How to Research the Story of a House

In Knoxville History by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

Sanborn Fire Insurance map ca. 1903. Detail of Knoxville District 1. Courtesy of the University of Tennessee

Sanborn Fire Insurance map ca. 1903.
Detail of Knoxville District 1.

You still have time to consider an inexpensive and unusual Christmas gift for a close friend or relative who lives in an old house. Surprise them with a history of their home! It’s easier than you may think.

You can spend months on a project, but you can also turn up a lot in just a few hours at the library. Here are some basics:

Houses in the city, especially in the older parts of the city, are easier to research, because there are more old records. But there are some things to be careful about, partly because addresses have occasionally changed over the years.

There are two main ways to do house research. One is to go to the Register of Deeds, at the City County Building, or for long-ago deeds (before World War II) the Knox County Archives, on the second floor of the East Tennessee History Center. Deed research is complicated, and you will need the assistance of a clerk. And it will only tell you who owned the property, not necessarily who lived there.

Another kind of research, involving city directories, is easier and, depending on what you’re looking for, often more interesting. Start with the house’s current address. Take it to the Calvin M. McClung Collection, on the third floor of the History Center at Gay Street and Clinch Avenue. At McClung are city directories, both in bound form and on microfilm. City directories are not the same thing as phone books. Published occasionally beginning in 1859, and more regularly after 1890, city directories include lists of people by last name, and lists of addresses by street.

To be sure you don’t get tripped up by a house that had its address changed, start with familiar recent years, and work backwards. Write down each name. Before you put the volume away, look up that name in the People section. It will usually tell you what that person did for a living. It often mentions their employer’s name, which you can look up in the same list, to see where they worked, and often other information about their job. (McClung also has vertical subject files on most employers of the last 100 years or more, and can help you learn a great deal about local businesses.)

As you work backwards in the city directories, if you come to a year when your address is missing and everything seems wrong, it may be a year when the addresses changed. Some older neighborhoods changed their addresses in the early 1950s. Others, including downtown, stayed exactly the same. By looking at cross streets and patterns of where neighbors lived, you can usually figure out what the previous address was. As you go further back, use that one.

After just a couple of hours you should have a list of residents and some basic information about each resident. Now take those names and ask to see the biographical files for those residents. They’ll give you an envelope with something about many people who had the same last name. Most are just short obituaries, but the biographical files may also include some news stories and long feature profiles. If your person lived here in the last 75 years or so, you’ll probably find something. Before that, the chances are probably less than 50-50, but it’s still worth checking.

Also, ask a librarian to help find census records, or death certificates. They’ll help you know how old your resident was, what was their cause of death, and what was their date of death. Date of death is very important, because it allows you to look up news stories that might not have gotten into the biographical files.

Sanborn Fire Insurance maps offer a surprising degree of detail about houses, with schematic drawings, and coded information about individual houses, especially between 1880 and 1940. They can offer information about construction materials, outbuildings, interior changes, neighboring edifices, etc.

The McClung Collection has most 18th and 19th century newspapers on microfilm, as well as some later ones. Lawson McGhee Library, on the third floor, offers an almost complete collection of both daily papers since the 1880s. It’s a better place to do 20th-century newspaper research.

Once you have those basic details, ask a librarian for more ideas. Also consider the neighbors, and what was going on near the home at various times. A full history of a house is often as interesting as a good novel.

At least once a year, Knox Heritage offers free workshops on house research. Check their website at

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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