House and Building History

The Oregon Historical Society’s research library has a variety of resources to help research the history of houses or other buildings. As OHS is located in Portland, Oregon, many of the suggested resources listed here are most applicable for researching houses or buildings in Multnomah County. Please note that OHS is not a government agency and does not routinely collect property-specific information. Researchers interested in the history of specific properties are encouraged to consult local government agencies in the district where the property is located for more detailed land records and permits.

This guide highlights some of the resources available in OHS’s research library. Researchers are also encouraged to contact reference librarians at libreference@ohs.org for assistance.

Suggestions for Beginning Property Research

  • If available, review any abstracts of title and note the people who previously owned the property and building.
  • Neighbors, previous owners, and community associations are often resources for changes to the property and neighborhood history.
  • For researching properties in the Portland area, visit Portlandmaps.com and pay special attention to the information in the historic plumbing permits (such as original owner name and original address).
  • For researching properties in the Portland area, check with the City’s Office of Planning and Development Review located at 1900 SW 4th Avenue, 1st floor, in Portland, for information about the original builder, owner (if different from builder), architect (if there was one), materials, and initial cost, or for early building permits or plans.
  • Look at property tax statements for the property’s legal description.
  • If conducting research for your own home, ask your title company to do a title search. Fees vary depending on type of search and time needed to compile the information.
  • Find the date of construction and the ownership history of an existing structure by searching microfilm records at Multnomah County Division of Assessment and Taxation Office, 501 SE Hawthorne Blvd., Suite 175, in Portland. Be sure to have the exact address of the property.

The following Oregon Historical Society resources are available to aid researchers:

Historic Resource Inventory of Portland, 1984 (REF 720.979549 H673). Arranged by street address, this multi-volume work covers every neighborhood and includes a bibliography for each building that the City of Portland designated as being historic. Each entry provides the legal description, date built, style, first owner, and more.

Portland Block Book (REF 912.7911 P852, 2 volumes). This book documents land ownership (not occupancy) for the year 1907. If you do not know the name of the addition (section of the city) or its location, you can consult the 1907 Portland Block Book User’s Guide (located at the library’s reference desk; ask a librarian for tips on how to use this). Some street names have changed, and addresses were changed by ordinance in 1890–1891 and in 1931 (see below).

Portland Realty Atlas (REF 912.79111 P8522p 1914 Oversize). Ask a librarian for assistance. This atlas shows ownership of Portland-area properties as of 1914. Subsequent editions of the Portland Realty Atlas (1922 and 1928) are available on microfilm.

Directory of Streets and Street (REF 979.11105 D593d). Researchers can find the pre-1931 address of a house by looking here or consulting PastPortland.

Portland city directories. Pages 67 through 121 of the 1892 Portland City Directory contains pre-1890/1891 addresses for Portland properties. Starting in 1930, Portland city directories added a reverse address section. The names listed in this section can be traced back to earlier directories through the alphabetical section.

Vertical Files on various subjects may provide leads or information to help you in your search. You might also consult general Portland histories, the Oregon Historical Quarterly, and reference books on the architecture of the area. For additional biographical and historical information, consult the Library Association of Portland Newspaper Index (on microfiche: 1851–1979 and 1980–1984) as well as the Oregonian and the Oregon Journal newspapers digitized by NewsBank, which are available through Multnomah County Library’s website under “Research tools and resources.”

Several of the photograph collections held at OHS contain images that document homes and businesses. A good place to begin image research is reviewing the self-indexing photo files for the neighborhood where the property is located. The Oregon Journal photographs (Org. Lot 1027); the Oregon Journal negatives (Org. Lot 1368); and the Oregonian photographs (Org. Lot 1359) are also a good source of images of structures in the Multnomah County region. Selections from the Oregon Journal negatives have been digitized and can be viewed online through OHS Digital Collections, along with other digitized photographs and maps in the library’s holdings, some of which may be useful for house and building research.

Photographs of residences are rarely identified by address, and the research library collections contain photographs of only a small percentage of houses in the region. Researchers should plan to spend time searching in multiple collections for potential photographs.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps are helpful tools for property-specific and neighborhood research. The best copies of these are digitized and available through Multnomah County Library’s website under “Research Tools” and Digital Sanborn Maps. A current Multnomah County Library card is required to access these materials. OHS has black and white microfilmed copies of many of the Sanborn maps. Reference librarians can assist with access to microfilmed maps.

Multnomah County Metsker Atlases (1927, 1936, and 1944) show property ownership for large lots of land and provide the name of the real estate addition in which a particular street is located. They also provide a list of real estate additions and where those additions were located in the city.The research library holds several collections of architectural plans and drawings by local architects in its manuscript collections. To find architectural records that may be of interest, contact reference staff for assistance, or search the library catalog for the name of an architect or architectural firm, the name of the original owner, or the street address. To view architectural plans, please contact reference staff before visiting; most architectural plans are stored offsite and require advance notice to retrieve or special arrangements for viewing.

Books containing generic house plans are available in the library. These provide details on types of houses built around the United States in various eras:

  • Houses by mail: a guide to houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company, 728.37 S847h. Small houses built in most U.S. cities (especially Portland) in the 1920s and 1930s.
  • Redimade homes, 1924, PAM 728,37 R317r. Small houses from pre-cut parts, made by a company with a Portland branch, 1924
  • Business Collection (Mss 1510), materials filed under “Construction.”

Please note that not all materials are held onsite at OHS’s research library in downtown Portland. Periodicals, some manuscript and photograph collections, and some books and microfilm may require at least a week’s notice to retrieve from OHS’s offsite storage facility. To ensure the materials will be available, email libreference@ohs.org before your visit with a list of items you wish to see or for assistance with your research.