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Denver Building History Tutorial

by HANNAH PARRIS

The Denver Public Library’s Building and Neighborhood History Collection in the Western History and Genealogy Department contains a wealth of resources for researching the history of Denver buildings, neighborhoods, and architectural styles. Included are early building permits, real estate and fire insurance atlases, assessor records, directories and photographs.

Many of these may now be found in our Digital Collections.

The best place to begin is with the building itself. You may find a copy of the original building permit or blueprints or other clues that will help you get started. A neighbor may have early photographs of the area or information about previous owners.
    
Other useful Library collections include neighborhood histories, walking tours, architectural guides, maps, directories and other published research resources as well as indexes of newspaper articles and clipping files on Denver neighborhoods, buildings, streets, etc.

For more extensive research, we invite you to visit our Building and Neighborhood History area in the Western History and Genealogy Department on the 5th floor of the Central Library. 

1. How Old is My House (or Building)
Look up your address on the Denver Assessor’s Office - Real Property Records website

Denver Assessor’s Office - Real Property Records

This will give you an approximate date of construction, but it can be off by a few years. Often the date listed is an estimate, or dates back to a major remodeling. You will also find the legal description of your property (addition name, block, and lot numbers).  While addresses and street names may change, these remain the same for a specific property and are needed to access early building permits and other city records.  Other information to be found here includes the recent chain of title, property values, zoning information, and links to various maps and aerial photographs.

Find your property on a map in the Library’s collection of Real Estate and Fire Insurance Atlases

This extensive collection includes Sanborn fire insurance atlases for Denver from 1887, 1890/93, 1903/04, 1929/30 and 1974 with various paste-over updates, and 1887 Robinson and 1905 Baist real estate atlases. These show footprints of Denver structures and will help you to date the construction of a building (e.g. it appears in the 1905 atlas but not in the 1887) and give you a picture of neighborhood development. These maps also show the legal description (addition name, lot, and block numbers) of your building, which is necessary for locating many historic building records.

Street Name and Number Changes

There was a major change in the downtown street numbering system in 1887 and a major change in street names for the entire city in 1904. The 1887 Sanborn atlas shows former and new address numbers and the 1903/4 Sanborn atlas shows former and current street names. Since the legal description does not usually change, the block and lot numbers can be used to verify the location of the property.

 For further information on the history of street name changes, see Denver Streets:  Names, Numbers, Locations, Logic by Phil Goodstein in the Building History Research Area.

2. Who Built My House
Search for your house in our collection of Denver Building Permits

If you think your house was built before 1915, you can search our online collection of transcriptions of Denver Building Permits: 1889-1892 and 1900-1914.

Most permits issued before 1915 did not show an address and must be searched by Legal Description. Many of these are missing or incomplete but may give names of original owners, builders or architects, and costs.

Permits for the years 1915 to 1955 are arranged by address on microfilm in the Western History and Genealogy Department.

More recent permits (from the 1970s to the present) may be obtained from the Denver Building Permit Records Office.

If you cannot locate an original Building Permit you can still try to find out who owned it or lived in it.  

3. Who Lived in My House
Look up your address in the Library's Collection of Householder Directories

Arranged by address and list residents and business names.  After 1924, owners are indicated by special symbol.

1924 - Present – Shelved in the Building History Research Area (titles vary).  Many of these are available in the Digital Collections.

Then check the names in the City Directories

Alphabetical by name of resident or business. Most list occupation and address.

1873-1960 - Microfilm, 1960-1986 in Western History Reading Room.

Many of these are also in the Digital Collections and in the Library through the Ancestry Library Edition database.

More directories may be found in the Western History/Genealogy Department.

Trace the grantor/grantee chain of title in the Assessor Records

Assessor Records

Search for your property by Legal Description or Parcel Number (available with the Denver Assessor's Office Real Property Search).

These provide an index to City of Denver Grantor/Grantee information and can give a chain of ownership of Denver property, but there is generally no indication of whether or not there is a structure on the property. The earliest records from the 1870s to 1917 are on microfilm in the Western History and Genealogy Department.

Assessor Records from the late 1800s to the 1950s

Denver Assessor Records Index Map: Late 1800s To The 1950s

To search this 27-volume collection of handwritten ledgers you will need the Legal Description of the property.  This consists of the name of the subdivision or addition, followed by the block and lot numbers, and can be found on title deeds or tax records, or online through the Denver Assessor’s Office Real Property Search.

A small number of properties in these volumes are listed by township and range.
 
The records for each block are arranged by lot number (the Description column).  New pages were added on top of older ones, so the earliest transactions are found on the last page.

