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Time Traveling With Photographs

By: Conrad Neuf , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Musings, Old House History
1870s New York City Townhome Restored with Help of Photographs

1870's New York City Townhome Restored with Help of Photographs

I answered a question from a gentleman this week who had purchased an old house built in 1910. He was planning on restoring it, and wanted some tips on how he could make the house look like it did when it was first built. My answer was to go into the local records, and try and find some paperwork and photographs. Anyone who lives in an old house built in the 1880’s or 1890’s or newer, has a good chance of finding a photograph of how the house looked when it was fairly new. Even if your house was built prior to that, there’s a good chance that somewhere there is a drawing or sketch of what the house looked like long ago.

Tax Man Photographs

New York City residents seeking to restore their old houses got a pleasant surprise when they discovered that the New York City Department of Finance had over 700,000 pictures of houses in the city from 1930-1941. Concerned about having accurate tax records, and with a large number of people unemployed during the 1930’s, the city hired people to take pictures of every house in the city. Now many homeowners seeking to restore their old houses to their former glory use these old photographs as guides.

Old Photographs Build a Porch

An Oregon family purchased an old farmhouse built in 1887. It was the second oldest home left standing in Washington County, Oregon. The home was in fairly bad shape when they purchased it–even the foundation was giving way. Doing most of the work within their family, they brought it back from the dead, and the old house is beautiful now. One big problem was that the side porch had rotted and fallen down, and they had no idea how it had once looked. Old photographs saved the day, showing just what the porch had looked like. The porch was rebuilt, and even the new trim work matches the way the old porch was done.

Photographs of Victorians

The family who owns and is restoring the 1875 Victorian Era home mentioned in my Victorian Love post hit the jackpot when they were working on their old house. They were able to find old deeds, and established a timeline of past owners of the home. They then got a visit from a lady who spent her childhood in the home, back in the early days of the house. She had many family photographs of the house, from many angles, and also a lot of memories of how things had been.

The family restoring a Victorian Era home in Wisconsin found a photograph of the family that originally built the old house in 1893, and the picture was taken the year the house was built!

As the old cliche goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. If you want historical accuracy, look for the photographs.

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  1. 2 Responses  to “Time Traveling With Photographs”

  2. Grant
    Aug 29, 2011
    Finding some of these old pictures could probably warrant some serious money if you sold them...I think the oldest recorded picture available is in the mid 1850's? Plenty of houses that are older than that in the U.S., who knows what is hidden in the walls of a lot of these houses.
  3. James
    Aug 29, 2011
    One of the toughest parts of completing true historic renovations is finding contractors that are able to reproduce old style craftsmanship. It seems that with simple tools, carpenters of that era were able to do so much more than todays builder, who has a pick up truck full of the latest gadgetry.