We recently had the opportunity to meet a couple of our new neighbors and chat about the neighborhood. One gentleman, who has lived in his house forever, could not understand why we “young” people wanted to live in an old house.
Old houses have always appealed to me. They are living history and if they are old enough, you can imagine the ghosts of the previous inhabitants wandering within the walls. We decided to find out as much about the history of our house as we could.
First stop: Municipal Archives
We learned from a friend’s renovation blog, Gowanhaus, that during the 1940s, NYC began to use photography as a tool for appraising real property for taxation purposes. Over 720,000 35mm black-and-white pictures were taken of every building in the five boroughs. According to the government website, by the time the Municipal Archives accessioned the collection, the original nitrate negatives had begun to deteriorate and exhibit signs of “redox” blemishes (which look like giant snowflakes). With grant funds from federal, state, and private sources, the Archives duplicated the original negatives so that new prints could be produced and copied to microfilm so that patrons can easily and safely view the entire collection. The end result is that you can now order a print of your building taken in the 1940’s or the 1980’s at a cost of $35 to $60 per print.
We ordered our photo online and opted to pick it up at the records office ourselves. This turned out to be a great choice because the Surrogate Court building, where the municipal archives are located, is something to see. The building, located at 31 Chambers Street, was originally designed for use as a Hall of Records and this was its original name. The Surrogate’s Court was one of the original tenants, with courtrooms, offices and chambers on the 5th floor. The building was renamed the Surrogate’s Courthouse in 1962.
According to the government website, the building was constructed between the years 1899-1907 in the Beax-Arts style. It has a beautiful grand marble staircase and carved wood paneling. The building must be quite an expense to keep up as evidenced by the fact that all the doors have these beautifully detailed door knobs but most have one handle missing. I guess Victorian brass door knobs are not that easy to come by.
The tax photo from the 40′s (below left) shows the house looking very much the same as it does today. The brick facade and the window style looks the same but the double door was replaced sometime before the 80′s (below middle) to the single wooden door it has today (below right). When funds permit, we’d like to go back to the double door style. The frieze looks exactly the same and is still in great condition.