Tips for 'Stay-At-Home Historic Researchers'
Almost twenty years ago – in the November, 2000, BEE – I provided instructions on how to conduct your own "house history". I have also directed people to a class on that topic, which until recently was offered by the Architectural Heritage Center on S.E. Grand Avenue.Since many of us are still sheltering due to COVID-19 coronavirus precautions, and might have extra time to pursue a research project, it seems a good time to share my updated research techniques with readers.This information is aimed at adults, but there is no reason why curious children cannot select a building and follow the steps to learn more about their neighborhood. Nor is the information limited to Southeast Portland; so feel free to share it with friends across the city.
Some of my favorite resources are unavailable (City Directories, and THE BEE on microfilm) because the libraries are closed. On the other hand, in the intervening two decades, many records have been digitized and are available at no cost, 24-7, through the Internet. And most households have at least one computer with Internet service, which was not the case twenty years ago.
You don't have to own a property to "investigate" it, so pick one – residential or commercial – that piques your interest. You may be unable to complete your work in a few hours; so, as you progress, write down the facts you uncover, along with a note to yourself about where you found it. When you return to your search at a later date you won't have to repeat your work, or try to recall what source you were using.Some public agencies share or duplicate data, so I provide the route that seems fastest to me; but experiment to suit your own working methods. If you have a computer printer, you can make paper copies of many references – but, again, be sure to note on the paper copy where you found it, including any page numbers.
1. Begin with the current street address of the building. This would be something like 1234 S.E. Milwaukie Avenue. Observe where the structure is, such as "east side of Milwaukie Avenue, second house in from corner of Ellis Street." Is it residential? A single family home? Has the house been changed into a multiple family home? How many units are there? (You can determine this by counting the electric meters, because each unit pays for its own electricity, and will have a separate meter.) This applies to apartment buildings, too: Count the meters and you will know how many units are in the structure. Does the building combine both residential and commercial uses? Is there a business at the street level, with apartments above? Or is there a house behind the business? Make sure you write this information down, including the current name(s) of any businesses.
2. Determine the legal description of the building. This is different from the street address! These records are held by the Multnomah County Tax Assessor's Office, and are now available online. While street addresses (Point #1, above) are assigned by the City of Portland, a legal description is assigned by the County. Street addresses can change over time (which I will explain further in this article), but a legal description does not, unless the property is subdivided. The legal description consists of a Lot (most commonly 50x100 feet in size), within a Block, within a named subdivision or plat. Thus the legal description of the imaginary house at 1234 S.E. Milwaukie Avenue, might read as: Brown's Subdivision, Block 4, Lot 18. Building lots are not always 50x100 feet in size; they can be larger, smaller, or irregular. Occasionally they will include parts of another lot, or several feet of an adjacent property. This can depend on when the subdivision/plat was filed, and how it fitted next to another subdivision.
The quickest way to find the legal description is to search online at "Portland Maps". Double-click on the heading "Portland Maps" and you will see a birds-eye map of the city with a small blank in the upper right hand corner. Type the street address of your building into this blank for the date of the building's construction, name of current owner, and other details. Click on "Assessor Detail", and you will see the Subdivision name, Block and Lot. Write this down.
If you want to view the original plat map that your building is in, search online for "Multnomah County Surveyor". This county agency holds the plats, surveys, and any changes to them. If a street has been vacated, added, renamed, or altered, this is the agency that retains that information. Their building is in distant east Multnomah County, but the maps, plats, and other information is now available online. Plats in the SMILE neighborhood go back to 1882 and were handwritten, so good luck reading some of the old writing! But you can print out a copy of plat maps on a home printer. If it was a large plat with hundreds of blocks, like Sellwood or Westmoreland, you will not be able to read the detail from a home printer with 8"x11" paper. The office is presently closed to in-person service, but when they reopen you can visit the office and order a full-size plat map for a nominal cost.
There are also many layers of other information on the surveyor's site, and you can "cruise" their website for hours, as you learn who carved up the neighborhood and when, and perhaps how areas were lost. An example in Sellwood-Westmoreland are streets that were cut off, or house lots that disappeared when McLoughlin Boulevard was opened in the mid-1930's.
3. If your building was constructed before 1934, it had another street number, because the city changed them in 1933. However, the legal description (see #2, above) will be the same; and, if your house number was odd or even, it will retain that characteristic. The fastest way to find the pre-1933 building address is to search online for "Past Portland", a privately-maintained site which is free. Follow the brief instructions, typing in the current street address. Sometimes there will be other tidbits of information, such as the name of an earlier resident, and possibly their occupation. These are probably from City Directories, which are available at the Main Branch Library, which is currently closed. Write down any of this information, including the dates of entries, for follow-up when the library reopens.
4. Return to the Portland Maps site (see #2, above) that has the information about your building. Scroll down, looking for a "Historic Plumbing" heading, and click on it. If there are multiple pages, go all the way to the oldest plumbing inspection application, which hopefully will be a photocopied 3x5 handwritten index card. Changes to plumbing requires the owner or plumbing contractor to apply for a City of Portland Building Department permit. These old permit cards can be "historic gold." The entries can be tricky to decipher, if handwritten; but if you are lucky, can provide many valuable leads. These include the current and pre-1934 addresses; the name of the owner (not always the same as the occupant) at the time of the permit application; whether the house was newly finished or "old". It can tell you when the house changed from use of a cesspool or septic tank to the city sewer system. It should list the upgrades that were made, such as new bathroom fixtures – or, in the case of a commercial establishment, when a beer cooler or restroom was added.
If there are several cards, compare and record the owners' names from year to year, or other details, such as the house changing from one story to one and a half or two, which indicates an addition. And read the backs of the cards. These usually include a sketch by the plumbing inspector of the direction of a sewer line or decommissioned cesspit. Sometimes they will include comments about a house being moved, numerous attempts at inspections, or discovery of illegal DIY plumbing changes. Write all of this down, especially the dates and names of owners. When the library re-opens, these scraps of information can help you find the building owners or occupants.
5. Once you have the names of a building owner, you can try to trace them. You can do that through the Oregonian newspaper, which has been digitized and so has an automatic "index". You can access the paper online, 24-7, if you have a Multnomah County Library Card. Follow the steps on the website for Research, and go to "Historical Oregonian". If, for example, you have an owner's name for 1928, you can call up the newspaper for that year, enter the name and see if any articles turn up. They might not, unless the individual was active in the community or in local events, and was deemed "worthy" of inclusion in a newspaper story.
You can also enter the person's name into the overall search, and request that entries be arranged from oldest to newest; then scroll through each entry that pops up. This can be a frustrating waste of time if you are anxious to find information on a person for a precise period. On the other hand, just browsing back issues of the Oregonian can be enjoyable! For fun, enter your date of birth, to see what was happening in the world the day you were born. Many other digitized newspapers and periodicals are available through the county library Research section. Alas, THE BEE newspaper has not yet been digitized, and the microfilm versions are in the closed libraries.
I hope this process will inform and entertain you during this trying time. There are, of course, other diverting online resources, such as current aerial and street views of the city; Sanborn fire insurance maps; and historic photographs held by the City of Portland Records & Archives Center. Most people know about Ancestry.com (for a fee) for genealogical research. But I would be pleased to hear that some BEE readers (and beyond) have followed some of these leads to discover new things about their neighborhood and city. Perhaps we can meet at a future date at the Sellwood Community House or at SMILE Station to compare notes and answer questions.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.