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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Summer 2000 > How to Read Your Old House

How to Read Your Old House

Patent dates on hardware indicate the earliest date a fixture could have been installed. However, as these dates could remain on a product for decades, throughout the term of the patent, the item could have been installed at a later date

Knowing when your house was built is only part of the story, and often not the most interesting part. You can learn more by reading the architecture just as you read the printed word. Design has style, structure, and a grammar of ornament. There is no single book that teaches this, but by observing evidence and searching out primary and secondary sources, you can begin to learn this language. Start with some basic research in court records on who owned the building and when it changed hands by sale or bequest. Physical alterations and additions often occur after a change of ownership or circumstances. Having this information provides a rough ouline to which you can add the data you collect through observation.

Develop familiarity with the evolution of architectural styles. Although style will not provide an exact date, it can be helpful in understanding the order of change over time. Look at the architectural details—molding profiles, color histories, door types. Stylistic differences, such as a Gothic window in a federal house, help trace alterations over time. Watch also for patches in materials that indicate where changes have been made—a doorway filled in, a staircase removed, patching in the plaster when a wall was demolished to convert two rooms to one. As you look closer, you will begin to observe the building materials themselves. Some materials were in use for long periods of time, others fell out of favor quickly, and some were not invented until a specific date. You may even find a written inscription left by a workman noting the date of a repair.

As you collect physical evidence, you will begin to record patterns of change over time. Compare this to the ownership outline you researched. Does the progression of changes coincide with the dates of new ownership? Does the style of the fancy parlor seem to date from about the time the sailor bought his own ship and became an import merchant? Does the oak fireplace mantel look like one in the Sears catalog of 1898?

It is unlikely that you will ever know everything about your house. Too much of the story is hidden beneath later layers or was removed by previous owners. We do not recommend "excavating" your building just to search for these clues, but we do urge you to record the information as you go about living in, observing and working on your house. Each new chapter you discover adds to the stories you can tell. You are learning to read architecture; you are writing the book of your house’s history.

—Michael F. Lynch, Vice President for Properties & Preservation

Recommended reading

Cyril M Harris. American Architecture. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

Barbara J. Howe, Dolores A. Fleming, Emory L. Kemp, Ruth Ann Overbeck. Houses and Homes, Exploring Their History. AASLH Book Series. Walnut Creek, AltaMira Press, 1997.

Richard C. Nylander, Elizabeth Redmond, and Penny J. Sander. Wallpaper in New England. Boston: SPNEA, 1985

Steven J. Phillips. Old House Dictionary. Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1994.

These books may be ordered from SPNEA by calling (617) 570-9105, ext. 227, or online at

In addition, you will find useful articles on old kitchens, bathrooms, and lighting fixtures in the magazines Old-House Journal and Old-House

How to Read Your Old House