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How to research the history of your house or apartment

Posted by Derek Flack / January 27, 2011

2011127-archive_house.jpgIn 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.

Discussion

18 Comments

Elizabeth / January 27, 2011 at 10:14 am
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Awesome post. I've always wondered about this.
Janice / January 27, 2011 at 10:25 am
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Finding out the history of your house or apartment is quite not a bad idea though.
john / January 27, 2011 at 10:30 am
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or you should just google it.
Betty / January 27, 2011 at 10:31 am
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We started doing this for our house and it's a fascinating process if you're interested in local history. We learned more about the origins of our neighbourhood and discovered building permits for a neighbour's house and the original school across the street. (Still need to find ours, though.) The staff in the city archives are quite helpful, but be prepared to spend some time there if you're serious.
Annexer / January 27, 2011 at 11:35 am
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Here's the google streetview of the same house in the picture more recently.

http://maps.google.ca/maps?f=q&;source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=Lowther+Avenue,+Toronto,+ON&aq=0&sll=43.250079,-79.856765&sspn=0.007268,0.013797&g=East+Avenue+S,+Hamilton,+Hamilton+Division,+Ontario&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Lowther+Ave,+Toronto,+Toronto+Division,+Ontario&ll=43.669905,-79.400833&spn=0.007217,0.013797&t=h&z=16&layer=c&cbll=43.669801,-79.400751&panoid=Zw5vP07IduweIf670Mxr4Q&cbp=12,31.89,,1,-10.6
Annexer / January 27, 2011 at 11:52 am
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Are links not allowed? Are there published commenting guidelines for us to review?
mike in parkdale / January 27, 2011 at 12:09 pm
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this is pretty wild!

I've discovered that the original inhabitants of my home, were horses!
Bexxx / January 27, 2011 at 12:30 pm
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Thanks so much for this post!
I've always wondered about where to start and how to research the history of my apartment.

Derek replying to a comment from Annexer / January 27, 2011 at 01:12 pm
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No, most links should be fine - although sometimes the spam filter nabs them. I had a look and found yours. It should be up on the site in a second.
Annexer / January 27, 2011 at 01:15 pm
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Thanks, Derek. I'll try to get the syntax better next time. Excellent piece, btw, thanks.
hellebelle / January 27, 2011 at 04:03 pm
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you can also call up the toronto building department to see if they have any blueprints and building permits.
Shannon / January 27, 2011 at 04:30 pm
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@Derek

incredible post, great info i needed for sometime, thanks.
jameson / January 27, 2011 at 06:52 pm
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I had a professor at Ryerson who talked about the history of his home in The Beaches, he found some receipts inside the walls when he was doing some construction. He showed us some receipts from shopping trips to department stores to buy hats and a copy of an vehicle registration form from a new purchase. Both during the Great Depression. Some people it turned out had adequate money to spend then.
Mark replying to a comment from Annexer / January 28, 2011 at 03:58 am
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Many fine lads have occupied THAT house over the years!!
CraigA / January 28, 2011 at 08:29 am
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I've started this and the Toronto Archives is a great place to find a lot of the info. I have an aerial photo of my house from the 1940's. Through that I discovered a lot of interesting things about my neighbourhood that have long since disappeared.
Lioness / December 27, 2012 at 10:27 am
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The Toronto Public Library has many City Directories both in Print and online. Here is a blog that explains the abbreviations http://torontopubliclibrary.typepad.com/local-history-genealogy/2011/09/guide-to-city-directories-of-toronto-decoding-abbreviations.html
And a link to where you can find many of the Directories:
http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/search.jsp?Ntt=City+Directories
Daniel / February 22, 2014 at 11:44 pm
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I am a Toronto-based Urban Geographer, and can also help you figure out where you are!

http://theurbangeographer.wordpress.com/at-your-service/
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