Resources for Researching the History of a House in Winchester
How old is my house? Did it used to have a porch? Are there any old pictures of it? For these and other questions on the history of houses in Winchester, try the resources below. Or drop by the Winchester Archival Center during its open hours and ask the Reference Archivist for help. For information on building preservation or demolition, contact the Winchester Historical Commission.
Inventory of Pre-1917 Structures
In 1979, the Winchester Historical Commission conducted an inventory of all buildings built before 1917. Bound copies of the inventory, in 12 volumes, are available for consultation at the Public Library and Archival Center. Each building's data page, known by its state designation as a Form B, includes the address, an actual or estimated construction date, architectural style, and name of first owner. Some forms give more detail, such as ownership history, architect, or builder. Each form is accompanied by a photograph. Some of the original files for the inventory at the Archival Center contain further information.
The Massachusetts Historical Commission also has collected information on historic properties throughout the Commonwealth. The Massachusetts Cultural Resource Information System (MACRIS) allows one to search the MHC database for information. MACRIS does not duplicate the local inventory but, unlike the local inventory, may be searched online. National Register nomination papers are also available through MACRIS.
Kept at the Building Department, building permits were issued starting about 1924. Builders have not always applied for a permit, especially in the first decade or so, but if a permit exists for a specific address, it should give the date issued and a basic description of the work to be done and might name the architect and the contractor. If the house was built before the 1920s, Building Department permits can date and describe changes to the building, such as an added porch or garage. The Department does not have an archive of blueprints or photographs.
Zoning Board of Appeal Records
Also kept at the Building Department are records of the Zoning Board of Appeal. These records may document changes to properties and may include plans which would be limited to the scope of the petition (e.g., a new porch).
Assessor's Records & Maps
For the purpose of making assessments for taxation, the Assessors have kept track of property information, including the number and type of buildings and the amount of land. The Assessors Department has current records including a current photograph, an outline of the building, description of the building, plus a narrative description which may contain a construction date (which may or may not be accurate). Current records may be consulted on-line. The Department may have historical information going back a few decades. Some older Assessors records were published in the late 19th-century and early 20th century Annual Reports. The Department does not have an archive of blueprints or photographs.
This department maintains custody of various plans and engineering records for the town, including roadway layouts, assessor’s maps, public building plans, plans of subdivisions, and public utility plans (water, sewer, and drainage only). It does not have residential plot plans. Since it is primarily concerned with town infrastructure and public buildings, its records are more helpful for those interested in sub-divisions or neighborhoods rather than individual houses. One may submit an Engineering Service Request Form. However, N.B. that the typical response time is one to two weeks and that it is advisable to contact the Reference Archivist to undertake research in Engineering records.
Winchester Town Hall does not keep deeds. These are kept at the Middlesex South County Registry of Deeds and may be searched online.
Beginning in 1874, residential directories were published for Woburn and Winchester (though not for every year). Then lists of Winchester residents assessed for the polls were also published. In the 1930s, the latter became a List of Residents and has been published annually. These directories document when a street and an address first appear and which adults were living at an address in any year for which a directory exists. The major collection is at the Archival Center. A few have been digitized for Ancestry.
The Archival Center's extensive collection of house photographs, along with some street views, has been entered into its online catalog. Try entering the address, in quotation marks, as a Keyword Search. For a look at neighboring homes, enter just the name of the street.
The Archival Center has a collection of old maps, indexed in our online catalog. The first Winchester map was made in 1854. Birds-eye maps were made in 1886 and 1898. Reproductions of these and two others are available from the Winchester Historical Society. In addition, the Archives has maps from 1875, 1889, 1906, 1910, 1916, and some later years. These maps, which include drawings or outlines of houses, help date buildings and may show some of their features. Later town-wide maps produced by the Engineering Department do not show individual houses.
Contact the Reference Archivist.
For guidance on researching residents, see Family History.
Get to know something about the development of the town and its major districts with Winchester, Massachusetts: The Architectural Heritage of a Victorian Town, published by the Winchester Historical Society. While at their site, also check out the series on Architects of Winchester, which can be downloaded for free.
The two-volume History of Winchester also provides information about the development of the town and about many of its residents through 1975. Copies may be purchased at the Public Library.
Historic House Designation and Restrictions
Many of Winchester's homes and some of its neighborhoods are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If a home is a NR property, the application papers should provide a history of the property. The Archival Center holds copies of applications and a copy of the State Register. National Register nomination papers are also available through MACRIS.
Determining whether elements of Winchester's built environment are significant and preferably preserved lies within the purview of the Winchester Historical Commission, which administers the Demolition Delay Bylaw and advises on heritage districts.