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How to research the history of your house or apartment

In light of the series of historical posts on Toronto that we've been running of late, it was suggested to me that it might be interesting to provide some information on how one would go about researching the history of his or her home. As wonderful as looking at a random set of old photos of the city is, I always find the experience even more fulfilling when I stumble upon images that document the neighbourhoods that I've lived in, or if really lucky, the streets I've called home. But, truth be told, this "stumbling" doesn't happen very often. Without making a concerted effort, it's unlikely that one will come across such information.

So the question becomes just how difficult is it to do a little digging into the history of where one lives? In a recently published article on ActiveHistory.ca, Jay Young provides a highly informative overview of some of the options available for those who'd like to know about the lineage of their residence. Perhaps the best suggestion he makes is to consult the Toronto Archives guide to "Researching Your House," a document that I was previously unaware existed. Available both in print and online (follow PDF above), it outlines the process in a logical and easy to digest manner.

Before providing specific advice, the guide begins with something of a warning. "Researching a property can be like assembling a jigsaw puzzle--one with missing pieces, as well as pieces that belong to another puzzle! Be patient. Assemble information before you come to any conclusions. Cross-reference information from a variety of sources. Be aware that not all sources are 100% accurate!" Good advice to be sure, but it makes the whole process sound rather daunting when in reality many houses in downtown Toronto are quite well documented.

Of the various strategies mentioned in the guide, here are a few highlights (each of which are accompanied by more detailed instructions):

  • Determine whether or not your street name or address changed at any point in the past
  • Use the "Photograph Finding Aids and Reference Copies" resource to search the City's photograph collection
  • Consult fire insurance plans (some of which are available online)
  • The City's aerial photograph collection covers most of the city from 1947 to 1972
  • To determine former occupants, one can consult assessment rolls and city directories

If all of this sounds like too much work, Young offers another option, though it'll require forking over some dough. Toronto-based Caerwent Housestories will do all the work for you and offers a series of packages, depending on how nicely one wants the research presented. The basic package, which come in chart-form and offers a "specific list of owners and occupants of the property; including dates of purchase or rental of property, number of occupants and assessment value, etc." is $350.

Lead photo of Villa Margaret Bourgeois, corner of St. George Street and Lowther Avenue. Photographer: Alexandra Studio 1967, City of Toronto Archives. Series 1057, Item 745.


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