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Ten Tips on Researching Your Old Home

Researching the history of your home can be an adventure that gives you insight into your neighborhood, your hometown, the families that lived in your home through the decades, and of course, your Home Sweet Home itself. 

Let’s get started!

These tips are intended, first and foremost, for residents of River Forest and Oak Park, but are broadly applicable to home research in any community.

  1. The best way to start is to get yourself organized. Put everything that you already have about your home in one place and spend a few minutes reviewing this material. Many people already have the names of previous owners, an old photo or two, etc. Put those materials in a folder, a small box, or other convenient and portable place. 
  2. Look at your home, inside and outside, with a fresh eye for clues about its age and history. Your local library has many good architecture stylebooks and guidebooks. 
  3. Chat with your neighbors, especially the long-time neighbors who probably are your neighborhood’s institutional memory. They frequently can provide tips, leads, and just good stories. Write down what you learn, with the source and date. 
  4. Stop in at the building department at your local village hall during regular business hours and ask to see the building permits for your address. This may tell you the original date of construction, original owner, architect, etc.
  5. Call or email the Oak Park River Forest Museum and make a research appointment. You will be guided through a range of items in the collection that are good resources for the home researcher. Of special note in our villages are the street-by-street files, the Barclay photographs, Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, city directories, and photo books. 
  6. Stop by your local public library. Many libraries, including the excellent ones in Oak Park and River Forest, have a wide range of books and unpublished materials that can orient you to your community or fill in the gaps in your research. 
  7. It is not unusual to uncover a clue or two at either the Museum, the Library, or from a neighbor that will necessitate retracing your steps to double-check a name in a city directory or take a closer look at an old photo. 
  8. Be prepared for the unexpected and capitalize. Many homeowners have experienced an unannounced visit by a former owner who is dying to see the old family home. Inquire about what old photos or other materials the family may have. 
  9. No two home research projects are identical. You may have difficulty locating the exact date of construction, but perhaps you will find many fascinating details about previous owners. And maybe their families still live around here. 
  10. To many, a set of complete blueprints of a home is the Holy Grail, especially among the many architecture-savvy homeowners. For others, only an original photo will do. Don’t fall into that trap! The search may take you to unexpected places and that’s half the fun.
Prepared by Frank Lipo, Executive Director
Oak Park River Forest Museum