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Art & Art History

Art images and resources for many topics, including American Art, Medieval Art, Modern Art, Renaissance and Baroque Art, Scandinavian Art, and Women Artists

So You Want to Research a Local Building!

Follow the steps outlined here to track down the exact location of your building, along with the date it was built, the architect or builder, and other serendipitous information, like who lived there. Here are some big-picture guides to get you started. You should also take a look at the Designed Environment page for suggested books, journals, and other resources on local architectural history.

What About an Augsburg Building?

Augsburg's original Old Main in 1872 If you've chosen an Augsburg building as the focus of a project, that's wonderful!

You can use all the resources on this page ― but here are a few more Augsburg-specific ideas.

  • Street addresses change over the years. Buildings get torn down, and the new ones built on their site may not have the same number. Furthermore, even street names aren't set in stone; on some early maps of Minneapolis, what we call 22nd Avenue South is “Elm Street.” So you might have to do some extra plat-map searching in the Augsburg blocks to find the right street address to plug into your building-permit search. For Augsburg buildings that are still with us, look at the campus map at http://www.augsburg.edu/about/map/ , and scroll down for addresses, e.g. "720 22nd Ave South" for Christensen Center. For those that have been demolished (and maybe replaced by new buildings), you will have to dig around a bit.
  • For Augsburg as for other institutions, the city's Building Permit Index Cards (see below) can be somewhat, let's say, chaotic. Rather than maintaining a separate index card for each address, it is the practice to jumble all the campus buildings together on a single card, but not consistently. Persevere and you will eventually be rewarded.
  • When it comes to images, the Augsburg Archives is a treasure-trove for online photographs of campus buildings. Go to the Archives’ Buildings page to search for downloadable images by building name, from Anderson Music Hall (built in 1978) to West Hall (built in 1874, torn down in 1948).

“Sepia Photograph of Old Main (1872–1848), circa 1872.”
Augsburg University Archives. https://archives.augsburg.edu/buildings

1. Nail Down the Address

Human beings have devised many ways over the years of describing where exactly, on the globe that is Planet Earth, a building is located. One of them is a street address; another is a so-called “legal address,” with a Property Identification Number that pinpoints the lot, block, and area. When you look up a building permit in Step 2, just knowing “the Smith house” or “Memorial Hall” is not going to cut it. These resources will help you get what you need.

2. Look Up the Building Permit

Permit card that includes Old Main construction

One of the Building Permit Index Cards for the Augsburg campus, showing the building permit pulled in 1901 for the construction of Old Main: permit number B-47979.
From the Hennepin County Library Digital Collections.

If it was built in Minneapolis after 1884, or in Saint Paul after 1883, there's a permit for it on file with a lot of information on it you can use to create a building history. Every time a building was constructed, plumbed, plastered, electrified, or demolished, the contractor or owner had to pull a permit and pay the city to inspect the work. Those permits were saved, and you can see them ― after a bit of digging.

What's the Code?

Here is the full list for interpreting codes in the Minneapolis permits. Look especially for "B" (building, i.e. construction), "I" (demolition), and "E" (moving ― yes, houses were routinely moved from one address to another up to the early part of the 20th century, and sometimes even later).

  • A – Building Permits (within the city's "Fire Zone")
  • B – Building Permits (outside the city's "Fire Zone")
  • C – Elevator
  • D – Plumbing
  • E – Moving
  • F – Electric
  • G – Steam & Hot Water
  • H – Signs
  • I – Wrecking
  • J – Billboards
  • K – Plastering
  • L – Lathing
  • M – Gas Burner
  • N – Oil Burner
  • O – Stokers
  • P – Mechanical Warm Air (Forced Air)
  • Q – Gravity Warm Air
  • X – Street Use

3. Find a Newspaper Report

One great strategy to sort out building use is to search by address ― or building name, if you have it ― in old local newspapers. Buildings deemed important at the time will often have their groundbreaking or completion chronicled in the news; small-town or neighborhood papers might do the same for houses. They might also report when a new store opens, or there's a fire on the site, or some other building-changing event. It is not always easy to get digital access to newspapers published before the 1990s, but here are some places to start.

Is Your Building a Landmark?

Getting on the state or national Historic Register is a big deal for a building ― kind of like an architectural Academy Awards. If your building has been so designated, there is a wealth of information available to you about its history and design. These sites open the doors to that information.

4. Find Historic Images

Photograph of Cedar Avenue in 1979

Hall, Henry Benbrooke. 1979. “Cedar Avenue Near Riverside.”
Minnesota Historical Society. https://search.mnhs.org/

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a historic photograph of your building will save you a lot of writing. Searching at the sites below can yield images of thousands of buildings, including ordinary houses, that you can use in your paper or presentation. Note that many of these pictures are under copyright; to access high-quality digital images from the Minnesota Historical Society, for example, you need to purchase them. (For more about looking for pictures, see our Finding Images page; for documenting them, see Citation Help for Images.)

5. Research Residents, Architects, Builders

Finding out who lived in your building, or what businesses occupied it over the years, is half the fun! Dig deeper into the story, including more about the people who designed and/or built it, with these links.

Residents and Builders

Historic city directories, published yearly, are organized both by address and by residents' names. Look up your property's address to find out who lived there in a particular year, and what they did for a living. Or, if you know the name of your builder or architect, look them up and find out where they lived and worked.

Architects

Minnesota architects get their due at these sites.

Other Historical Information

State and county historical societies publish magazines that often feature buildings and the people who created them.

6. Create Your Project

The rest is up to you!