The Hunt for Historical Records

By Austin Regan

While many old buildings are going the wayside to allow for new construction, there are large numbers of old buildings being rehabilitated an re-purposed. Sometimes it is not possible to remove a building – as is the case with a designated Landmark or a contributing building in a Landmark district. Sometimes it is not advantageous to remove a building because it’s size cannot be replicated because of current zoning restrictions. Sometimes the unique structural or spatial characteristics of a building cannot be replicated with new construction in an economical way. Sometimes, the old buildings just look cool and have a certain intrinsic value which is very marketable.

When doing any exterior work on a Landmarked building, the Landmarks Commission will want proof of how the building originally looked. In cases where one is proposing a change in use or even an addition to an older structure, the DOB will require documented proof of whatever non-complying zoning or Code conditions you present as existing. Finding the proof is the challenge.

The starting point is always the DOB record room. Unfortunately, both old and recent records of filings can be hard to come by. Both the quality and completeness of records found at the DOB are not consistent. The Department recognizes their records room limitations and will except other forms of proof. Below are some other sources that may come in handy:

HPD “I” cards – HPD enforces laws related to all multiple dwellings. HPD was once part of the DOB. The “I” cards were actual index cards where records of all filings and inspections were recorded. Records date to the beginning of the 20th century. For buildings that existed prior to that time and for those built early in the 20th century inspectors actually recorded the use of each floor of the building, number of apartments per floor, whether the building had a fire escape and even the amount of toilet fixtures there were. For Old Law Tenements (built prior to 1901) inspectors would also sketch very detailed plans of the building which can be invaluable when trying to establish historic apartment arrangements

Historic Tax Photos – In the 1930’s and 1940’s, the Assesor’s office photographed every Block & Lot in the five boroughs. Though some areas of the outer boroughs were missed these photos can provide a wealth of information. The Landmarks commission will insist on the photo when proposing exterior work on a building they have jurisdiction over. These photos are also helpful for establishing the historic existence of encroachments beyond the property line such as steps or fences. They have also been used to establish the existence of curb cuts. Microfiche of these photos are available for viewing and printing at the Municipal Archives at 32 Chambers Street.

Historic Sanborn maps – These are valuable when trying to establish a non-complying bulk or yard condition. The DOB will except these non-complying conditions if proved they existed before the current zoning resolution took effect in 1961. A company called Environmental Data Resources owns the rights to Sanborn maps produced between 1867 – 1970. The maps can be ordered through them and many are surprisingly detailed.

Cole Reverse Phone Directories – These can be very useful when trying to establish an historic use that by today’s rules would not be allowed. A common issue is the presence of a retail space in a residential district. Phone numbers are listed by building address. The New York Public Library has microfilm of the old directories. Depending on the year you desire they can be found at the main 42nd Street Branch or at the Science Library on Madison Ave in the 30’s.

With the internet there are other sources that can prove helpful but may take some guessing and digging like the New York Public Library’s digital photo archives or Getty Images. Old newspaper archives can also produce results sometimes. Looking for records at the Building Department is only a starting point.