The Pennsylvania Department
House Histories -- A Pathfinder

How to Trace the Genealogy of Your Home

Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home. -- John Howard Payne, 1823

Many people are searching for historical information about their home and property. Who originally owned the land? How old is the house? Who built it? Who has lived in it? To find the answers to these questions, you must examine many different types of records. There is no single place to find this information. This pathfinder is designed to acquaint you with some of the historical records that are available, where they are located, and what they can tell you about your home. With a little detective work, you can uncover the clues that will tell the story of your old house.

-- Search the following historical records --


Each time that your property (lot and buildings) was sold, a record was made of that transaction. By searching these records (called deeds) back in time, you can obtain a list containing each owner of your property and the date of purchase. The deeds are bound in large volumes and are located in the Recorder of Deeds Office in the Allegheny County Office Building. Begin your search with your own deed. Your deed will refer to the date and volume and page of the previous transaction. Use the information in each volume to locate the previous volume until you have a complete list. If you discover that there is not a reference to a previous volume or that there was a Sheriff's Sale, ask at the Information Desk on the second floor for the proper deed indexes that will get you back on the right trail. If you are researching a building that is not your own property, then you must begin your search with the deed indexes. The indexes are arranged according to the Russell Indexing System. The same process applies to other counties in Pennsylvania as well.

Historic Maps and Atlases

If your property deed refers to a certain lot number in a plan of lots, this can be helpful in determining an approximate date of construction. You will find plans of lots in large bound volumes on the balcony in the Allegheny County Office Building. Usually there is a note if there were already buildings constructed on the land to be divided. If your home is not shown, it was most likely built after the plan of lots was filed.

Other useful maps can be found in the bound Sanborn Insurance Maps and the G. M. Hopkins Atlases for Pittsburgh, Allegheny City and vicinity. These are available at the Allegheny County Office Building, the Pennsylvania Department of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (Oakland), and the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. About every ten years, beginning in 1872, a series of maps was produced which noted every extant building. Find your neighborhood on the maps and note when your home appears. For instance, if your home is not on the 1872 map, but does appear on the 1882 map, then you know that it was built sometime within that ten year period.

Keep in mind that many streets have changed names over the years. A great number of streets had their names changed in 1907 when Pittsburgh annexed Allegheny City. If your street name changed, remember to look for the original name in other old documents.

There is also a good Atlas of the County of Allegheny, Penna. for 1876 which indicates the layout of streets for minor communities in the county, the ownership of farms, and the location of churches and other buildings. Other counties published similar atlases in 1876; many have been reprinted with new indexes. These are available in the Pennsylvania Department and at the Historical Society.

Finally, there are Warrantee Atlases for several Western Pennsylvania counties. These identify the original land owners and the location of their property by township. Many of these have also been reprinted with new indexes. In Allegheny County, you can trace the ownership of your property back to 1788 by using The Warrantee Atlas of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

Building Permits

These will tell you when a house was built and will identify the builder, cost and building type. The architect is not usually named. You need to check the community where you live for these records. For Pittsburgh, Building Permits from 1948 to the present are on file at the City Bureau of Building Inspection. For the period 1917 to 1948, the records have disappeared. For 1895 to 1917, the Building Permit records are available at the Archives of Industrial Society at the University of Pittsburgh.

WPA Survey Books

In 1936, this survey of buildings was conducted in Allegheny County by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Records exist for all of the County except for the First and Second Wards of Pittsburgh. The records are arranged by ward/borough/township, then by street, and then by house or building number. The survey considered various details of construction including type, floor and roof materials, plaster, heating source, plumbing, electricity, basement, and whether owned or rented. The survey includes the dimensions and outlines of the buildings. These records are available at the County Records Center on the North Side. To use these records contact the Office of Records Administration.

