Doing a little digging to discover your building’s backstory can be an easy research project — and an irresistible attention-getter for your apartment.
It’s not only glam addresses like the Sherry Netherland and the Dakota that have star-studded mythologies. In New York City, even an unassuming residential tower or converted warehouse can carry a surprisingly scintillating history. Doing a little digging to discover your building’s backstory can be an easy and irresistible attention-getter for your apartment. Because, really, who wouldn’t want to own the apartment where Truman Capote’s cook’s cousin’s brother-in-law once lived?
Take the obvious first step.
Start the process by dropping your building’s street address or proper name, if you’re fortunate enough to live in a building with a proper name, into your search engine of choice. Remember to keep it in quotes to keep the process focused. And keep in mind that your neighborhood might’ve been called something else in olden days. (To wit: Before 1916, Crown Heights was Crow Hill, a name roundly rejected for its racist implications.)
Mix and mingle in the lobby.
Supers and doormen aren’t only good for fixing faucets and accepting Amazon packages. They know their buildings inside and out, and they’re often vast human repositories of arcane building history (and, if you ask nicely, some good gossip). And though the suggestion seems positively un-New York, getting to know your neighbors, particularly the old-timers who’ve been in the building for years, can prove invaluable as you do your research.
“In New York City, even an unassuming residential tower or converted warehouse can carry a surprisingly scintillating history.”
Fall into the BIS.
New York City’s Department of Buildings manages the free-to-use Building Information System, or BIS, where you can plug in a borough and a street address and reveal some official stats for your building. The info here is pretty dry — things like boiler records and code violations — but you’ll also find a juicy stat or two, like a building’s landmark status.
Hit the stacks, Jack.
It’s safe to say that if anybody knows New York City, it’s the New York Public Library. In addition to employing some of the city’s smartest actual humans, the institution has built some pretty dazzling online tools for discovery, including the incredible Map Warper, which digitally aligns archival maps with modern mapping data creating a truly illuminating view of the city. There’s a learning curve, but in true NYPL form, there’s also plenty of user guidance. Also, look for NYPL historian Philip Sutton’s excellent New York City residential archaeology guide, “Who Lived In a House Like This?”
Meet the Gray Lady.
For its digital subscribers, The New York Times offers online access to its archives dating all the way to 1851. And there’s a surprisingly good chance that your building has merited a mention or two in its pages during the last 169 years. We recently uncovered a dramatic bit of Park Slope history related to the Ansonia Clock Company building and a fire that “lighted up the whole of South Brooklyn” in 1880.