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Looking up a home's history

This six-bedroom, 1878 Victorian in Garden City is

This six-bedroom, 1878 Victorian in Garden City is registered with the Nassau County Film Group and has been featured in Cosmopolitan fashion spreads, an independent film entitled "Mo" and the Biography channel's "Celebrity Ghost Stories." Photo Credit: Handout

Its secrets may be scary, sordid or sweet, but its story is as singular as a snowflake. Every home has a tale to tell - if you know how to read the clues.

Of course, some homes have stories so infamous you can't help but know every detail. The site of six murders and purported ghostly goings-on that inspired the "Amityville Horror" book and films springs to mind. But most homes have pasts that haven't made the movies and are harder to track down.

Whether you want to avoid getting spooked, have a passion for period details or just love a good war story or romance, there are lots of resources that can help you trace your home's history. First, define what you want to know," advises Candace Hamilton of the Northport Historical Society. "Do you only want to know when the house was built? Or do you want to know who lived there and what they were all about? That can take you in another direction."

Hamilton is the exhibit committee chairwoman of "If Our Houses Could Talk," the show at the Northport Historical Society that illustrates the process of tracing a home's history. She and others offer the following tips:

1. Begin at home


"Start with looking around the house, at the structure, the architectural style, built-ins that are obvious, like wide-plank floors or beams," suggests Hamilton. "Look around at what your house actually says to you."

The shape and orientation of the home can frequently offer clues, says Linda Conron of the Sayville Historical Society. "Very early homes - the Colonial era and Early Republic period when the nation was first independent - those homes were typically oriented so they would get the most southern exposure and light," she says. "People were more aware of the difficulty of heating with wood or coal."

The size of the home can tell you about the period it was built and the wealth of those who dwelled there. "Very early homes were typically small, more of a Cape Cod-style, from the 1700s," Conron says. "Some of them, the more formal, richer families, would have a center-hall Colonial." Houses built later sometimes tried to replicate the look, but historic homes have details you won't find in newer ones. "If they have old windows, meaning small panes and wavy glass . . . and old shingles . . . those are historic, truly old, early homes."

2. Dig for treasure


"What are you finding when you dig outside in the garden?" asks Hamilton. It's not uncommon to unearth pottery shards, glass and little bottles, she says. "Sometimes you dig up even bigger things, tools and kitchen implements." These can provide clues to the lifestyle of those who lived there before - but sometimes they're hard for a layman to recognize or authenticate. "The easiest things for dating can be coins," because the date will be engraved on them, she says.

3. Listen to local lore


Your local library may have a collection of oral histories. But sometimes you can strike gold by chatting up previous owners or neighbors, who may have old photos or stories.

That's what happened when Peggie Como, a real estate office manager, bought her 1898 Victorian in Sea Cliff 21 years ago. At the closing, the seller gave her Victorian-era photos of the place and told the story of how he got them: An upstate New York woman appeared on his doorstep one day, having tracked down the house with nothing to go on but the photos and memories of her grandmother talking about a house in Sea Cliff.

"My grandmother used to live here," the woman told the owner. She insisted he keep the photos, which depict her grandmother as a child sitting on the porch in Victorian garb. "I feel you should have them because they belong with the house," she said. The owner honored her wishes and passed them on to the Comos when they bought the place - and they've vowed to do the same when they sell it.

And Donna and Chris Geiger of Northport had heard their house was once in a magazine, but didn't know how to find out more. They caught a lucky break when a visitor recognized the place - and days later returned with a 1948 issue from her collection of Ladies Home Journals with a picture of a familiar home interior. "It was our house!" says Donna. Well, almost: The page, which the Geigers have framed and hung in their living room, was an ad for Armstrong Floors. It included an address for readers who wanted a copy of the floor plans - apparently the very plans that were used to build the Geigers' home in 1949.

4. Delve into the records


Your local historical society may have an inventory of historical homes in the area. "In 1978, New York State sponsored a survey of potentially historic properties," says Hamilton. "Stop at your local historical society and check out that survey." But you can also research homes that aren't historic properties. "We have maps and atlases that are very helpful," says Myrna Sloam, archivist for Bryant Library in Roslyn. The so-called Sanborn fire insurance maps are the most used because they show properties and owners, she says. The maps, which were printed from the 1880s to the 1930s and '40s, have been digitized, Sloam says. "The Bryant Library has subscribed to that, so you can get whatever Sanborn had done for New York State," she says.

Your next stop is the town. "At the town assessor's office, they have lists of previous owners," Hamilton says. "And the building department has a work history on the house." But building permits only became a requirement in the 1930s. If you're really obsessed, you can travel further back in time by taking a trip to your county clerk's office. Visit the records room, where you'll find huge books of old deeds.

5. Follow the gossip


Once you have some names and dates, you can dig into the personal histories surrounding the home by searching old newspapers. "Older newspapers recorded a lot more detail than they would nowadays," says Karen Martin, archivist for the Three Village Historical Society. They may have written about club meetings the former owners attended, fundraisers they organized or additions they built on the house. And sometimes there are juicier items.

"There can be lawsuits," Conron says. "Occasionally, you can find scandalous things. I remember one incident where I was researching a home from between 1900 and 1920 . . . and it turns out the husband left, supposedly to do work in upstate New York, and they discovered that he had taken a second wife."

Suffolk County has a historic newspaper project that's available through the libraries, Conron says. The program, called Live-brary, allows users to search the newspapers online. Sloam says there is not yet a similar service in Nassau County. "What we do have in our collection in Roslyn is a clipping file," says Sloam. "This is archived by subject, and there is a section of biographies of anyone who might have shown up in the local newspapers."

Newspapers are also a good place to look for past crimes. Use the library to track down things that happened long ago, or view a map of more recent crimes on the Long Island Crime and Police Reports page at



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