Yesterday I attended a lecture held by Friends of the Cabildo called Researching your Property, led by Robert J. Cangelosi, Jr., A.I.A. Mr. Cangelosi is president of Koch and Wilson Architects and Adjunct Lecturer at the Tulane University School of Architecture.
I don’t own a property, but I do like to research buildings. I assumed that this meeting would provide me with a list of resources for my search, and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact as I walked in I was handed a packet of information complete with many places to conduct a search. This packet wasn’t just a list of books of websites, which I would have been happy with, but instead was pretty much the formal talk he gave, with tips and helpful hints.
According to his lecture, the first step a person should take is to obtain the chain of title. This can be gotten from many places, such as the Conveyance Office or the Orleans Parish Assessor’s Office. Both of these offices are located in City Hall – 1340 Poydras Avenue. If you don’t feel like schlepping downtown, some of the records can be accessed online. The Notarial Archives are also very helpful, but if the building was erected during the French or Spanish period, then of course those records will be in these languages, making the search much more difficult if you are monolingual (like lazy anglophone me).
Another resource that he strongly suggests a researcher use is maps. Sanborn Fire maps, published in multiple years starting in 1867, can show how a lot or block has changed over time. These maps show the shape of a building and are color-coded to represent what materials were used in construction. These can be found at the library or on the New Orleans Public Library website. You can only access these web resources if you have a library card.
There were a couple interesting tidbits that he passed along to us that I found particularly fascinating.
- The current numbering system for New Orleans’ addresses is not the original way of labelling buildings. Originally the numbers were centered on a Parisian system which was based off of the number of buildings on the block. Instead of an odd or even side of the street, the buildings were numbered as they occurred heading up or down the street. This was changed in 1894 to the current 100 block system that we have today. For the most part all streets heading upriver start at 100 at Canal Street, and those that head toward the lake start at the river at the 100 block. (The numbers on Carrollton Avenue, curiously, don’t start at the river, but rather at the intersection of Canal. Go look at a map.)
- If you are looking for any information about Uptown New Orleans (from Felicity Street all the way up to Carrollton Avenue) it is important to remember that until these previously separate cities – Lafayette, Jefferson and Carrollton – were part of Jefferson Parish – not Orleans Parish – so the records can be found across the river in Gretna.
- Tax records can be very useful for figuring out when a building was constructed or neglected or improved. Tax records follow the property which can start as just a lot. If you happen to notice through the years that there is a jump in the assessment chances are that’s when a building was placed on the property. A decrease in the assessment can follow a fire or neglect.
- One of my favorite stories that he told was about using Newspapers to track down the history of a house so a gallery could be added to it. The Vieux Carré Commission would not allow a gallery to be added, claiming that there was no precedence of the home having such a feature. In other research he was doing, he came across a story about a murder that happened in that same house on Ursuline Street. Wouldn’t you know it, but the newspaper had a picture of the exterior of the house complete with a wooden gallery. What a find! (Special note to ghost tour guides: Two women were hacked up with a cane knife and placed in trunks. The bodies found when their blood was seeping out. I bet there’s “activity” to talk about by that house. 715 Ursuline Street.)
At the end of his talk about research, he gave a quick rundown of the different architectural styles in New Orleans through the years. An important fact that he told us was that there is only 1 French Colonial and 38 Spanish Colonial buildings in town. Only one French Colonial building in New Orleans! He went so fast during this part, my notes are a scribbled mess. I wish I had taped this section which contained many clues on how to distinguish the different style eras. I had to leave his lecture a few minutes early because I had an afternoon tour, but we made it to the “Post-Katrina” section so I probably didn’t miss too much. I do wish I could have stuck around to ask some questions. I would love to take his New Orleans Architecture class at Tulane, but alas, it is a graduate level course and I am not ready to jump into a Master’s degree yet. But when I do, I’m setting my sights on Historic Preservation. I just love our buildings.