Getting to know the history of your house can be a fun and fascinating process.
Notice: Physical Northwest Room materials are currently unavailable due to the renovation of the Downtown Library. Check out the digital resources listed instead! If you have any questions, contact the Northwest Room Librarian at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Researching your house will give you a sense of appreciation for its history and lend insight into the customs and lifestyles of your predecessors. Unless your house is well-known or built by a prominent person, you are unlikely to find very detailed information about it, but with the resources below, you can put your house in its historical context. Many of these research methods can be applied to commercial buildings and other properties, as well.
The benefits to researching house history include:
- Learning about local history
- Determining historically-appropriate renovation, remodeling, interior decoration, and landscaping
- Possibly qualifying for historic register tax breaks
- Distinguishing your house from other properties when selling it
Spokane Public Library staff in the Northwest Room are happy to assist you as you conduct your research. Many of the research materials you will need are available at the library. If you are interested in researching your house history online, check out the resources outlined in these videos to help you get started: Research Your House History | Introduction and Find Your House History Online.
About your house
If your house is historically important, it may be included in a historic resources inventory, which gives neighborhood history and basic information about the more historically significant homes. This type of home may also be listed in a historic register listing, either for the home itself or included in a historic district.
The Spokesman Review and the Spokane Daily Chronicle are available online, and you can find a wealth of information in the papers. You can search by address to find names of people who lived and died in your house. Search for addresses or people using our ProQuest Historical Newspapers database, which goes up to 2009. Since the search is done through optical character recognition (OCR) the results may not always be accurate, but there can be a wealth of information on your particular home, such as dates and applicants of building permits and articles about developers. Be sure to search various versions of names and addresses, such as “w 100 2nd,” “100 w 2nd,” “w100 second,” etc. You’ll find a quick overview on how to use the product on our YouTube channel.
The Northwest Room also has newspaper clipping files on more well-known houses or houses in particular neighborhoods (not currently available).
Sanborn fire insurance maps show the outlines of buildings and give some information about their construction and use, including building materials and number of stories. The Sanborn maps start in 1884 and were periodically updated to 1952 for Spokane. The early Spokane Sanborn Maps are on the Library of Congress website.
Museum Archives and Assessor’s Notebooks
Trying to locate a photo of a house is a common request. The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture Archives has an extensive collection of house and street photos. You can search by address, but the best way to search is to put in the street name and then browse. This will give you a little more to choose from than just the exact address. They also have blueprint collections, but only for a few of the most prominent architects in Spokane. Both the Northwest Room and the Museum have copies of local house plan books, such as from the Ballard Plannery – a local house plan firm responsible for the design of many homes in the early 20th century. Check out their untitled plan book and The Modern Bungalow online.
The historical Assessor’s notebooks in the Washington State Archives, Eastern Regional Branch, will often have photos and basic property information, such as type of roofing, wood used for trim or floors, and any special features that would increase the value of the home. The archives is located at 960 Washington Street on the campus of Eastern Washington University in Cheney, (509) 235-7508. You will need your parcel number so the archivist can locate the notebook for your home. They can scan and send you the copies from the notebooks if you contact them by phone or email.
About your neighborhood
Even if you cannot find much information on your home, you should be able find something about your neighborhood, which will give you the context in which your home was built. The library has books on a few neighborhoods, including historic resources inventories. There are also clipping files on particular neighborhoods in the Northwest Room.
The Historic Preservation Office includes historic register files for some historic districts in Spokane, which will give you background information on those neighborhoods.
You can find the legal description of your house by consulting your property tax records. The Assessor description is shown in the upper left hand corner, (Example: HEATH’S L5 B6, meaning Heath’s Addition, Lot 5, Block 6). If your tax records aren’t available, a computer printout of them can be obtained at the Assessor’s Office, Spokane County Courthouse, 1116 W. Broadway.
Even easier, visit the Assessor’s Parcel Information Search online. After you agree to the disclaimer, enter your house number and street, including direction. Select the correct address to see detailed information, including photos, current owner, taxes, sales, and home characteristics. Record your parcel number since that is often a good way to search property maps and auditor notebooks.
A Chain of Title provides you with a list of owners of your property and any transactions pertaining to your property. If you recently bought the house, ask your real estate agent to give you a copy of the Chain of Title. Otherwise, you may need to visit a Title Insurance Company. There are several Title companies in Spokane. They may charge a fee for this service, and you will need the legal description of your property to do this.
You can trace who lived in your house (but not necessarily who owned it) by looking in the Polk Directories. Starting in 1929, you can look up an address and see who occupied your house. Before 1929, you will need to have a name, since there is no address index. You can also use the Ancestry database. While the library is closed, Ancestry is available from home but once the buildings are open, you can access Ancestry from any library. Using Ancestry, you can go to the city directories page and put in an address in the keyword section. This will pull up owners, and though it will also pull up some extraneous information, it can be very useful.
Once you find your owners, you can get more information about them from:
- Mug books – books that list a short biography and often a photo of prominent people in the city. Some examples include Who’s Who, Edwards’ An Illustrated History of Spokane, Durham’s History of Spokane County, or Fuller’s Inland Empire Who’s Who. Many of these books are now available online in The Internet Archive or on Google Books.
- Biography files – the Northwest Room contains biographical files for hundreds of local people
- Obituaries will often give basic information about people. Search Ancestry or our historic Spokane newspapers database to find them.
If you are researching land holdings, especially in the county, Metsker’s maps and Ogle maps show who owned larger pieces of land at the time of printing. Homestead records can be found by searching the Bureau of Land Management’s database.
Discovering the style of your home can give you a clue about appropriate colors or interior decoration. There are many books in Spokane Public Library on architectural styles; search for domestic architecture guides or Spokane architecture.
There are also websites that will give you an indication to your house style:
Interiors & Exteriors
Once you know the style of your house, there are many books and magazines that will show you appropriate interior design, fixtures, and landscaping for your type of home. Use our catalog to search for architectural styles such as bungalows or Victorian architecture or more general searches for historic buildings.
Historic magazines that show interior and exterior decoration from earlier times are available on Hathi Trust. Some titles that would be good titles to search or browse include:
- Arts and Decoration
- Good Furniture and Decoration
- House Beautiful
- Ladies Home Journal
In addition to these magazines, you will find many books in Hathi Trust with decorating ideas.
Also remember to check your house for clues. Look under trim, cabinets, or old fixtures for original colors. Look for rooms that have been modified, or check your attic or basement for signs of remodeling.
The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation provides great ideas on how to maintain the historic character of buildings, while their Technical Preservation Service provides preservation briefs and other guidance.
Historic Register Listings
Once you have done research on your house, and you think it might be historically significant, you can check out the City – County of Spokane Historic Preservation Office for information on historic register listings and incentives for historic preservation.
City of Spokane
Building permits for the City of Spokane can be found online. For permits prior to 1993, search the permit archive. Just search by address to get a pdf file with the results. For records after 1993, you can search the regular permit site. This is a great place to get the names of owners or builders, especially for properties built before 1929 (prior to address listings in the city directories). You can these use these names to search in the newspapers.
County residents can see their building permits dating back to 1930 at the County Building Department Public Works Building, 1026 W. Broadway Avenue. Ask to see the Assessor’s workbook that will show any additions or remodeling done to your home. Records earlier than 1970 may be incomplete or missing. Newer permits can be found online.
For other cities in the county, contact them directly to see what is available. Millwood has historical permits in paper, arranged by address.