The Oxford English Dictionary defines quest as “a long search for something that is difficult to find, or an attempt to achieve something difficult.” Researching the history of a Chicago property can sometimes feel like such a quest, but for most properties, following some basic steps will yield a surprising amount of historical information.
To find resources for do-it-yourself research, see this House History Checklist from the Northside Neighborhood History Collection at the Sulzer Regional Library.
Don't Want to Do It Yourself? Let Us Do It For You.
When you commission RPWRHS to research your Rogers Park or West Ridge property’s history, our team of volunteers will draw on available historical resources to deliver the untold story of your property.
Here's the Path of Your Property's History Quest
To proceed with further research, we will need the Property Identification Number, the Cook County Assessor’s estimate of the building’s age and the Legal Description of the property. If you already have this information, great. If not, we know how to look it up.
Any property built before 1909, when Chicago’s Brennan Street Numbering Plan was adopted, originally had a different street address. We will check, and determine the property’s original address, which will be the one that appears on original records from before 1909. At the same time, we’ll check a number of sources to determine whether the name of your street has changed over the years, and let you know all the previous street names. For instance, did you know that Damen Avenue used to be called Robey Street?
Using property records available through a title search at the Cook County Recorder of Deeds office, we can usually identify the names of each person or entity that has owned your property, and the dates that each title transfer took place. This gives us information on previous owners that in turn leads the way toward uncovering their stories.
Once we have the age of the property, and its past addresses, if any, we can look for census reports that give us fascinating information about people who lived there in census years.
Household-specific US Census documents are made public after 70 years. The earliest properties in our community were constructed after 1870, and, although virtually all 1890 census records were lost in a fire, census reports from 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 are publicly available. Depending on the age of the building, we’ll provide household-level reports for each year a residence was occupied, showing names, ages, family and household composition of the people who lived there, along with additional information that varies from census to census such as countries of origin, occupation, mortgage cost or rent paid.
For multi–unit residential properties or commercial buildings with residential space on upper floors, we can provide whatever census information is available for the address, not for individual apartment units.
While our basic Property History Quest service cannot provide a complete genealogical history of all the people who owned or lived in the building, we can do a quick search to see if we can find anything particularly interesting. Records such as World War I or World War II draft registrations, as well as birth and death certificates available in various databases can often provide a rich trove of detail to fill out the building’s story. It’s also possible that your building address, owners or occupants can be found in a search of the available digital archives of various Chicago newspapers, especially the Chicago Tribune, which goes back to the 1850’s.
Searching these archives can sometimes turn up important news stories, society notes, obituaries and even advertisements that provide fascinating insight into your property’s story.
No guarantees here, but we’ll take a look and see what we can find.
Sometimes this information is readily available in historic records, while for other properties it is not. Again, no guarantees, except the promise that we will look.
When we do find information on an architect or developer, we’ll give you a profile of other properties they’ve built and whatever biographical or career-related information we can find. For many neighborhoods in Rogers Park and West Ridge, the same architects, developers and builders worked on many homes, so we may well be able to identify your building’s “relatives” down the block or around the corner so you can check out the similarities and differences.
For some properties, we will find photos or other documents in the collection of the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society. For example, a property might have been featured in one of our annual house tours, or a previous owner or occupant might be part of one of our individual family archives. If so, we’ll let you know what’s available.
When we find photos of the property or its occupants, we’ll provide a thumbnail “contact sheet” of photos we find. Digital files or full-size prints would be available under our existing photo file policies.
Once we’ve done the research, we’ll summarize our findings in a printed, bound report you’ll be able to share with others, provide to the next owners of the property, or keep on hand for reference. In addition, we’ll provide links to key electronic records and sources, so if you want to continue your Property History Quest on your own, you’ll have some fundamental information to get your started.
As with any quest, one step leads to another, and sometimes we’ll uncover information that you want to explore further. You can take our research and follow up on your own, or you can engage our research team to find out more, for an additional fee we’ll establish, based on the complexity of your questions.
Property History Quest Fee
Because our researchers are volunteers donating their time, we can provide this research for a remarkably reasonable price. The basic fee for a Property History Quest is $150, with a 20% discount for members.
Business Sponsors are also eligible for discounts based on Sponsorship Level. For details, see Sponsor Costs and Benefits.