Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Southern History Book of the Month: House Detective: A Guide to Researching Birmingham Buildings

House Detective: A Guide to Researching Birmingham Buildings
Ann McCorquodale Burkhardt
Edited by Alice Meriwether Bowsher

So you’ve bought a historic house—or one you think is historic. It’s old. It has interesting architecture. It’s chock-full of “vintage” details and the neighbors talk about the people who used to live there, all the way back to your great-grandparents’ time. You decide you want to find out more about the history of your house or possibly obtain a historical plaque or marker for it. But how do you start? With House Detective!

For such a small book (less than 60 pages), House Detective is full of information about how to research your home’s history and is one of the Southern History Department’s most frequently-consulted sources. It began as a brief work assignment for Burkhardt:
. . . Go downtown, look through the holdings of the library, the courthouse, and City Hall, and determine which records would be useful in researching Birmingham buildings and neighborhoods. Then-BHS [Birmingham Historical Society] Executive Director Alice Bowsher envisioned a two-to-three page summary of my findings. What in fact resulted was this book.
House Detective works well as what I like to call a “browse” book. After you read the introductory material, you can skip around and read the chapters out of order, then zero in on the ones that seem most pertinent to your research. You may or may not be interested in some of the recommended sources, and others may look like they have just what you need. Ask yourself some questions about what you’re trying to find out or prove or accomplish. Figure out how much time you want to spend. It may take more time than you planned, but you could discover some wonderful details in the process.

Some of the information sources covered in the book include probate court records, property tax records, the special collections of the Birmingham Public Library, and City Council records. Here’s an example of a mechanic’s lien from the Property sources chapter:
If you are so lucky to find a mechanic’s lien on your property, the record could be a gold mine, as it can provide a construction date for the house and a detailed inventory of items purchased for it.

Example: A 1914 lien claimed on the property of Mr. B______ by Bynum Hardward Co. listed over 50 items purchased for his new apartment building, a few of which were:

29 windows 30x30 11/1check
2 pr . Sliding Door Astragals
4 Mirror Doors
8 Sash/1 light Florentine glass
Details like these can flesh out your research and give you a better picture of the original structure and appearance of your house, which may have undergone some changes over the years.

There is also a long list of resources available in our Birmingham Public Library collections. These include (but are not limited to) the old Birmingham City Directories in the Southern History Department, the Board of Equalization Records in the Archives Department, old newspaper records in the Microforms room, as well as various periodicals and books—such as House Detective, which is available at some of the municipal libraries of Jefferson County as well. Since this book was first published in 1988, some of the library departments have slightly different names now, but any member of our staff will be glad to help you find the area you need. If you’re curious about the history of your house, stop in for a look at House Detective.

And don’t miss the upcoming presentation from our Archives Department:
Every House Has a History: Researching Birmingham Area Houses, Buildings, and Churches

For more information on Birmingham area house and building research:
Jefferson County Historical Commission: The Historic Marker Program

Birmingham Historical Society

A Guide to Architectural Styles featuring Birmingham Homes

Landscape of Transformations: architecture and Birmingham, Alabama

Mary Anne Ellis
Southern History Department
Central Library

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