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Center for Dubuque History: Research the History of Old Buildings

Research the History of Old Buildings: Local Sources

Compiled by Michael D. Gibson
Center for Dubuque History
Loras College

History of a building should include:

  1. Date of construction and subsequent additions
  2. Name of architect and contractor and biographical information, if available
  3. History of ownership and/or residents (if rented) including biographical information, if available
  4. Legal description from the courthouse (Assessor's Office)
  5. Types of materials used in construction, both original and later
  6. Photographs of original structure and additions, if available
  7. Oral history--former owners, neighbors, relatives, etc.

Sources of Documentary Evidence:

  • Building Permits - A city building permit may provide a date of construction; give name of owner, architect, contractor, cost, etc. Unfortunately, this information may be lacking for buildings in Dubuque. Permits were not issued regularly until the 1930s and many of the permits were discarded during a "house cleaning" at City Hall in the 1970s. Legally building permits only have to be kept for a period of seven years.
  • Newspaper accounts of local construction - building records were published annually in old newspapers, usually in November or December. Accounts may be found in the newspaper index at both Carnegie Stout Public Library (CSPL) and the Loras College Library (LCL) in the Academic Resource Center under "Buildings" (Commercial, Government, Homes). Both CSPL and LCL have the newspapers on microfilm.
  • Tax Records - County and city tax records are located both at the respective Assessor's Office at the courthouse (since 1906) and the Loras College Library (1853-1906 incomplete). They are on microfilm at the Loras College Library. The records are organized by township. City tax records appear in either Julien Twp., Dubuque Twp., or City of Dubuque depending upon the particular year.  Names within each township are arranged alphabetically by last name. In the abstracts, you can find the name of the owner for any given year. These records list property valuation, taxes paid (poll tax, school tax, etc.) and legal description of the property. A sudden rise in property taxes disproportionate to those paid in previous years, could be a good indication of real estate improvement, namely a house or a barn, upon that property. Additional large increases might indicate possible additions.
  • Deeds- are found in the County Recorder's Office. An index arranged alphabetically according to last name of owner is available. Deeds will give the dates of transactions and the name of the parties involved. The deed contains descriptions of the property each time it changes hands. Usually, the deed record has only the bare bones of the transaction, but sometimes, there is a wealth of information relating to a probate or a divorce.
  • Abstract of Title- provides a list of deeds and other documents pertaining to the property. A sizeable mortgage is often a clue to the date of construction.  These books record the actual purchase, noting the names of the parties involved, the legal description of the land, and the amount of money. Since abstracts are public records, they are often filed at a bank or lending institution (mortgage holder) and you can borrow them if you do not have your own copy.
  • Index of Property Transfers- for both city lots and county property are available at the County Auditor's Office. The books for county property go from 1870 to the present, whereas the books for the city lots go back to 1850. Those of the city are arranged by lot number and/or subdivision and arranged chronologically. You need to know the location, i.e. lot number. The county records are arranged by townships and sections within each township so you need to know location for these records as well.
  • Deed Books and Town Lot Books- the full deeds are recorded in a series of registers identified by letters of the alphabet.  These are used for rural lands.  On the other hand there are separate registers to record land sales in the city and the smaller towns in the county.  Those registers are called "Town Lot Books" and bear the reference of an Arabic number followed by "TL".
  • Subdivisions- there is an index for locating plats of all of the various subdivisions of land.  Some of the early subdivisions were filed in the deed register books.  Later, they were recorded as a separate set of registers.  These are housed in the County Recorder's Office. 
  • Plat Books- for the county there are plat books for l874, l892 and l906. An Atlas of Dubuque (l906) contains maps, plats, streets, mineral lots and subdivisions.  These are available at CSPL and the Center for Dubuque History (CDH) at Loras College.     
  • Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps- published 1867-1950, show structures on each property within the city and provides the house numbers and street names both before and after the l92l changes. Unfortunately, not all of the city was mapped and so they have a limited geographical usage. For Dubuque, they exist only for 1879, 1884, 1891, 1907, 1909, and updates of the 1909 map done in the late 1930s. They are on microfilm at the CDH (originals were color coded to designate construction material and roof composition, but those on film are in black and white only). These maps are useful for showing if additions or porches have been made and if other buildings existed on the lot. The 1950s undated map is available in its original hard copy at the CDH. Other originals are located at city hall and some local insurance companies 
  • City Hall Zoning and Planning Office- has plat maps showing streets, lots and structures, filed by legal description. Unfortunately, they do not have architects' blueprints.
  • National Register Listing- if property is on the National Register or has ever been nominated, research exists and is available from the Office of Historic Preservation, State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines. Also, if it is in a historic district of Dubuque, research has been done by the City Planning Office and should be on file there.

Physical Evidence

  • If the foregoing provides insufficient information, a study of style and construction of a building should be pursued. However, construction techniques and styles were not standardized. Styles were revived and copies and buildings altered. Few buildings in Dubuque are "pure" in style.
  • Structural elements can be an indication of age, additions and remodeling.
  • Until the middle of the 19th c., frames were either of timber or braced types, relying on heavy posts and beams with fitted joints where timbers met.
  • Balloon frames consisting of a system of studs in the wall supports appeared as early as 1860 and by 1870 had become the standard construction for residential buildings.
  • Thickness of walls indicate the type of construction: timber frame walls are at least 8-10 inches thick, balloon frames are 5" thick.
  • The sub-floor is another clue to age. In the earliest homes there was no sub-floor as seen by inspecting wood over exposed joists in the basement. Heavy boards were laid perpendicular to joists and finished on top. In the early 19th c., sub-floors were laid as above, then; finished flooring laid at a 90o angle. In the 1920s, the sub-floor was laid diagonally to the joists.
  • The size of joists can be another clue. Not until the 1930s was the lumber size fairly standard. If a joist measures approximately 2" x 10", the building probably pre-dates the period of standard dimensions. In fact, the 1860-70 balloon framing elements were longer than standard measurements later in the century.
  • Dates and manufacturer's names can sometimes be found stamped in brick, cast-iron pipes, old plumbing and bathtubs.
  • If, during remodeling, walls have been added:
    • Is the trim molding consistent in style with the original?
    • Are paint and wallpaper layers the same?
    • Are there tell-tale plaster cracks where the new walls join the old?
    • If the interior of the newer wall can be seen, is construction consistent with original in terms of material and stud spacing?
    • Is it possible to date moldings, antique hardware or nails used in the original construction?

Places to Contact

Useful Links: Historic Preservation