Milwaukee Public Library is a great place to begin researching the history of your Milwaukee house.
See below for an introduction to the MPL resources covered in our popular House History program, which is organized by Central Library subject reference department.
House History Resources by Department handout, from MPL House History program
House History bibliography handout, from MPL House History program
It may be helpful to start by reading the City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission’s Research page for an overview of how to organize your research and to learn about various resources to look for, both at Milwaukee Public Library and elsewhere in the city.
Architectural Resources - presented in the Art, Music and Recreation Room
Milwaukee Architecture Index
The Milwaukee Architecture Index compiles over 3000 citations from more than 70 books about Milwaukee buildings and architecture, sorted by address. The clippings files, as well as all of the books indexed are available for use in the Central Library’s Art, Music & Recreation Reference Room. Duplicates of some of the materials may be available for checkout or reference at Central or your favorite branch library. For additional information about the index or buildings not listed there, please contact the Art, Music & Recreation Department by phone at 414-286-3071.
Wisconsin Architectural Archive
Collection description, access information, and a downloadable spreadsheet listing plans held by the WAA. Or, when you visit, ask the librarian at the Art, Music and Recreation Room reference desk to help you search by address, title, architect name, or owner (at the time the plans were created).
Property Record Search, from Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS)
This search interface includes results from both the National Register and State Register of Historic Places and from the WHS's own Architecture and History Inventory (AHI) database of historical and architectural information on more than 140,000 properties in Wisconsin. Select a county, then a city and type in the numeric part of address. Check to see if your address appears. It will show construction date, style, sometimes a designer or an historic name. Occasionally, the entry will include “View additional comments” where you will find extra reports or data from someone who has already researched the property.
Local History Resources – presented in the Humanities Room
- Physical history of the house -
Fire Insurance Atlases
These detailed map resources indicate the footprint and composition of buildings and can give a great sense of what was in the surrounding neighborhood at a specific point in time.
Premises Records were compiled by the city’s Office of Building Inspection for some buildings that were in existence in Milwaukee between 1888 and 1980. The index available on the page linked above lists addresses represented in the City of Milwaukee Premises Records collections located in the City of Milwaukee Archives at Milwaukee Public Library.
Historic photographs can show how a house or street looked in the past. Check the Historic Photo Index under "Streets" for a list of streets with photographs available in the collection. While there might not be a photo of your particular house in the file, there could be a photograph of other houses on the street or a neighboring house that could include part of your house.
- Social history of the house (owners and occupants) -
Explore who was living in the house, year by year. Searchable by address from 1921-present. Name searching available in all years. City directories often provide not just names but also an individual's occupation and sometimes their employer, so once you get a name from the address listing, find that person in the name listing, as well, to see what additional information is given.
WISDEX : Wisconsin Biography Index
This loose-leaf binder index includes citations for over 90,000 names in over 250 sources in one alphabetical arrangement. Ask for it at the Humanities Room reference desk.
Find out more about the people who lived in the house over the years by exploring federal and state census information, which is available in the following library subscription databases:
Ancestry Institutional Edition
Ancestry Institutional Edition (from ProQuest) provides access to genealogy resources, historical photos, local narratives, censuses, oral histories, indexes and other resources in thousands of record sets that span from the 1500s to the 2000s. Library subscription database. Available for use within MPL libraries. Not available for remote use.
Find U.S. Census schedules, family and place histories, the PERSI archive and Freedman’s Bank records in this genealogy trove from ProQuest. Provided as part of Wisconsin’s BadgerLink program. Library subscription database. Available for use within MPL libraries and for remote use by Wisconsin residents.
MPL's Genealogy resources are also useful for learning more about people who lived in Milwaukee in the past. The library's Vital Records and Obituaries & Death Notices resources are also included among the handouts at the yearly House History program.
Property Tax Records and Newspaper Resources – presented in the Periodicals Department
- Older Property Tax Records -
Tax Rolls (1846-1984)
Tax Records for the City of Milwaukee (1846-1984) list:
- Assessment value
- Property tax
They are on microfilm (336.2 M645) in the Periodicals Department of the Central Library of Milwaukee Public Library. The Frank P. Zeidler Humanities Room reference desk has a Tax Rolls binder, maps and other resources to help you. Our librarians have prepared a step-by-step guide to using the 1846-1984 City of Milwaukee tax records on microfilm: Property Tax Records Worksheet
To research property tax records between 1985 and the years covered by the online resources listed below, please consult the librarians in the Frank P. Zeidler Humanities Room.
- Online Property Tax Information (2006-present) -
My Milwaukee Home
Found on the City of Milwaukee’s Web site, these property assessments generally list year of construction, legal description, current owner(s), value of land and improvements (buildings), and several years of past assessment information.
PropertyLink(SM) Library Edition
A product of the WIREdata Corporation, PropertyLink Library Edition can help you find real estate owners, view assessments and tax values, research buildings’ structural features, and view the sales history of parcels throughout the state of Wisconsin. Library subscription database. Available for use within MPL libraries and by remote access to City of Milwaukee cardholders.
- Newspapers -
Search newspaper indexes and full text resources for the names of people associated with your house, once you have identified them through the sources named above.
The Daily Reporter
Covers news on building, construction, real estate, development, and transportation in Wisconsin as well as public notices and foreclosures for Milwaukee County.
The Daily Reporter can be useful for finding names of architects, contractors and sub-contractors for houses built since the 1910s and especially after 1917-1918.
Once you know a general date of construction, check the Daily Reporter day by day in the sections entitled "Work in the Hands of Architects, Engineers or Contractors," "Pending Bids," "Contracts Awarded," and "Building Permits." Some of this same information may also be found in building permit records kept by the City of Milwaukee at the Development Center, 809 N. Broadway, 1st floor.