To start researching the history of a building in New York City, it's helpful to have 3 pieces of information about it.
Often this information may be found online, in databases, and digitized property maps.
DEPARTMENT OF BUILDINGS: BUILDINGS INFORMATION SYSTEM (BIS)
Department of Buildings Building Information System: The NYC Department of Buildings address searchable database Building Information System (BIS) is where you should begin your building research. Searching by current address, you can pull up your building's Property Profile Overview, that includes:
NYCityMap: An alternative starting point is the NYCityMap portal, a digital information hub in the form of a map, that also links to BIS. Here you will find information pertaining to current building ownership, basic building history details, the building's Block & Lot number, and a wealth of information pertaining to the building's structure, and to the community it is located in. This database covers the five boroughs of New York City. NB, the date of the building's construction listed in both BIS and NYCityMap, may be an estimate: the entry might say 1920, but your building could be older.
Historical fire insurance maps will describe a building's location, construction materials, and use over a period of time, as well as the names of some businesses, factories, churches, and the boundaries of former farmland — useful if you're going right back in time. Visit The New York Public Library's Map Division to look at these and other maps, or consult them digitally, via the Map Division's collections of Fire Insurance, Topographic, Zoning, and Property Maps of New York City. In addition to NYPL's collections, Queens Library, Brooklyn Public Library's Center for Brooklyn History, and the New-York Historical Society all have extensive map collections that describe the built environment in New York City.
Often included in fire insurance maps is a building's historical
For fire insurance maps outside of NYC, see the Library of Congress map collections online, below.
More about maps...
Navigating Research at the Map Division research guide, for more information on how to search for maps at NYPL.
Using Maps for Genealogy Research - includes detailed description of the history and uses of fire insurance maps since they were first published, in New York City in the 1850s, as well descriptions of historical auction maps, cadastral maps, and topographical maps, all invaluable sources of information when conducting building research.
Walking with your ancestors: A Genealogist's Guide to Using Maps and Geography by Melinda Kashuba (2005)
Above: Example of Sanborn map key. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.
Above: The NYC Department of Buildings Buildings Information System Property Profile Overview for 385 Avenue of the Americas, aka The Waverly Diner. Accessed 2020. Included in the profile is the following information that can be used to find more records: