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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014

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In Living

An online search turned up this map showing my entire Milwaukee neighborhood when it was still Tosa farmland.

Find your thread in the tapestry of Milwaukee history


When I bought my first house more than a decade ago in Milwaukee, one of the most surprisingly exciting things that came along with the deal was a small scroll. These were the original blueprints for the house.

Though there's no architect listed on the drawings -- which are fascinating in part because they show that the house wasn't built exactly as designed -- there are a number of clues that have helped lead me in a variety of directions as I've slowly and sporadically looked at the history of my humble house.

Lately, a lot of requests have arrived via email asking about how one goes about researching the places they call home. Here are some tips for Milwaukeeans curious about how their abodes came to be and who inhabited them in the past.

A few years ago, while passing the hours doing my duty in the jury room at the Milwaukee County Courthouse, I took advantage of the periodic -- though very brief -- breaks to head down the hall to the office of the Register of Deeds.

There, I found not only records of every deeds transfer for my house since it was built in 1947, but for the property is sits on for decades before the land was even subdivided.

If you live in an older home, you can check the 1894 and 1910 Sanborn maps online, or consult the fire insurance atlases, which exist from 1876 to 1910, in the humanities room at the Central Library.

A companion visit should be made to the Department of City Development, 809 N. Broadway. There, you can find permits pulled for your property. These told me when construction began, when it was completed and inspected, when major changes were made and how much construction cost.

At the Zeidler Municipal Building next door, you can check into violations and complaints recorded by or at your home for more recent years at the Department of Neighborhood Services on the first floor.

If your home was originally built as something other than a residence (such as a commercial property, or if you live in a converted firehouse or something), you might find blueprints at the City Records Center in the lower level.

Super-lucky folks might find old photographs showing their homes in the collections at Milwaukee County Historical Society, 910 N. Old World 3rd St., at Milwaukee Public Library, 814 W. Wisconsin Ave., or in the Golda Meir Library on the UW-Milwaukee campus (portions of some of these collections are online, too).

Noteworthy properties may also be included in the Wisconsin Historical Society's online architectural inventory. MPL's Wisconsin Architectural Archive also has a large collection of blueprints donated by local architectural firms.

Some useful information may also be gleaned from property tax records, which you can find on microfilm at the Central Library.

To learn more about the folks who lived in your home -- you likely learned their names at the Register of Deeds office -- start with Milwaukee city directories at Milwaukee Public Library or UWM. You could learn about past owners' and residents' jobs and employers.

If you have access to Ancestry.com, you can also search these folks if you're looking to get a better picture of who they were. Here, I learned from census records that the husband and wife that built our home lived a few blocks away during the construction and worked together at Harley-Davidson.

I also learned that while they had one daughter who was grown by the time they moved into their completed house, they had another who spent at least part of her youth in our home. This family lived in the house for 40 years.

You can search the names in Milwaukee newspapers included in the Google archive. Here's a link to the Sentinel in the archive.

Checking the addresses on our block on the Milwaukee.gov web site's property information section, I was able to learn when the homes were built, which provided a picture of how the street slowly developed over a couple decades, before and after World War II.

This may seem obvious, but don't overlook older, long-resident neighbors. Some of our neighbors were friends with the folks who have lived in our house across the decades and could offer some interesting information.

Similarly seemingly obvious is the old web search. By Googling my neighborhood's original subdivision name, I came across a number of old photos and maps and other information that explained how this former chunk of Tosa farmland became part of the City of Milwaukee and was platted and developed.

After all of this research, I still had some interesting details on my blueprints that have remained a mystery. Why is there no architect listed? Were the plans purchased from Sears or another company? Online searches will turn up scans of many catalogs of home plans from the first half of the 20th century.

Were they provided by the builder, whose name and address are on the plans? Were they the product of the blueprint firm, whose stamp is emblazoned on the scroll, too?

These are questions I continue to ponder and research. The more I learn about the history of my house, the more I appreciate the place and my connection to a longer thread running through Milwaukee history.

Just be careful because the research can become addictive. And, because we're homeowners, we have to remember to save time to mow the lawn and paint the basement window frames.

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