How to Find Out the History of Your House and Lot
A Guide to Boston Information Sources
Since records for your house and lot go by city and county respectively, any JP resident checking on these topics must be aware of our area’s history. Jamaica Plain has never been a separate political entity but rather a part of the Town of Roxbury from its founding in 1630 until 1851, when it became a part of the Town of West Roxbury during its existence from 1851 until 1874. When that town was annexed by Boston in 1874, all the municipal records of West Roxbury were taken over by the City of Boston, which had already annexed Roxbury in 1868.
In the matter of counties also Jamaica Plain has gone back and forth—a rarity in Massachusetts cities and towns. Simply put, our area was part of Suffolk County (mostly Boston to us nowadays) from the founding of Roxbury in 1630 with the county seat in Boston. When Norfolk County was created in 1792, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain were included in it with the county seat in Dedham. That remained the case until our area joined Boston in 1874 and once again became part of Suffolk County. Thus, if the information that you desire runs before 1874, you must search not only in downtown Boston but also in Dedham Square.
About your Lot
A quick way to see a dated plan with its owner of your parcel of land for 1874 to 1924 is to consult the Real Estate Atlas of the City of Boston. Private surveyors such as Bromley, Hopkins, or Sanborn, to name a few, compiled these. They show plot lines, building outlines, and the owner’s name; thus, they furnish a fine dating device for the researcher. Our area is fittingly in the West Roxbury volume, and once you find out on what map plate your plot is located, that map plate number remains the same in all editions of that atlas. Sets of various completeness exist at county registries, the City’s Inspectional Services Department, the Bostonian Society, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Boston Public Library Leventhal Map Center in Copley Square (see sources listed on the last page of this publication.) We also have a number of maps here on this web site. Several companies sell reprints of these maps and allow you to view them on-line. See: Community Heritage Maps and Ward Maps LLC. New maps are being added to other web sites each day so if you don’t find the maps you need at any of these sites, try doing a Google search. You may find a photograph of your house here on the Jamaica Plain Historical Society website. Use the search icon on the top of any page and type in a house number and street name. Additional photographs of homes can also be found by searching the Digital Commonwealth website. The Boston City Archives scanned over two million pages of City records and over 13,000 photographs, you will find then on-line here. The Boston City Archives also maintains a Flickr page with more than 13,000 photographs. The Boston Public Library maintains a Flickr page as well with more than 97,000 photographs.
Current ownership of any building or plot in the city can be determined through tax assessor’s records at the city’s Assessing Information Center. Lots are listed alphabetically by street address for each ward, which yields a parcel and bill number. Owner’s names and addresses are indexed by bill numbers.
Tracing previous owners of your lot involves a title search. Through a tedious process, your effort may also yield information about construction dates and changes on the property. Since records of deeds are matters for county courts, recall the initial note above and consult the records of the Norfolk County Registry or the Suffolk Registry of Deeds. Both offices provide on-line access to their records. See The Suffolk Registry of Deeds and The Norfolk County Registry of Deeds.
Beginning with the present owner’s name and the building’s address; consult the most recent Grantee (i.e., Owner) Index, which lists purchasers of property alphabetically. Proceed backward in time until a transaction involving the present owner and subject property is located. This will yield a reference to the volume and page where the deed of the present owner is recorded. This deed will then lead to the previous owner, who can then be looked up in the Grantee Index previous to him and so on. In order to save time in tracing a particularly long line of ownership, owner’s names which appear in the real estate atlases (see above) can be used as starting points. Often the deed itself will refer to the previous transaction, which saves the trouble of consulting the Grantee Index.
The process is repeated until the original owner is found. By paying careful attention to the description of the property being conveyed and changes in boundary or price, you can often discern any building activity or other topographic changes that the property may have gone through. For instance, if a Greek Revival Style house is located on a parcel, which deed records show to have been first subdivided from a farm lot in 1838, it is safe to assume that the house was built shortly thereafter. Dramatic fluctuations in price can also indicate that a building has recently been erected or demolished.
A record should be kept of each deed references in the chain by volume and page number and should include Grantor (Seller) and Grantee (Owner) names and residences, date, price, physical and boundary description. Breaks in the chain of title occasionally occur due to such things as an unrecorded or missing deed or inheritance by an heir of different surname. The former situation is most often irresolvable, while the latter can usually be surmounted through probate records (see below.)
More on Title Searches
Mortgages have opening language almost identical to deeds and are recorded in the same books, so that it is advisable to take careful note whether the reference given in the Grantee Indexes is for a deed or mortgage. The type of document is also frequently identified in the margin of the Index page itself. The existence of two instruments with the same date conveying the same piece of property back and forth between two people almost invariably indicates that the Grantor has given a mortgage to the Grantee.
Note references to property plans, which are often recorded with the deed. If a volume and Page number are given, the plan is located in the bound volumes. A plan number indicates that a plan is on file at the Plan and Map Department of the Registry. Always feel free to consult a registry clerk.
Probate Records, documents relating to the inheritance of property, are often necessary to complete a chain of ownership. These are located in the Probate Courts of county courthouses and are also available on-line.
The name of the deceased person is listed alphabetically within chronological volumes of an Index, yielding a case number. The numerically indexed volumes listing these case numbers in turn provide volume and page references for each instrument related to the probating of the deceased’s estate: will, inventory, division of the estate, etc. The volumes are then consulted for the copies of the instruments.
Should you come across the names of streets that you do not recognize, consult the Society’s Concise Guide to the Streets of Jamaica Plain (1987) by its Historian or A Record of the Streets, etc. in the City of Boston by the Boston Street Commissioners (2nd ed., 1910) with its locations, dates of laying out, and prior name(s). These are available in local and university libraries. Street pattern development gives many clues about building activity in the neighborhood.
