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Age | Architectural Styles | Construction Materials | Landscaping

Lines of Inquiry

Every house has a story to tell. Several kinds of research will lead you to that story. The structure and its building site will tell you something about its original definition along with clues to changes over time. Take a hard look at the architecture, the building materials, the design components, the construction methods, and any remaining evidence in gardens and yards.

Another line of inquiry follows the documentary trail left by the building from the time of its construction. Think about it as the paper trail. Primary sources such as legal records, city directories, rural directories, insurance records, maps, photographs, films, correspondence and family papers, and probate records offer pieces.

And, explore general sources that help place the building in its the context of neighborhood and community and in the larger national culture of the time: magazines of the era, hardware or builders' catalogues, anthologies on building design, oral histories, style and construction manuals, histories of transportation, biographies and fiction.

The fields of research complement each other. You can begin in any area to find out more information. Information can't be found in a single place. Finding answers is a process you can begin in any field. Focus on one area, then another. You can look simultaneously at the architectural structure and at its historical records.

The practical elements of research are too lengthy to discuss in a booklet the size of the Resource Guide. And doing so is unnecessary because several good writers and researchers have compiled the information. Of the many written on the topic, here are some suggestions from the OHS library:

How Old is My House?

If you want to begin your research by finding out the date of construction or if the date is the ONLY piece of information you want, the following local sources may be helpful.

City Directories
You may or may not know about City Directories that index houses by street address. For example, unlike the order in contemporary phone books, an entry in a city directory first lists addresses, followed by names. For example, a 1890 city directory entry for Bloomington might read: Douglas (East) Street 214, Architectural Salvage Warehouse. An asterisk following an entry (*) shows that the occupant owns the building. If you begin with the most recent city directory and work backward you can accumulate a list of owners over time and, often, information about construction or remodeling. You may be able to follow the trail back to the original construction date. Directories are available at the public libraries. Bloomington's begin in 1870 (not a full run 1870 to 1940) and Normal, has a single volume older than 1940: 1937.

McLean County Recorder of Deeds
Law & Justice Center, Bloomington 309/ 888-5170
Deeds establish a record of who had title to (i.e. owned) the land. You can develop such a record because a revised title was written each time your property changed hands; both seller and buyer are identified. You will need a legal description of your property and can get this in a McLean County plat book available at the public library. This can be a time consuming process. Abstract companies have made a business by accumulating the changes of ownership over time but access is usually restricted. The information about transfers of property is important because new construction is often begun with transfer of title, especially within city limits.

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Architectural Styles

”What style is my house?" is a common question whose answer can be helpful in dating the age of your building. "Style" is the group of architectural features that characterize the essential nature of the building. It’s a cluster of visible and identifiable structural details to which a name has been attached. Craftsman or Art Deco are names that create in our mind's eye a particular "style" when we say the word. Middle and working class houses of the Midwest are derivative of "high" style. Typically they are adaptations of a standard definition which is more likely to be found in urban areas or on the East or West Coast.

Twin City neighborhoods are filled with architectural styles reflecting periods of local development, cultural values, personal taste, fashion, technology, building materials, transportation, and regional or ethnic influence. Italianate, Empire, Victorian, Arts & Crafts and a dozen more labels are commonly used as shorthand to place a building in the context of time or the continuum of house design.

In Bloomington-Normal it can be challenging to assign a particular "style" to buildings, residential or commercial. The reasons are many. The building may have components of more than one style. Changes to a house may obscure its original design. Multiple names are used to describe the same style. Regional building characteristics or the idiosyncrasies of the builder may cloud the definition of the building.

For more information on architectural styles of houses, here are references available in the OHS library:

For visual images see:

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Materials, Construction Methods, and Technology

Familiarity with materials, construction methods, and technology help place the building in time. One example is that construction in the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century shows a gradual change in building technology and method. Much of the work traditionally done by hand on the building site was replaced with ready-cut materials and with ready-made building components that were much less expensive. These changes, in turn, changed the way buildings looked and functioned.

To become more familiar with traditional methods of building, review the back issues of Old House Journal magazine, especially the early ones.

The National Park Service has developed a series of informational booklets on practical issues of preservation, rehabilitation, and maintenance. They share the experience and information of 25 years' work with more than 600,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places. The Preservation Briefs series is a practical and invaluable resource for technical aspects of taking care of old structures and, as such, has a lot of information on construction methods, materials, and technology. They can be downloaded at http://www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs.htm. To better understand what the structure itself tells you, see Preservation Brief #35, "Understanding Old Buildings: The Process of Architectural Investigation."

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Landscape, Gardens, and Building Sites

To date, relatively little has been written for the interested layperson about landscapes and gardens for older houses, secondary buildings, and building sites that applies to central Illinois, mid-19c to mid-20c. The researcher is generally left to synthesize the information he or she finds and to extract what is applicable from general sources.

For a broad background read a variety of general garden history books and/or relevant chapters in anthologies on historic gardening (such as "Keeping Eden: A History of Gardening in America," Walter Punch, ed.). Into this framework you can fit the specific information you may find later such as the Scott Kunst article on twentieth century landscapes and gardens (Old House Journal, April 1986) or plant choices to fit specific historical periods (see a sample list in Favretti and Favretti, "Landscapes and Gardens for Historic Buildings" or see McDaniel, "Sarah's Garden" for the ornamental cutting garden at the David Davis Mansion).

Look to "The Roots of Your Landscape: A Guide to Evaluating and Researching Vintage Landscapes around Historic Properties" ( Daryl G. Watson, 1993) as a rare source of information on investigation techniques specifically focused on central Illinois. Find context and background information with the emphasis on middle and working class families. The author includes hard-to-find help for the layperson who wants to investigate the landscaping history of his or her Illinois building site and then design a "new" historical garden.

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