Assessor Records from the late 1950s to the early 1980s

These are cards known as Master Property Records.  They are arranged by Parcel Number rather than Legal Description.  The Parcel Number can be found on the Denver Assessor’s Office Real Property Search website.  Try searching them in the Digital Collections by address or parcel number.  If you have trouble finding the card online, ask at the Western History and Genealogy Reference Desk.

More recent records can be found at the Denver Assessor's Office.

Federal Census

The federal census records for Denver can give a more in-depth picture of a neighborhood including such things as nationality, occupation, etc. These are available in the Library through Ancestry Library Edition. Ask at the Reference Desk for more information on accessing this data.

Contact the Western History and Genealogy Department for help in interpreting any of these records or for more information about tracing the history of a Denver building.

4. Are There Photographs of My House

Many photographs of Denver and Colorado buildings are now online in our Digital Collections. Try searching on the name of your street or the name of a building. You can also search by the name of the neighborhood or historic district.  If there is a prominent landmark (church, etc.) nearby, try searching by that name  to see if your building is in the background. You can also search by architectural styles or elements.

The Stephen H. Hart Library and Research Center at History Colorado also has a large collection of photographs.

Don’t forget to ask around in your neighborhood.  Someone may have old photographs of your house or know someone who does. The most likely source of old photographs are the people that lived in the home earlier. Locating them in the city directories or searching for family members might lead you to the photographs you seek.

5. Can I Find Building Plans for My House

First, look around in the building. You may discover architectural plans hidden there.

The Library collects the drawings and project files of significant regional architects, including Temple Buell, Fisher and Fisher, Burnham Hoyt and others. If the original building permit lists an architect, then check the catalog  to see if your architect is included. Most Denver buildings were not designed directly by an architect, and unless the plans are somewhere in the building or with the owner, it may be impossible to find them. Many contractors used plans from plan books or mail order sources like Sears. The Library has a collection of reprints of these early plan books. Search the catalog for more.

Many of our architectural collections are indexed in our archives finding aids.  Try searching your address or the name of your building here.

The Stephen H. Hart Library and Research Center at History Colorado also has a large collection of plans and blueprints.

6. What is the History of My Neighborhood

Search for the name of your neighborhood in the Library’s:

  • Catalog for books, newsletters, archival manuscript collections, maps, etc. Here is a selection of the many neighborhood histories available at the Library.  Search the catalog for more.
  • Digital Collections for photographs and indexing to newspaper articles (in the Western History Subject Index) for articles in Denver Municipal Facts or other publications.
  • Ask at the Western History and Genealogy Reference Desk for Clipping Files about your neighborhood. 
  • Explore the history of selected Denver neighborhoods in our Neighborhood History Guides exhibit.

Search these other websites:

  • The Piton Foundation for community and school facts, history, etc.
  • Denver Neighborhood Services for neighborhoods and neighborhood organizations, recreation centers, parks, etc.
7. How Can I Find Information About a Historic Landmark or Neighborhood

The Library has many books and photographs of Denver’s historic buildings as well as archival manuscript collections including:

Denver Landmark Commission Records 1973-2010 C MSS WH887
Collection contains binders with survey worksheets and photographs of individual structures gathered during architectural field surveys; accompanying data includes information about the neighborhoods and the survey process, staff reports, applications for design review and evaluations, meeting minutes, agendas, clippings, and audiocassette recordings of meetings.

Denver Landmark Preservation
Many resources for researching historic properties, including lists of Denver Landmarks and Historic Districts, information on tax credits for historic property owners, and tips on preserving and maintaining a historic building.

History Colorado’s Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (OAHP)
A great variety of useful information for those researching historic buildings and neighborhoods, including State and National Registers of Historic Places, Architecture and Engineering Guides, and guides to Federal and state tax incentives for historic preservation projects.

Historic Buildings Map
OAHP and the Creating Communities Project have combined resources to highlight different historic buildings within the boundaries of specific neighborhoods. These buildings are just a small sample of the historic buildings located throughout the Denver area.

OAHP Historic Contexts and Survey Reports
A variety of documents with historic context information covering various neighborhoods, municipalities and regions across Colorado. Reports include: Historic Residential Subdivisions of Metropolitan Denver 1940-1965, Commercial Resources of the East Colfax Avenue Corridor, Railroads in Colorado 1858-1948, Rural School Buildings in Colorado, and U.S. Post Offices in Colorado.

Historic Denver
A wonderful source for anything related to historic districts, buildings, architects, etc., including information on tax credits, easements, tips on maintaining and restoring historic homes, etc. Click on "Resources" and be sure to see the Virtual Tours of Denver's Historic Buildings. They also publish the invaluable Historic Denver Guide Series which is available in the Building and Neighborhood History section of the Western History/Genealogy Department.