Western Pennsylvania Architectural Survey (WPAS)

In 1932, Charels Stotz and a team of architectural historians began a survey of buildings constructed in the region before 1860. The survey was completed in 1936 and formed the basis of a book published in 1936 and re-issued in 1995. The book was entitled The Early Architecture of Western Pennsylvania: A Record Before 1860 Based Upon the Western Pennsylvania Architectural Survey.

The research materials for this survey have been deposited in two local collections. The first repository is the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The Music and Art Department maintains a Vertical File of photographs and field measurements. There is an Index to the material arranged by county and by building type. There is also a Bibliography compiled by Charles Stotz (qr016.7209748 S88). The Oliver Room of the Carnegie Library holds drawings, manuscripts, and topographic maps. To use the materials in the Oliver Room, you must make special arrangements. Copies of the photographs can be ordered through the Pennsylvania Department. Begin your search of the Survey materials with the Index in the Music and Art Department.

The Historical Society holds the Charles M. Stotz Papers, 1901-1975 (17 linear feet). This collection includes extensive material from the 1932-1936 Architectural Survey. There is a preliminary inventory for these papers. To see the collection, contact the Library and Archives.

PH&LF Historic Site Surveys

Between 1979 and 1984, the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (PH&LF) conducted an extensive survey of thousands of historic buildings and neighborhoods in Allegheny County. For each building surveyed, an Historic Resource Survey Form was completed and placed on file at the James D. Van Trump Library. These forms include a picture of the building, a site plan, a description of the prime architectural features, and biographical information on the original owners or builders. Recommendations for eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places may also be included. PH&LF has many other architectural surveys and studies available as well. To use any of these records, call first to make an appointment.

Other Architectural Sources

Knowing the architecture of your home may be helpful in determining its age. In the same way that designs for clothing and cars change over the years, architectural styles become fashionable and then fall from favor. If you know the style of your home, then you can usually date it to within twenty years. Keep in mind that home improvements have always been popular and many homes have been updated one or more times.

There are a number of books available on architectural history and styles. Look for them at the Music and Art Department of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. If you live in a famous house, it may have been described in one of the contemporary architectural periodicals such as "The Charette," "The Builder," or the "Architectural Record." These periodicals are available at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the Historical Society, and the Architecture Archives at the Hunt Library (Carnegie Mellon University). The Architecture Archives also has a growing collection of architectural plans for buildings in Western Pennsylvania including some house plans by well known architects such as Alden and Harlow, Louis Stevens, and Peter Berndtson.

You should also check the vertical files of the Pennsylvania Department: Pittsburgh. Houses. Name of House.


Photographs will help tell the story of your house. Ask your neighbors if they have any old photos of the house. Former owners or their children may still live in the community. Try to locate them and inquire about the existence of old photos. The Pennsylvania Department, the Historical Society and the Archives of Industrial Society all have historic photographic collections, although the chances are remote that any of these repositories will have a picture of your particular residence or street.

City Directories

City Directories for Pittsburgh and Allegheny City date as early as 1815, and were published irregularly until just before the Civil War. Beginning in 1856, they were published every year until 1975. In 1929 a separate listing by street was included. For example, you can look up 525 Penn Avenue and see how occupied that building or home.

City directories for other communities also exist, usually for the 20th century. City directories contain an alphabetical list of residents, much like a phone book, and usually note the person's occupation, and home or business address. Now that you have an approximate date of construction and know who owned the property during that time, you can look up those names in city directories to learn more about the persons who lived in your house.

The Pennsylvania Department has city directories for Pittsburgh and Allegheny City, as well as directories for other communities on microfilm. The Historical Society also has directories. If your house is located outside the city limits, you should also check your local public library or historical society for community directories and information on local families.

Census Records

The federal census was taken every ten years beginning in 1790. Census records from 1850 to 1920 can provide further information on the families who owned and lived in your home. The census will provide the name of each person living in the house, their age, occupation, place of birth and more. The census records are available for the entire state of Pennsylvania on microfilm at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. There are published indexes for 1790-1870, and these are available in the Pennsylvania Department and at the Historical Society. The Soundex Indexes exist for 1880, 1900, 1910 and 1920. These are available only at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The census indexes will help you to locate the families on the microfilm.

