Information sources at the Tacoma Public Library's Northwest Room
The City of Destiny has also long been known as the City of Fine Homes. An abundance of these fine homes survive today; from grand mansions of the 1880s, simple but elegant bungalows of the 1910's, to Spanish Mission stucco houses of the 1920s. According to U.S. census figures, nearly 50% of Tacoma’s homes were built before World War Two.
So how do you discover the history of your house? Can you determine who built it, and when and why? Although you may not find an old photograph of your house, and the chances of locating architectural plans are slight, many facts can be uncovered. The following sources can lead you to answers. Most sources listed are available at the Tacoma Public Library's Northwest Room.
Tacoma/Pierce County Buildings Index
This comprehensive source indexes home construction news in Tacoma newspapers from 1883 through 1941. Look up your address to see if your house received newspaper coverage during its construction. It will list the architect, contractor and building style for your address, if known. It will indicate if architectural plans for your house are known to exist. It indexes the Tacoma Public Library photography collections for photographs of Tacoma homes. It may even reveal a murder, suicide, party, wedding or other “event” that took place in your house. The Tacoma/Pierce County Buildings Index also indexes over 200 books related to Tacoma architecture or history. Nearly 30,000 addresses are covered. Information on more than 37,500 homes and buildings in Tacoma and Pierce County is now available online. Go to the Tacoma/Pierce County Buildings Index.
Tacoma Cultural Resource Survey
The City of Tacoma’s Historic Preservation Department surveyed Tacoma’s neighborhoods for historic properties in 1982. Look up your address for a listing. A separate survey of the Hilltop neighborhood was completed in 1993.
Tacoma City Directories
R.L. Polk’s city directories list the residents of your house. Occupations are also usually listed. The first directory was published in 1885. Spouses are listed starting in 1911. Cross-referencing by address started in 1928. The Keystone of Tacoma, by W. Burton Eidsmoe, cross-references early city directories by address for the Stadium-Seminary district. Society Blue Books and farmers’ directories are also available.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
Sanborn Maps outline structures block by block for most of the city. Maps exist for 1885, 1888, 1892, 1896, 1912 and 1950. Consulting maps for different years may reveal additions or remodeling that took place. You may also discover that your house previously went by a different address. Early road maps, lithographic maps, Metsker’s 1926 Tacoma Atlas and Pierce County plat maps are also important sources.
Real Estate Records
Deeds, mortgages and other real estate records can be searched at the Pierce County Auditor’s office (Pierce County Annex, Room 200, 2401 So. 35th St., Tacoma). These records generally refer more to the property, rather than the house itself. Your title insurance company may provide you with a “chain of title” at little or no cost. The TRW Real Estate Information Services microfiche is also available at the Tacoma Public Library. Available through 2004, it lists an approximate building date for most of the houses within Pierce County.
Early building permits for the City of Tacoma are no longer in existence. The City of Tacoma Building and Land Use Department can provide some information, however, including remodeling and inspection dates. Plans may be available for commercial structures. (Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 Market St., 3rd floor permit counter, 591-5030).
Architectural styles and construction techniques
Do you live in a California bungalow, a Queen Anne cottage or perhaps a Cape Cod Colonial? Architectural styles and construction techniques change from year to year. A physical analysis of your house may reveal the approximate time period of its construction. It may indicate if it was designed by a local architect, built from “pattern book” plans or constructed in a series of additions. Keep in mind that there are many variations within a style, that many American homes are eclectic in nature, being a mix of several styles, and that some houses simply defy categorizing. Several excellent guides to American architecture are available at the Tacoma Public Library including, Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia McAlester.
Obituaries, Wills and Census Reports
A home is more than bricks, wood or mortar. Who were the people that lived in your house? What brought them to Tacoma? Consult the Northwest People File at the Tacoma Public Library for obituaries and general news articles on local individuals and companies. U.S. census schedules for Washington State are available from 1860 to 1920. Wills and probate records are on file at the Pierce County Clerk’s office located in the County-City Building, 930 Tacoma Ave. So., Tacoma.
Your home’s architect or contractor may also be listed in the Northwest People File (at the downtown Main Library). What other buildings did they design in Tacoma? What was their training? How prominent was their practice? Were they known for a particular style?
Neighbors and relatives
Long-time residents of your area may have memories of your house, perhaps even facts that are not in the “written record”. Relatives of former occupants can sometimes be located from obituary listings. They may even be willing to share old photographs of your house with you. Oral histories can provide real “color” to the story of your house, but the frailties of human memory should be taken into account.
County, City, and Neighborhood History
Studying the history of your street, your neighborhood and your city will help “flesh out” the story of your home. Was it built during a war-time housing boom or financed by the F.H.A. during the Great Depression? Was it built near a new street car line? What schools and churches did local residents attend? Were all the houses on your street built at the same time?
The Tacoma Neighborhoods Index
A guide to information about greater Tacoma area neighborhoods, subdivisions, additions and housing projects. Important histories of our area include: History of Pierce County by W.P. Bonney, Tacoma; Its History and Its Builders by Herbert Hunt and South on the Sound by Murray Morgan.
Street scenes, aerial views, and other photographs are an invaluable source for neighborhood history. The Tacoma Public Library and the Washington State Historical Society hold wonderful and expansive historic photograph collections. You can search our online Photography Collection for images of your neighborhood. Many more images are available at the Main Library in the Northwest Room photography collections.
Tacoma Register of Historic Places
The Landmarks Preservation Commission works to preserve Tacoma’s historic sites. Currently, two districts and sixty-three individual properties have been placed on the local register. If your house is at least fifty years old with most of its original architectural details intact, or if it was connected with a major historical figure or event, consider nominating it for the Tacoma Register of Historic Places. Besides the honor and pride of preserving a piece of Tacoma history, your house may be eligible for certain property tax credits or federal income tax rebates. For information on Tacoma Register properties, and on how to apply for city, state and national registers contact: City of Tacoma Historic Preservation Officer, Department of Cultural Resources (Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 Market St., (253) 591-5220).
Last Updated 20.07.2005