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Researching Your House By Vic Bary, HPAB

When homeowners “research” their house, most often one or more of the following questions led to the inquiry:

· What style is my house?

· When was it built?

· Who has owned it before me?

· Did anyone of historical importance live here or visit here, or was my home associated with an historical event?

Not surprisingly, some of these same criteria are used by governmental entities to determine whether a building is historically significant.


Help in identifying what style your house is can be found in any of the following books, all of which are currently available through Amazon.com:

What Style Is It? – John Poppeliers & S. Allen Chambers

Identifying American Architecture: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and 1600 – 1945 – John Blumenson

A Field Guide to American Homes – Virginia & Lee McAlester

Can architectural styles tell me when it was built?

Determining when a house was built, based on its architectural style, can be a bit tricky. Some styles, like the Craftsman bungalow (1910 – 1920’s), Gothic Revival (1835 – 1880), and the Mansard Roof or Second Empire house (1855-1885) had one period of popularity and have not reappeared since. They will date your house to a specific time frame with a good deal of certainty. Some of the earliest truly American styles – the Colonial, Dutch Colonial, and Cape Cod – first appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries, but have enjoyed one or more periods of revival since then. The Colonial, for example, was reprised with great enthusiasm after the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, and seems to have enjoyed another period of popularity in the 1920’s and 1930’s. All three styles sprung up in the housing developments of post -WW II and can be found throughout Cranford.

Don’t be disheartened if your house doesn’t strictly conform to a single style. One of several things could account for this. First, most houses were built from plan books by local carpenters who built both what they thought the local market would want (if they were building on ‘spec’), or to satisfy the specific requirements of the person for whom it was being built. If that person asked for a “Colonial” with a two-storey Queen Anne window bay, that’s what they got. Second, just as we do today, prior owners made changes to their houses in response to changing styles and changing family needs. Many an 18th Century farm house got a makeover in the late 19th century as single pane windows became available, and large front porches, window bays, fancy shingles and stained glass came into vogue. After all, it was important to assert yourself as modern and in touch with current styles.

When was it built/who lived here?

Tax Records and Deed Books

Property ownership is evidenced by a deed, and these are recorded. A good place to start researching the history of your house is with your local tax assessor’s office. To facilitate this you will need to know your tax lot and block numbers. These can be found on the deed, and from Building Department maps and from plot books.

To start researching our house at 208 Holly Street, I stopped by the Cranford Assessor’s office. I found them very helpful in producing what records they had, and also in acquainting me with prominent Cranford names found in the chain of ownership. Through their records, I was able to trace ownership from 1986 (when we acquired the house) back to 1917. Their records ended there, when Adelaide L. Stephenson (one of Alden Bigelow’s children), conveyed the house to her mother, Olivia Bigelow, who subsequently transferred it to her son, Edward. Since we believed the house dated back to about 1890, we knew we were missing some additional early ownership information. The Assessor’s office suggested I check the county records in the Union County court house in Elizabeth.

When jury duty occasioned my need to be at the court house, I used my lunch break to go through their records. I found a deed recorded in the names of Adelaide L. Stephenson and Winfield S. Stephenson dated August 1, 1911, recorded in Book 577, page 480. Adelaide’s first husband, William Drysdale (a journalist and writer of books for young men) had died in 1901, and it would appear that this changed deed was occasioned by her marrying Winfield Stephenson in 1911.

Each property book entry has a reference to the preceding entry for the same property, and this one referred me back to Book 358 and two entries in it on December 20, 1899. In the first entry Alden Bigelow (Adelaide’s father and a wealthy land developer after whom Alden Street is named) conveyed the property to an attorney for the sum of $1. On the same day, the attorney conveyed the property to Alden Bigelow’s wife, Olivia, and to Adelaide (Bigelow) Drysdale and the other Bigelow children for the sum of $10. Unfortunately, the reference to the deed book prior to this transaction was incorrect, and the trail sought through the Union County records went cold.

Knowledgeable Locals and Other Sources of Information

Fortunately, Cranford has a Historical Society whose member’s have a rich understanding of the town’s history. Given what we already knew, they surmised that the house had been built by Alden Bigelow for his daughter Adelaide. An 1870 N. C. Foster map of the “Village of Cranford” at the Cranford in the Historical Society museum showed the property where our house is located as owned by A. B. Bigelow. An 1888 Cranford map, also in the Historical Society museum showed, 208 Holly Street as owned by “ABB” and a house footprint identical to ours on the property. The house was a block away from Alden Bigelow’s mansion on the site of today’s Cleveland Plaza. The map, however, dated the house at least two years prior to when we understood it to have been built.

