Larkin Administration Building, 1906

Built in Buffalo

How to Research Local Architecture
Cynthia Van Ness


While Buffalo's major architectural treasures are increasingly pictured online, the resources needed to research ordinary houses, factories, commercial buildings, churches, and other historic properties are not online and many may never be digitized.

Relevant links have been added wherever possible, but out of necessity, this website focuses on the wealth of offline sources. This site is best utilized by those who can do in-person research at:

Table of Contents

Things to Know Before You Get Started

  • If you are a Buffalo property owner, dig out your title search. The title search or "abstract of title" shows the chain of ownership of your parcel of land going back (in most cases) to the Holland Land Company. Having the names of owners gives you a way to utilize city directories, Common Council Proceedings, and other sources listed below.
  • A title abstract dating back to (say) 1805 does not mean that your house was built in 1805.  It means that the ownership of your plot of ground has been traced back to 1805.  Title abstracts do NOT show when structures were erected or demolished on your land.   Their sole purpose is to show that no one else has a claim on your land.
  • A famous name on your title does not necessarily mean that a VIP lived in your house. Then as now, many prominent Buffalonians invested in land and property other than their residences.
  • Real estate agents routinely date old Buffalo houses as built in 1900 or another year ending in zero. The City of Buffalo Property database (see below) is equally inaccurate. Don't be wedded to this date.  It is just an educated or, more often, an uneducated guess.
  • Chances are good that your Buffalo building was built between 1865 and 1965. Precious little survives from before the Civil War, and Buffalo was essentially built out by 1965. To roughly date your building, study the history of American architectural styles and architecture. Here is some recommended reading.
Essential Research Sources
KEY to OWNERSHIP

BECPL = Grosvenor Room of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library
BHM = Research Library at the Buffalo History Museum
BSC = Butler Library at Buffalo State College
UB = One of several libraries at the State University of New York at Buffalo

Item

Years Available

What Will It Tell Me?

Where Is It?

Architectural Plans & Blueprints Mainly 20th Century Unfortunately, there are no large or comprehensive collections of local architectural plans and blueprints. A lucky homeowner might find original house plans stuffed in the attic. The City of Buffalo did not require owners to submit building plans or drawings until the early 20th century. Nineteenth century house plans and blueprints are scarce.  Some builders knew how to erect certain house types without custom blueprints the same way you know how to cook certain meals without recipes.

Then as now, many average-income families could not afford a private architect and bought house plans from catalogs.  Aladdin is one such company and their catalogs are online

There are now hundreds of house plan books online in full text at Google Books. We made a list of all we could find.
Aladdin Company Sales Catalogs, 1908-1954

House plan books
at Google Books

Architectural Records at BHM

Building Permits Office

Building Technology Heritage Library at Archive.org

Find the Plans for Your Old House
Atlases 1854 Quackenboss & Kennedy
1868 Sanborn
1872 Hopkins
1884 Hopkins
1891 Hopkins
1894 American
1915 New Century, vol.1
1915 New Century, vol.2
1915 New Century, vol.3
Atlases published in these years show every building in Buffalo. Some are digitized, as per the links to the left.

See also Sanborn maps.
Atlases at BECPL

Atlases at BHM


Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals Late 19th century to the present The Avery Index, a proprietary database, is the premier source for locating articles from architectural periodicals. There are dozens of citations for Buffalo alone. BECPL has the print volumes and UB subscribes to the database. List of owning libraries
Biographies of Architects 1857-1978 The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has digitized its member directories of over 50,000 members who joined before 1978. It gives basic career information but not lists of buildings.

Biographies of American Architects offers more in the way of narrative, but includes few Buffalonians.
AIA Historical Directories

Biographies of American Architects Who Died Between 1897-1947
Buffalo Address Books, Dau’s Society Blue Books, Social Registers 1885-1970s, with some gaps These directories concentrated on Buffalo’s wealthy west side and usually omitted South and East Buffalo. Like Buffalo City Directories (see below), they contain a geographic section, which lists families by street address.  The Buffalo Address Books are online at NewYorkHeritage.org.
Buffalo Address Books Online

Social Register, Buffalo: Owning Libraries
Buffalo Architecture Map
19th & 20th century A Google map of over 1100 houses & buildings by six major Buffalo architectural firms, sorted by architect.
BHM
Buffalo City Directories 1828 to present, with some gaps City directories, also called Polk Directories, list Buffalo residents in order by last name, usually including occupations. From 1930 to the present, city directories have a street section, listing occupants by address. For those with deep pockets, EDR (link at right) will compile city directory reports on a given property.  
BHM

BECPL

Buffalo Online City Directories

EDR Historical Reports

Using City Directories
Buffalo Common Council Proceedings 1832 to 1996 The City of Buffalo began issuing building permits as soon as it was incorporated in 1832. Permits required Common Council approval. If you have a wood frame house, the permit will date your building. It appears that permits were not required for masonry or brick buildings until the early 20th century.

