I Wanna Know

PW exposes the tricks, scams and truth about the powers that be.

By Heather Duffy
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 16, 2004

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Q: I recently bought a house in Philadelphia built, I think, in the late 19th century. I'd like to know the best way to track down the prior inhabitants of the house and to determine who the architect was.

A: A homeowner with an older property should start their background search with the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC). "We may have the information or we can tell them how to get some information," says PHC historical preservation officer Richard Tyler. There are a number of options, he continues, but be forewarned: They're just starting points that could quickly lead to a dead end. One option is to look at the deed. "A deed conveys land. It doesn't say what's built on it," says Tyler. This may help owners approximate a building date, but there's no guarantee that the first structure built on the parcel in question is the same one that stands today. Tyler also recommends running a "chain of title," which, if there's a paper trail to follow, can track the house back to its original owner. "Sometimes that works nicely, but sometimes it doesn't," says Tyler. Another option is to look at old insurance surveys, but Tyler warns, "house numbers can change over time," so this may not be an accurate search tool either. It might be easier to determine the architect of a house this old, as there probably wasn't one. "Most houses in Philadelphia didn't have architects," says Tyler, pointing to some exceptions in West Philly. Instead, many of Philadelphia's residential properties were built by craftsmen without the design and direction of an architect. To apply for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, your property must be at least 50 years old and have distinctive or unique features, says Tyler. But determining historical significance is a bit easier in Philly. "Our ordinance doesn't have a time restriction," he says, noting that PHC avoids adding buildings that are too current. Right now the youngest properties in PHC's registry are a bridge built in the 1950s and, from the '60s, the recently listed Guild House, on the 700 block of Spring Garden Street. The Philadelphia Historical Commission can be reached at 215.686.7660.

What do you wanna know? Send queries and complaints to Heather M. Duffy at hduffy@philadelphiaweekly.com

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