Updated April 2022
Many Somerville homes have rich and varied histories, but unearthing those histories often requires quite a bit of research. The tips and resources below will help you get started.
Word of Mouth
The first step should always be to talk to your neighbors. Ask them if they know anything about the history of your house or neighborhood. If possible, talk to previous owners. Any information you can glean from others will make your research easier.
Primary Sources: City and County Government
Primary sources are firsthand records of events—such as government documents, business records, or manuscripts
Deeds. Deeds describe a property, state its worth, and name the owner. The current deed should also include the deed book number and page number of the previous owner's deed. Ideally you should be able to trace a chain of ownership back to the construction of the house. Deeds for Somerville properties are held at the Middlesex Registry of Deeds, 208 Cambridge Street in East Cambridge. Telephone (617) 679-6300. M-F 8am - 3:45pm. However, many Somerville deeds are available online at the Registry’s database.
Wills and Probate Records. Probate records are the records created for the public supervision of an individual's property upon his death. Probate records usually include wills and an inventory of the deceased's estate. Somerville probate records are filed at the Middlesex Probate and Family Court South, located at 10-U Commerce Way in Woburn. Telephone (781) 865-4000. Hours: M-F 8:00am - 4:30pm. However, many historic probate records are available online. Instructions for locating them are at this guide to court archives and other online resources.
- Building Permits. Somerville's Inspectional Services Department has original building permits from 1895 to the present, as well as “jacket files” (records of home repairs and alterations) from 1940 to the present. The office is located at 1 Franey Road, and hours of operation are M-W 8am-4pm, Thursdays 8am-7pm, Fridays 8am-12pm. The service window closes 15 minutes before the office.
Primary Sources in the Library and Online
The Somerville Public Library has numerous resources that can teach you about the history of your neighborhood, find out who lived in your house before you, and possibly identify when it was built.
Maps and Atlases. Links to online copies appear where available:
- Somerville Map, 1852. Notes prominent topographical features and buildings (e.g., McLean Asylum, American Tube Works). Located in map case, Wellington Hall.
- Atlas of the City of Somerville, 1874 and 1884. Contains outlines of individual properties and specifies owners. Located in Local History Room.
- Atlas of the City of Somerville, 1895.
- Zoning and Ward Maps, 1925 to present. Determining which city ward your house was in is a prerequisite for using city directories in your research. Ask at the reference desk.
- Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, 1900 & 1933/1934, 1934-1950. Sanborn Fire Insurance maps were made as a resource to assess fire risk for buildings. Thus they outline individual structures and color code them brick, stone and wood exteriors. Sanborn maps of Somerville may also be accessed here by scrolling down the alphabetical list of databases until you get to Digital Sanborn Maps of Massachusetts, 1867-1971. Note: you will need a Minuteman library card to access this resource.
City Directories on paper or microfilm. Lists of town residents and their addresses are kept in the Local History Room.
- Charlestown City Directories (1834-1874). Microfilm Cabinet. Until 1842 Somerville was officially part of Charlestown.
- Somerville City Directories (1851-1933, 1939-present), organized by name from 1851-1933. Organized by ward, precinct and address from 1939 to the present.
Somerville City Directories available online:
Secondary Sources in the Library and Online
Secondary sources provide interpretations or descriptions of primary sources.
- City of Somerville Historic Districts. Somerville, MA: Somerville Historic Commission, [200u]. Call number: LOCAL HISTORY 974.44 HI (2 vols.)
Lists the original owners and building date of registered historic houses.
These three introductory guides to American architecture explain the distinguishing characteristics of different architectural styles, which can help date the construction of a house.
- Beyond the Neck: the Architecture and Development of Somerville, Massachusetts. Somerville, MA : Landscape Research, 1990. Call number: 974.44 ZE. Recounts the history and growth of Somerville. Includes numerous photographs, maps, and descriptions of architectural styles. Copies for in-house use are available at the Reference Desk and in the Local History Room. Circulating copies are shelved in Wellington Hall.
- How Old is this House? A Skeleton Key to Dating and Identifying Three Centuries of American Houses. Hugh Howard for Home Renovation Associates. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1989. Call Number: 728.028
- Identifying American Architecture: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms, 1600-1945. John G. Blumenson. Norton, 1981. Call Number: 720.973 BL
See also: Researching your Historic Home at the Registry of Deeds