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House History Research at The New York Public Library: PHOTOGRAPHS

A Brief Guide to Researching the History of Your NYC Home

IMAGES OF BUILDINGS AT THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

PHOTOGRAPHS OF BUILDINGS IN NYPL DIGITAL COLLECTIONS

Milstein Division collections include over 200,000 photographic images, the largest of which is Photographic Views of New York City, accessible online via NYPL Digital Collections website, where you'll also find digitized historical property maps. The bulk of the photographs in this collection were taken between 1910 and 1940, but some are from as late as the 1970s. You can search for an image of a building by entering the street name and a cross street, then browsing for your building.

You can also search images of buildings from NYPL collections using OldNYC: Mapping Historical Photographs of Old New York City.

MICROFILM COLLECTIONS

The Milstein Division has a number of smaller, not yet digitized collections, images either reproduced in pictorial histories (i.e. books, arranged on card catalogs), or on microfilm, such as the Acker collection. This collection is the work of a professional real estate photographer, mostly taken during the 1930s and 40s, and includes both interior and exterior shots of buildings. Ask for this collection at the Reference Desk in the Milstein Division, Room 121. 

MILSTEIN DIVISION COLLECTIONS AND VISUAL EPHEMERA

Includes thousands of postcards, clippings files, and various ephemera that can be used in building research.

Contact history@nypl.org for further advice.

MILSTEIN DIVISION CLIPPINGS COLLECTION

This is a large collection of newspaper clippings, pamphlets, images, and other random material on New York City topics arranged by subject. Sometimes you’ll find lots of useful information, sometimes not, but it’s always worth checking. Request these files at the reference desk in the Milstein Division, by neighborhood name, street name, or other subject.

NYPL Picture Collection

The New York Public Library’s Picture Collection provides 1.5 million circulating images clipped from books and magazines across 12,000 subject headings, from clothing and dress to military battles to insects. The collection also features extensive holdings of prints, photographs, vintage postcards, and greeting cards, and around 150,000 non-circulating reference images from the early 1900s and prior.

A very brief sample of subject headings of use to people researching buildings in NYC might include:

  • Abandoned buildings & towns
  • Farm buildings
  • Interiors — Living room
  • New York City — [street name, e.g. Broad Street]
  • New York City — Tenements
  • New York City–Apartment houses
  • Houses — Row

See the NYPL Picture Collections extensive list of Subject Headings to get an idea of the different types of images available.

Above: Manhattan: 6th Avenue - Waverly Place / Percy Loomis Sperr (1936) : showing 385 Avenue of the America's, the former 77 Sixth Avenue (NYPL Digital Collections)

OTHER COLLECTIONS

Tax Lot Photographs: Desperate to find a historical picture of your NYC home? Then there very likely is one. Between 1939 and 1941, as a means to assess real property for tax purposes, the city took photographs of every building in NYC's five boroughs, producing 720,000 black and white images. These can be accessed online at the New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery. Your building, provided it was standing during this period, should be there - use the block and lot number to find it.

For further information on NYC tax lot photographs, see  Tax Records and Time Machines: The Property Cards of the Municipal Archives / Kelli O'Toole.

You can also search by address using 1940s.nyc, a tool that has mapped the photographs.

A similar exercise took place between 1983 and 1988, this time producing 800,000 color photographs. Note, the microfilm quality of the images to view onsite at the archive is fairly bad, but you can order prints for a fee that are very good quality. You can search for tax lot photos of NYC taken in the 1980s using - you guessed it - a map, at the site 80S.NYC: Street Views of 1980s New York City.

The Museum of the City of New York's Collections Portal is an excellent source of digitized images of New York City, as is the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online collection.