For 1832-1887, check the index  for the owner’s last name.

From 1887-1906, permits are grouped in the index under Permits and arranged by owner’s name.

From 1907-1950, the Permits are arranged by address.

Original permits from 1895 to present are on file at City Hall, Room 301.
BHM has 1832-1854 on microfilm and 1854-1996 in hard copy

BECPL has 1854-1996 in hard copy

Full list of owning libraries


Common Council Proceedings, 1861-62

Common Council Proceedings, 1991 to present
Buffalo Scrapbook Collection Mainly 20th century The Grosvenor Room has over 400 scrapbooks of newspaper articles about homes, houses of worship, hotels & taverns, schools, businesses, charities, major buildings, theaters, transportation, and prominent Buffalonians. The scrapbooks are indexed in the Local History File (see below). BECPL
Buffalo Theatres Prior to 1930 Up to 1930 This comprehensive 400 page manuscript is by theater historian Ranjit Sandhu. It documents every known place with a stage or screen built in Buffalo prior to 1930, with indexes by name and address. 
Web Version

BECPL has it in hard copy
Building Structure Inventory Forms
AKA "Blue Forms"
1970s to present About 3,000 buildings in Buffalo have been documented since the 1970s on what are informally known as Blue Forms. The best documented neighborhoods are Allentown, Hamlin Park, Broadway-Fillmore, Grant-Ferry- Forest, and Triangle. They may be seen by appointment by contacting the City of Buffalo Preservation Board Buffalo Preservation Board
Business Records Varies Studying business records is often the only way to conclusively identify clients, dates, and everything a firm designed. Most Buffalo architects have come and gone without their business records being saved. Try searching WorldCat with the architect's name in the Author field. Architectural Records at BHM

WorldCat
Churches Extant in 1995 In 1995, James Napora completed a thesis, Houses of Worship: A Guide to the Religious Architecture of Buffalo, New York, giving a short architectural history of every surviving church in the City of Buffalo.  He has graciously consented to allow pages to be reproduced online. Napora Thesis
Deeds & Ownership Records Approx. 1804 to present If you are researching a building that you do not own and/or do not have a title search for, all property transactions in Erie County are in the Erie County Clerk's office. Some records from 1808-1964 are now online.
These links are now at Delicious
Dissertations & Theses Mainly 20th century Many graduate students at UB and elsewhere have devoted their academic years to studying architects, buildings, styles & periods, neighborhoods, city planning, and urban history in Buffalo. UB has the largest collection of theses relevant to Buffalo. BHM

BECPL

Syracuse U.

UB Architecture & Planning Library
Federal & State Census Records 1810-1930 In years ending in zero (and some years ending in 5), federal & state census enumerators went door to door collecting demographic data on the members of every household in Erie County. Fortunately for architectural researchers, census records are arranged geographically (by address), so you do not need to know the name of an owner or occupant to find a specific building. Census research will narrow down when a house was built and identify who lived in it. All surviving census records are on microfilm and the federal ones are online at Ancestry.com. Online indexes rarely include addresses, however. BHM

BECPL

BSC

UB

Online Censuses
Frank Lloyd Wright and Darwin Martin Collection Early 20th century The correspondence, photographs, plans, and other documentation of Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House are preserved in the UB Archives. About 600 photos from this collection are online at UB and NewYorkHeritage.org.
BHM Wright Holdings

BECPL Wright Holdings

Darwin D. Martin Photograph Collection

Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) Varies About 50 local buildings have been carefully documented for HABS, many prior to demolition. The original reports are in the Library of Congress and are gradually being digitized. Historic American Buildings Survey for Buffalo, NY

Historic Resources Intensive Level Surveys

2003 to present
Five neighborhoods have been carefully surveyed to the level of individual buildings: Black Rock, Prospect Hill, Broadway-Fillmore, Triangle (South Park/Abbot Rd.), and Grant-Ferry-Forest, which stretches east almost to Emwood.  Includes photos.  
Buffalo Preservation Board

