Ladue News Feature Stories

Hunting House History

St. Louisans pass by historic homes every day in St. Louis city and county, though they are rarely given a second glance. Yet these houses are full of rich history and colorful stories, many of them due to their former homeowners, buried underneath layers of wallpaper and tile. You might even live in a St. Louis house that’s more than 100 years old, but how much do you know about the time period when it was built, the people who lived in it or what purposes rooms previously served?

For Missouri History Museum associate archivist Dennis Northcott, helping people research their historic homes is more than just a hobby – it’s his job. It’s also something he’s overwhelmingly passionate about, which is evident when curious home researchers stop by the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center on South Skinker Boulevard. Under its towering dome, St. Louisans can peruse hundreds of old publications, censuses, deeds, genealogy indexes, city directories, property plans, real estate ads and more to find out how their homes came to look the way they do now.

About 10 years ago, Northcott began taking bits of information that were indexed in the research center and inputting them into Microsoft Access. With a little IT help, Northcott was able to create an interface on the history museum’s website that, at first, was used to help genealogists search people by name.

“It’s an ongoing index of all this data we have in our collections,” Northcott says. “This includes neighborhood newsletters, employee magazines, scrapbooks, yearbooks…all kinds of stuff.”

He soon realized people wanted to search for their properties as well as names. Northcott created a house history research guide page on the museum library’s website, which is where he directs people initially.

From there, Northcott’s methods to help people find what they’re looking for vary by what information they have about their home. Oftentimes, the best place to start when arriving at the research center is to consult a city directory, a volume structured similarly to phone books and published annually. St. Louis City directories go back to 1821; St. Louis County directories go back to 1893.

“You can look up someone’s name, and it tells you what their occupation was and where they were living,” Northcott says. “Around 1930 or so, they started including a feature in the back where you could look up your community.”

After finding a community – for example, Clayton’s DeMun neighborhood – you can look up addresses in the neighborhood, house by house, to find out who lived there. Then, you can look up the name and possibly find out the residents’ occupation and other household members year by year.

After discovering names, the research center’s genealogy index can help with the next step: finding obituaries, photos and other scraps from the homeowners’ lives.

Northcott also notes the importance of maps in researching a house’s history and points to resources like fire-insurance maps. “Fire-insurance companies wanted to know how much to charge for fire insurance for commercial buildings and homes, so they published these maps showing the entire city,” he says. “They’re color-coded by building material: Pink means brick, yellow is frame and blue is stone. Sometimes people will use these and find out there used to be a frame porch or a garage out back that they saw the foundation for.”

Erin Sutherland, for example, was convinced the railing across the front of her Richmond Heights home wasn’t supposed to be there.

“As an art historian, it bothered me because it’s not right architecturally,” she says. “But before I went about changing anything, I had to make sure I was historically correct.”

Not wanting to compromise the historical integrity of her home, Sutherland used the research center’s resources to see what she could find. After entering her address on the website, she discovered a photo of her home from a 1931 Union Electric employee magazine showing the front of her house, and sure enough, she was correct – no railing. Now, she’s working to change it back to the way it was. She also found out a marshal was stabbed on the street in her neighborhood in 1922 because of bandits in the area at the time. Northcott isn’t surprised by what Sutherland discovered: “Researching your home can lead all over the place. It’s absolutely fascinating.”

Northcott and the research center staff are constantly indexing new vintage materials to help researchers find information about the past. Books including “Historical Home Research in the City of St. Louis” by Edna Campos Gravenhorst and “Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed(room): Researching a St. Louis County, Missouri Home” by Kim Wolterman are available at the research center, as well. Recently, historic St. Louis newspapers have been digitized and rendered keyword-searchable; the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for example, can be searched from 1874 to 1922.

Northcott says he has a “crazy obsession” with trying to identify every building image the research center has on file. He teaches a house history workshop twice a year and says attendees almost always want a historic photo of their home first and foremost.

“Our archives have thousands and thousands of historic St. Louis homes, but unfortunately, we don’t have photos of everything,” he says.

Emily Jaycox, the head librarian at the research center, has researched two of her St. Louis homes. Her former home, she says, had nice woodwork that had never been painted – she found out the first owner was a varnish salesman.

“The house I live in now was built in 1919 and has more closets than any place I’ve ever lived, which wasn’t common for a house of that era,” Jaycox says. “I did some research and found out the man who built the house was in the family business of custom tailoring. They made suits for the mayor, and it turned out to be a three-generation business. So that explains the closets.”

Although she never found a picture of her home, she gained a better understanding and appreciation for its eclectic history.

Northcott agrees. “I always say that if you interviewed a thousand people walking down the street and asked them if they wanted to do research at a library today, nobody would say yes,” he says. “But if you asked people if they want to see a picture of their house from 1930 or a document signed by their great-great-grandfather, every single person would think it was great.”

This story was originally published at Read it on LN’s website here.

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