The discrepancy was resolved several years later when some siding was removed from the house in order to add a conservatory. Our builder showed us a section of the framing that had been signed and dated by the carpenter building the house. The date was in May, 1887. The date when the house was built was resolved, but why was it built? About the same time, an article by Robert Fridlington appeared in the Cranford Historical Society newsletter, giving the history of author William Drysdale. In it I learned that Drysdale had married Alden Bigelow’s daughter, Adelaide, on August 25, 1885.

A photograph of William and Adelaide Drysdale seated at the base of a window bay identical to the one in our living room, and other clues and advice, led me to declare in the first version of this article that our house had been built by Alden Bigelow for his daughter and her new husband, William Drysdale. Unlike the larger summer homes built across the street backing on the river, ours is a year-round home with much fancier interior finish work than is found in the summer homes, even though it is smaller than the summer homes, confirming that it was a year-round residence and adding credence to my belief that it was built for Adelaide and her new husband.

Do Your Research Carefully and Thoroughly

I continued in the belief that our house had been the home of Adelaide and William Drysdale for several years until, one day, I received an inquiry from a university professor and William Drysdale scholar who had happened upon my article on the Internet. While very complimentary about it, he politely shared Drysdale’s September 20, 1901 New York Times obituary with me which indicated that Drysdale died at his home at 24 Eastman Street. He asked if I had any information contrary to that. Anxious to confirm my original belief, I reviewed period census data (which I had not reviewed before). Sadly, it confirmed that Adelaide and William Drysdale had never resided at our address. Our house had been one of many Bigelow houses built as rental properties and passed back and forth within the extended family (most likely as sources of family income). Reluctantly, I had to give up the belief that our house had once been the home of a somewhat famous person.

Did Anyone of Historical Importance Live Here? Did Anything of Historical Importance Happen Here?

While it would be nice if George Washington had slept in your home, or it was once owned by the Nobel laureate who invented the Super Atomic Pan-Galactic Posmotronic Bi-Serial Super Deframulator, it’s highly unlikely. But not impossible, and perhaps you’d be pleased to simply know something about the prior owners.

Unfortunately, many Cranford homes associated with prominent 19th century individuals (Thomas A. Sperry, co-founder of S&H Green Stamps; Alden Bigelow’s “Marlborough Place”; the Faitoute residence) were razed long ago. The Opera House built by advertising magnate J. Walter Thompson in 1892, succumbed to fire in 1912. However, the 18th Century Norris-Oakey house still stands on Orange Avenue, as does the Holly Street home where Sgt Curtis G. Culin grew up. Culin invented the “Rhino” tank attachment, which both Generals Bradley and Eisenhower credit with enabling the Allies to break through hedgerows impeding their advance during the WW II Normandy invasion.

If you’ve done your search of prior ownership through the Cranford Assessor’s office and/or the county records at the Union County court house, you will already know who owned your house before you. If you’ve reviewed period street directories or Census data, you can confirm who actually lived there. You might ask some of your neighbors what they know about prior ownership. Docents at the Cranford Historical Society can also be a source of information about prominent and long term local families, and they have genealogical information about Cranford families. They may also know something about the history of your house and your neighborhood.

If you don’t already own them, you should consider buying two photo histories – “Images of America: Cranford” and “Images of America: Cranford, Volume II”, both authored by Robert Fridlington and Lawrence Fuhro. Published by Arcadia Publishing in 1995 and 1996, they are both available for sale through the Cranford Historical Society at the Hanson House. Neither the publisher nor Amazon.com currently have the books in stock. The books are filled with pictures of Cranford, its homes and families.

Cranford is also fortunate to have had two newspapers in operation since its early years – the “Cranford Chronicle” started in 1893 and the “Cranford Citizen” started in 1898. The papers later combined. The reference desk at the Cranford Library (908-709-7272) has indexed the articles from both papers. Articles from 1894 to 2005 are available in a digital archive. They can be accessed on-line at the Library web site (archive.cranfordlibrary.org:8080/). Street directories and high school yearbooks are also available on this web site.

Time to Get Started

I hope you will have found this useful and that it will encourage you to start the search for your home’s history. If you pick up some additional tricks along the way, I’d love to hear about them (vbary@yahoo.com).