Historic Resource Surveys
Landmarks & Historic Districts NA Is your house or building a designated landmark? Is it in a preservation district or on the National Register? The links at the right show which properties and neighborhoods in Buffalo have which designations. The National Register Information Service is searchable by city/town or name of building. Landmarks in the City of Buffalo

Historic Districts in the City of Buffalo

National Register Properties in the CIty of Buffalo

National Register Information Service
Library Catalogs Updated continually WorldCat is one colossal database for thousands of libraries around the world. Try a keyword search on Buffalo and architecture. Or search on the names of local architects, "name" buildings, etc.  BHM

BECPL

WorldCat
Maps 19th to 20th century Street maps of Buffalo are useful for tracing how the city expanded and developed over time. By comparing older and newer maps, you can see when your neighborhood came into existence. See also Sanborn Maps. BHM

BECPL

Online Buffalo Maps

UB
New York State Historic Preservation Office Document Imaging
Varies This system provides downloadable PDF National Register nominations for thousands of properties across New York state. Users can look up historic buildings and sites within specific municipalities. Document Imaging
Newspapers and Newspaper Indexes Late 19th century to the present Newspaper indexes, whether in the form of pre-computer card files or online databases, are essential for finding articles about people, places, things, and events in Buffalo.  BECPL calls their newspaper index the Local History File. Buffalo newspapers from 1811 to the present are on microfilm.

The New York State Newspaper Project provides a comprehensive list of newspapers published in Erie County and who owns them. 
BHM

BECPL
 

Online Newspapers

NYS Newspaper Project

UB

Obituaries Early 19th century to the present When one exists, an obituary often provides a wealth of biographical information about the architect or former occupant of your building, including employer, interests, memberships, next of kin, and maybe a photograph. Obituaries and Death Notices in Buffalo, NY
Olmsted Parks 1869 to ca. 1925 Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons designed about 35 projects for Buffalo & Erie County, including public parks and private residences. To get a list, search the Olmsted Research Guide to the right by city/community. BHM

Olmsted Research Guide 
Periodical & Journal Articles Various years
Search on Buffalo at the National Trust Library Index to get citations for 100 articles about Buffalo buildings, neighborhoods, and preservation efforts. Most are from the Buffalo Preservation Report, the prize-winning newspaper of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County (now Preservation Buffalo NIagara).

Poole's lists articles from a variety of late 19th c. periodicals.

Google Books now has lots of American architectural journals online in full text.  We made a llist of as many as we could find.
Architecture journals at Google Books

Manufacturer & Builder, 1869-1894

National Trust Library Index

Poole's Index, 1882-1887

Poole's Index, 1887-1892
Photographs 1840 to present
Period photographs are invaluable for understanding a building's evolution over time. Unfortunately, there aren't surviving pictures of every single building in Buffalo. Interior pictures are especially rare.  BHM has the largest collection of Buffalo house pictures.  They are not digitized and must be viewed in person.
BHM Image Collections

BECPL Digital Projects

BSC

Vintage Buffalo Image Links
Sanborn Maps 1880-1990s Published roughly every 10 years, these oversized atlases were produced for fire insurance purposes. They diagram every city building and structure in great detail and are superb for studying the physical characteristics of existing and demolished buildings and structures.

Local libraries have Sanborns only for the City of Buffalo, not the towns or villages. The exception is BECPL and UB, which subscribe to the Digital Sanborn Maps, which includes all of New York state. 
BHM

BECPL

BSC

UB

Sanborn Maps: Who Owns Them

Using Fire Insurance Maps
Vertical Files (VF) Mainly 20th century Few Buffalo architects or buildings have had books written about them. That's where Vertical Files come in. They are collections of newspaper clippings, journal articles, brochures, and pamphlets about city planning, urban design, local architects, and major buildings & residences. BHM

BECPL

UB
Wills & Estate Papers 1800 to present This group of records falls into the Long Shot category. There are cases in which owners leave properties to their heirs, leaving a paper trial that helps document the existence and ownership of houses. These links are now at Delicious
Disclaimer: This table of sources and the institutions that own them should not be considered exhaustive. It reflects only what the webmaster has been able to verify at this time.
Other Relevant Links

These links have all been moved to Delicious.com.
This page is copyright 2000-2013 by Cynthia Van Ness, all rights reserved, and may not be copied and pasted anywhere without written permission. Last updated 29 June 2013.  Return to BuffaloResearch.com.


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