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How Do I Dig Up My Building’s Past?

“It’s much easier than it used to be,” especially for those who don’t feel like riffling through dusty archives, says Matthew Postal, an architectural historian. Casual researchers should start with—a site that’s obviously better known for helping people track their genealogy—which actually allows you to search Census records dating back to 1940 by address and provides the names of those associated with your home. (A free subscription gives you limited access to records; a one-month membership costs $19.99; $99 for six months.) If you’re up for a little extra digging, start with the Buildings Information System at the Department of Buildings website. There you’ll find complaints and permits filed for your building going back decades and certificates of occupancy that detail what your address was initially built for (commercial, residential, or industrial) and its original configuration. You’ll also find your property’s tax block and lot number via BIS, which you can then use to access more info through the Automated City Register Information System, a database of property records. An ACRIS search will turn up the names of former owners and how much they paid for the apartment (or how much they borrowed). Fill in the rest of the blanks with the New York Public Library’s exhaustive guide to property research; its Milstein Division—filled with maps, Census data, city directories, photographs—is a gold mine for nosy neighbors. Postal also suggests, a site that allows you to search your address within thousands of vintage New York newspapers—some dating back to the 1800s.

Are homes with histories more valuable?
First off, asks Jonathan Miller, president of appraisal firm Miller Samuel, “just how historic is the property in question?” An apartment with a solid provenance—it’s mentioned in numerous biographies, for example, or has a plaque denoting its historical-landmark status—is on firmer ground as a pedigreed property than one that is only rumored to be. (It’s similar to establishing the value of an antique.) Also, it matters just who exactly lived there: A national treasure like Alexander Hamilton or Jacqueline Kennedy carries more weight than, say, Justin Timberlake or Russell Brand. “I’m very skeptical of a celebrity premium,” says Miller. But even the most alluring backstory doesn’t always translate to a price advantage. Instead, a property’s history is most helpful in just getting buyers through the door—thanks to shout-outs on Curbed, for example, or in this magazine. “It is easier to market than a similar apartment next door,” says Miller. If the building in question does fetch more than a comparable property—a likely scenario in a tight real-estate market where properties with any distinction are worth more—the difference would be modest, he says. There’s no rigid formula, but a 5 to 10 percent advantage seems about right. Most important, though, is condition. “Property limitations overwhelm” any sense of specialness that can be derived from a structure’s past, Miller says. As for homes that have become notorious owing to tragic circumstances (say, a famous murder or overdose), their values can take a hit immediately after the event. Wait a few years, though—maybe longer if the situation is particularly gruesome—and their prices won’t likely reflect any disadvantage, as with the case of an East Seventies townhouse that had been the site of a murder-suicide. It went for less when the estate sold it, says Miller, but six years later, “it was right in line with the market.”

How do I install one of those historic plaques outside my house?
The New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit that works with the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission, provides rectangular plaques (for $1,500) to owners of officially landmarked homes that have already been vetted by the LPC. But no pressure; if George Washington slept in your bedroom, there’s no need to let the world know. Those who do opt for one must get a permit from the LPC to mount it. Meanwhile, the nineteen-year-old Historic Landmarks Preservation Center, a not-for-profit group, has placed approximately 100 plaques on homes around the city through its Cultural Medallions Program, which accepts nominees on its website; former homes of Woody Guthrie and Ed Koch will be getting the plaque treatment later this fall. The provenance has to be verifiable by the center, and there’s no cost to homeowners, says founder and chairperson Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, though some generous individuals opt to contribute to the cost of creating the medallions. Various neighborhood groups have instituted their own plaque programs. Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation says his group, for instance, has just begun installing them on notable downtown sites like labor organizer Justus Schwab’s saloon, where activists like Emma Goldman met and rallied supporters. In 2007, public-art nonprofit Creative Time installed plaques on dozens of spots throughout the city where artists made their mark, like the former home of the Mudd Club and the Fluxhouse Cooperative II. The project’s long done, but some plaques remain.


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