Researching Old Somerville Homes

Researching Homes

The following are some great sources for researching your old Somerville home.
See also Researching your Historic Home at the Registry of Deeds

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 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. 617 679-6310. M-F 8-6, Sat. 8-12.

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 Registry of Probate (across the street from the Registry of Deeds) 617 679-6310. M-F 8-4.

Building Permits

Somerville Building Permits are located at the Inspectional Services Department in the Department of Public Works Building at 1 Franey Road. Inspectional Services 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. Office Hours: M-F 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Best hours to visit—10 a.m.-3 p.m

In the Library
The Somerville Public Library has numerous resources—maps, city directories, architectural guides—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.

Library Primary Sources:

Maps and Atlases in the Map Case at the SPL:

Somerville Map, 1852. Notes prominent topographical features and buildings (e.g., McLean Asylum, American Tube Works).

Atlas of the City of Somerville, 1874 & 1884.Contains outlines of individual properties and specifies owners. .

Zoning and Ward Maps, 1925 to present. Determining which city ward your house was in is a perquisite for using city directories in your research.

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.

City Directories. 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.

Library Secondary Sources. Secondary sources provide interpretations or descriptions of primary sources.

Historic District Listings, Somerville Historic Commission. 
Available at the Reference Desk. 
Lists the original owners and building date of registered historic houses.

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. The copies at the reference desk and in the local history room may be consulted in the library. Circulating copies are kept with books on Massachusetts history in the reference room balcony.

A Field Guide to American Architecture. Carole Rifkind. New American Library, 1980. 
Call Number: 720.973 RI

A Field Guide to American Houses. Virginia and Lee McAlester. New York: Knopf, 1984 
Call Number: 728 MC

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

The previous four introductory guides to American architecture explain the distinguishing characteristics of different architectural styles, which can help date the construction of a house.