Discover Denver
A building and neighborhood survey meant to identify historic and architecturally significant structures citywide. Historic Denver, Inc. leads this collaborative project in partnership with the City and County of Denver and History Colorado. The survey will gather information using public records, neighborhood canvassing, academic research, and tips from the public. Findings from the survey will then be accessible online so that everyone can learn about Denver’s past — building by building.

Colorado Preservation, Inc.
Includes information on Cultural Resources Surveys, the Endangered Places Program, Preservation Projects.  Sponsors the “Saving Places Conference,” a great annual meeting of preservation programs and workshops.

Electronic Library of Colorado Architecture, Landscape and Planning
Documents a wide array of sites, structures, and projects, including those which are significant because they have received awards from professional design and planning associations, or because they appear on state and national registers of historic places.

National Park Service - How to Preserve Historic Properties
Provides technical assistance and guidance on the preservation of historic properties.

Pres 101
A rich site on the basics of historic preservation from History Colorado.

Explore the history of selected Denver neighborhoods in our Neighborhood History Guides exhibit.

8. What Else Can I Find Out

Colorado Land Records and Deeds Directory
Deed and other document recording is managed by the County Clerk and Recorder in each Colorado county. Records kept include deeds, mortgage documents, easements, and liens.

Many counties offer an online searchable database where searches can be performed by party name, document type/category, parcel number, address, or date. For counties that do not have an online database, requests can be made in writing, over the phone, or in-person.

Historic Denver
A wonderful source for anything related to historic districts, buildings, architects, etc. including information on tax credits, easements, tips on maintaining and restoring historic homes, etc. Click on "Resources" and be sure to see the Virtual Tours of Denver's Historic Buildings. They also publish the invaluable Historic Denver Guide Series which is available in the Building and Neighborhood History section of the Western History and Genealogy Department.

Discover Denver
A building and neighborhood survey meant to identify historic and architecturally significant structures citywide. Historic Denver, Inc. leads this collaborative project in partnership with the City and County of Denver and History Colorado. The survey will gather information using public records, neighborhood canvassing, academic research, and tips from the public. Findings from the survey will then be accessible online so that everyone can learn about Denver’s past — building by building.

DenverUrbanism - Homes by Decade Project
One of the best resources for tracing the development of the city. Documents the geographical and architectural attributes of Denver’s 128,000-plus single-family detached homes — decade by decade, featuring over 30 maps, a variety of special exhibits and commentaries, and over 200 photographs illuminating the rich diversity of Denver’s historic and contemporary housing stock.

DenverInfill
A companion blog to DenverUrbanism providing news and information about urban infill development in the Mile High City, including great visual documentation of the redevelopment of Union Station.

Denver Skyscrapers
Great interactive maps leading to detailed information about the tallest buildings in Denver and the surrounding area.

Denver Open Data Historic Maps
Historic aerial photography, streetcar lines, annexation maps and more.

More Library Resources and Collections

The Building and Neighborhood History area in the Western History and Genealogy Department also includes neighborhood histories, walking tours, architectural guides, and other published research resources. Other useful collections include indexes of newspaper articles and clipping files on Denver neighborhoods, buildings, streets, etc., selected architectural plans, and a large collection of photographs of Denver and Colorado buildings, many of which are accessible online.

Search for any names you find of people, neighborhoods, streets, or buildings in:

Western History Subject Index
This large card file (now digitized) located in the Western History and Genealogy Department indexes the Rocky Mountain News starting back to the 1860’s and other local newspapers, many historical journals, and other items in the Department’s collections. Use it to search for names of owners or architects you may have found. There are also extensive listings under the headings.

Be sure to ask at the Reference Desk if you have questions about any of the entries.

Library Catalog
For books, newsletters, archival manuscript collections, maps, etc. Many of these are in the Denver Building and Neighborhood History section of the Western History and Genealogy Department.

Digital Collections
For photographs and indexing to newspaper articles (in the Western History Subject Index), or articles in Denver Municipal Facts or other publications.

Ask at the Western History/Genealogy Reference Desk for Clipping Files about your neighborhood, people, businesses, etc.

And for more extensive research or for questions about any of these sources, we invite you to visit our Building and Neighborhood History area in the Western History and Genealogy Department on the 5th Level of the Central Library.

Bibliography: 

These lists are all selections of the extensive collection of books on building and neighborhood history available at the Library. Be sure to search for the name of your neighborhood to find other sources.