excellent source for documenting properties within Kansas cities and towns.  Some larger libraries provide electronic access to Sanborn maps, while many historical societies have microfilmed or bound copies.  Other types of useful maps include Bird's Eye View maps and property plats.

Often, there are persons in the community who will remember things about the property or its past owners that can provide clues about its history.  Former owners may have access to old photographs or architectural drawings pertaining to the property.  Additionally, consult experts on local history who may know of potential sources of information relevant to your investigation.

Thematically-related Historic Properties
Multiple Property Documents facilitate the evaluation of individual properties by comparing them with resources that share similar physical characteristics and historical associations.  Information common to the group of properties is presented in the historic context, while information specific to each building, site, district, structure, or object is placed in an individual registration form. Find Kansas' thematic multiple property documents.