About your Residence
With any luck your house and lot may have been included in the Boston Landmarks Commission’s Jamaica Plain Preservation Study (C. Kennedy ed. et al., 2 vols., 1983.) available at libraries including the Jamaica Plain branch of the Public Library on Sedgwick St., Volume I is the Project’s Complete Report in 73 pages with a good history of the area, the methodology and recommendations, five maps, and three appendices. Volume II is the thick compendium of Inventory Forms (of selected places only) alphabetically by street address and may chronicle your home’s tale. A sample Boston Landmarks Commission Building Information form is shown below.
The Boston Architecture Reference File at the Boston Public Library is a card index of references to written descriptions, critiques, histories, illustrations, renderings and plans of Boston buildings and their architects. Most references are to published sources, although they may refer to original photographs, architectural drawings and other unpublished materials in the collections of this and other libraries. The Boston Public Library Fine Arts department has a request service you can use to have materials gathered for you and ready for you to use when you arrive. You need a library card to use this service. If you do not have one, you can apply for one on Boston Public Library website.
If you have had no luck with these sources, the basic information source is the City’s Building Permit Records which are available on-line. If you are looking for information from the 1879-1903 period, you could inquire with the BPL Fine Arts Division to see if your property is listed in the Building Inspector Reports Index. If your inquiry yields citations, use the request service for an appointment to view them.
All building permits from 1871 to present, for existing buildings, have been digitized by the Boston Inspectional Services Department in a searchable database of Building Permit Records which are available on-line. The results are not always in order, so be prepared to sort through them. The most useful document is the original building permit as it lists the first owner, architect, builder, cost, dimensions, type of building, and date. Permits for major alterations often contain useful information as well.
Unfortunately, there are limitations to the usefulness of the permit files. For one, they only go back to 1871 when the current permit system began. For another, not all known construction and alterations are not always documented. Thus, the presence or absence of a building permit is not always a reliable dating device.
Plans for all original construction and major alterations should also be available at the Boston Public Library. To review them, check the Building Division document jacket for the appropriate construction permit and note the “Bin Number” (usually an alpha-numeric code, such as A-24.) If the construction was after 1970, ask a member of the staff how to view the microform aperture card with the desired plan.
Should you wish to flesh out prior owners, you might profit by consulting the Boston City Directory, which annually listed all city residents alphabetically by street address from 1789 into the 1970s. These are available at the Microtext Division of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, and at the Bostonian Society. These can tell about building occupancy and use. Directories for multiple years are searchable on-line at the Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives site.
Another invaluable source if you are lucky is someone who has lived in the neighborhood for a long time. They may be able to tell you where the heirs of a former owner live, who might have photographs of the old house. The neighbors might say, for instance, that a doctor once lived there who had his office in one part of the first floor, which might explain some distinct pattern of rooms on your first floor, or the presence of a former shop to confirm some artifact of the past that you have discovered in the cellar or attic.
Contemporary newspaper articles and obituaries of former owners can provide descriptions and other detailed information on buildings and biographical data on architects. Complete copies of virtually all Boston newspapers (including the Jamaica Plain Citizen (1942—) and its local predecessor the Jamaica Plain News) are in the Microtext Division of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. However, until recently, only obituaries were indexed; hence references to buildings can only be found when a construction date is known. A searchable archive of the Boston Globe is available free to subscribers and at any Boston Public Library branch.
If you know that your building suffered a fire, the Boston Fire Department will have a record of it. Given that, you may be able to get more information from contemporary newspapers. Diehards will go on to find out former telephone numbers and the like by consulting the archives of utility companies.
Finally, it’s a matter of luck when it comes to finding earlier photos and prints to document the historic appearance of and subsequent changes to your building and area. The best collections for Jamaica Plain views can be found at Historic New England and the Print Department of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square (3rd floor.) Smaller but still useful collections exist at the Boston Athenaeum and the Bostonian Society. Photos are generally indexed by street and/or building name.
Drake, Francis S., The Town of Roxbury: Its Memorable Persons and Places, Roxbury, 1878
Jamaica Plain Historical Society, A Jamaica Plain Bibliography, 1990
Boston Landmarks Commission, Jamaica Plain Preservation Study, 2 vols., 1983
Boston Street Commissioners, Record of Streets, etc. in the City of Boston, 2nd ed. 1910 (later editions omit street history)
Warner, Sam Bass, Jr., Streetcar Suburbs: The process of Growth in Boston, 1879-1900, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962
Von Hoffman, Alexander, Local Attachments; The Making of an American Urban Neighborhood, 1850 to 1920, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1994
Boston Assessing Information Center, City Hall, 3rd Floor
Boston Landmarks Commission, City Hall, Room 805
Boston Inspectional Services Department, 1010 Mass. Avenue, (617) 635-5306
Boston Public Library, Copley Square, Back Bay, (617)-536-5400
Fine Arts Department
*Boston Athenaeum, 10 1/2 Beacon Street, (617) 227-0270
*Bostonian Society, Old State House, (617) 720-1713
*New England Historic and Genealogical Society, 101 Newbury St., Back Bay, (617) 536-5740
*Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA) Archives, Harrison Gray Otis House, 141 Cambridge Street, near Government Center, (617) 227-3960
Norfolk Registry of Deeds, 649 High St. near Dedham Square, off Route 1, (617) 461-6122
Suffolk Registry of Deeds, 4th and 5th floors, Suffolk County Courthouse, Pemberton Square above Government Center in Boston, (617) 725-8575
*Private libraries that may charge use fees and require an appointment.
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