Other Biographical Sources

Both the Pennsylvania Department and the Historical Society have Biography Indexes which indicate if a person is listed in any of the standard printed 19th century biographies. You should also check the various published county and local histories, business publications and social registers which will provide information on civic and business leaders, first families and prominent citizens.


* Allegheny County

Office of Records Administration
County Office Building, Room 299
542 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
(412) 350-5743
County Records Center
North Side
(412) 231-4452
Call to make an appointment.
Return to Text

* Allegheny County

Recorder of Deeds Office
County Office Building
200 Ross Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
(412) 350-4226
Hours: 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. M - F
To request a copy of a deed, call: (412) 350-4224
Return to Text

* Architecture Archives

Hunt Library
Carnegie Mellon University
Frew Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
(412) 268-8165
Hours: 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. M - F
Call to make an appointment.
Return to Text

* Archives of Industrial Society

University of Pittsburgh
400 North Lexington Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
(412) 244-7090
Call to make an appointment.
Return to Text

* Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Music and Art Department
4400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
(412) 622-3105
Hours: 9:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m. M T W Th
9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. F Sa
1:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. Su (Sept. - May)
Return to Text

* Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Pennsylvania Department
4400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
(412) 622-3154
Hours: 9:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m. M T W Th
9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. F Sa
1:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. Su (Sept. - May)

* City of Pittsburgh

Bureau of Building Inspection
200 Ross Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
(412) 255-2175
Hours: 8:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. M - F
Call to make an appointment.
Return to Text

* Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh Regional History Center
Library and Archives Division
1212 Smallman Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 454-6364
Hours: 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. T-S
Return to Text

* Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

James D. Van Trump Library
1 Station Square
Suite 450
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
(412) 471-5808
Hours: 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. M-F
Call to make an appointment.
Return to Text


* Pittsburgh Architecture:

A Guide to Research.
Aurand Martin.
Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives, c1991.
(r NA 2127 .P5 A8 1991x)

* The Anatomy of a Streetcar Suburb:

A Development and Architectural History of Pittsburgh's Shadyside District, 1860-1920.
Robert John Jucha.
Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1981.
(r F 159 .P66 S5 1981x)

* Landmark Architecture:
Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.
Walter C. Kidney.
Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 1985.
(rq NA 735 .P53 K5 1985x)

* Pittsburgh in Your Pocket:

A Guide to Pittsburgh-area Architecture.
Walter C. Kidney.
Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, c1988.
(r NA 735 .P53 K52 1988x)

* House Histories

A Guide to Tracing the Genealogy of Your Home.
Sally Light.
New York: Golden Hill Press, c1989.
(r NA 7205 .L54 1989x)

* A Field Guide to American Houses.

Virginia McAlester and Lee McAlester.
New York: Knopf, 1984.
(r NA 7205 .M35 1984)

* The Early Architecture of Western Pennsylvania:

A Record of Building Before 1860.
Charles Morse Stotz.
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.
(rq NA 370 .P4 S75 1995)

* Pittsburgh:

An Urban Portrait.
Franklin Toker.
University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, c1986.
(r F 159 .P63 T65 1986)

* The Roots of Architecture in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County:

A Guide to Research Resources.
Franklin Toker and Helen Wilson.
Pittsburgh: The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, c1979.
(rq Z 5944 .U5 T6x)

* Landmark Architecture of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

James D. Van Trump and Arthur P. Ziegler, Jr.
Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 1967.
(r NA 25 .S7 no. 5)

* Life and Architecture in Pittsburgh.

James D. Van Trump.
Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, c1983.
(r NA 735 .P52 V32 1983x)

Compiled by the Pennsylvania Department. April 1997.

Image of Pa Pitt; return to Master 
Pa Pitt
Return to Pa Pitt's Master Index

* Return to Genealogy.
* Return to Local History.