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Tracing the History of Your House

The Village of Downers Grove has a diverse architectural heritage. Some owners are interested in uncovering the history of the structure of their homes so that remodeling or restoration will be historically accurate. Others want to trace the human element: to find out about the architect, the builder, and the previous owners. There are some sources in the library that might help direct your search. However, most records that yield valuable information are held elsewhere in DuPage County, such as the county offices in Wheaton.

Getting Started
One of the most useful sources for tracing your home’s history is the Centennial Homes Documentation Program published by the Downers Grove Historical Society. Copies of this packet are available at the reference desk at the Downers Grove Public Library. The packet contains instructions and forms to help you date your house in order to qualify it for certification by the Society. Even if your home is less than 100 years old, the packet of information used for documentation is an excellent resource. It is full of suggested methods, forms and worksheets. Moreover, it shows how to get the names of all of the previous owners and establish approximately when the house was built. Most of the sources listed in the packet are documents of public record and are available for viewing at the DuPage County offices in Wheaton. These are the actual legal documents and the library does not own them.

The Downers Grove Park District Museum, which serves as the his-torical museum for Downers Grove, may have relevant information on your house or its previous owners in its files. The museum is located at 831 Maple Avenue and the telephone number is (630) 963–1309.

The DuPage County Historical Museum is another source to consider searching. It has a Home History Research Materials Collection which includes a number of useful books and magazine articles. It is located at 102 E. Wesley in Wheaton and the telephone number is (630) 682–7343.

Resources at the Downers Grove Public Library
General Information
720.937 HOU
Houses and Homes: Exploring Their HistoryBlank space1987

728.0973 GRE
Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood by Betsy J. GreenBlank space2002

728.37 LIG
House Histories: A Guide to Tracing the History of Your Home by Sally LightBlank space1989

Sears Homes and Mail Order Homes
Downers Grove is known for having a large number of Sears Catalog mail order homes. These houses were sold between 1908 and 1940.

*Ref 917.7324 SEA Local HistoryBlank space(Free copies are also available at the Reference Desk)
Sears Catalog Home Self-Guide Walking/Driving TourBlank space2005

*Ref 977.324 BOO Local History
Book of Home PlansBlank space1925

Ref 728.37 SEA
Sears, Roebuck Catalog of Houses, 1926: An Unabridged Reprint by Sears, Roebuck and Co.Blank space1991

728.3 STEBlank spaceAlso in Ref 728.3 STE
Houses by Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company
by Katherine H. StevensonBlank space1986

728.37 HOM
Homes in a Box: Modern Homes from Sears RoebuckBlank space1998

728.37 SEA
Sears, Roebuck Home Builder’s Catalog: The Complete Illustrated 1910 EditionBlank space1990

728.37 THOBlank spaceAlso in Ref 728.37 THO
The Houses That Sears Built: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sears Catalog Homes by Rosemary Fuller ThorntonBlank space2004

Once you have determined the basic facts about your house, you can come to the library and explore the Local History Collection to see if there have been any references to previous owners or to the house itself. The library owns city directories for Downers Grove for 1927–1928 and 1951–1952. These directories list residents and their occupation by street address, making it simple to determine who lived in your house during those years. The library also has Downers Grove telephone books for 1909, 1910, 1916, 1924–1929, 1931–1956, 1958, and from 1975 to the present.

The library has local newspapers on microfilm. These can be found in the microfilm cabinets in the Magazine Back Issues area. Ask at the Computer Room and Magazine Desk for assistance.
Downers Grove Journal – August 31, 1930–January 16, 1941
Downers Grove Press – various issues 1891–1893
Downers Grove Reporter – 1895 to the present.
Downers Grove Sun – February 2002 to the present

None of the local newspapers are indexed, which makes it difficult to find information specifically about your house or its previous owners unless you have the dates of any key events that might have been reported in the paper. The newspapers can be a good source to find out the kind of decoration that was popular in a particular period. For example, if your house was built in 1924 and you would like to decorate it as it was originally, you can peruse the advertisements from the 1924 papers to get an idea of what was in fashion at the time.

The library also has the Sanborn Insurance Maps on microfilm, for the years 1892, 1898, 1909, 1921, 1927, 1933 and 1947. This microfilm is located in the microfilm cabinets in the Magazine Back Issues area. These maps were used for determining fire insurance rates. By looking at several maps, a researcher may be able to determine approximately when a house was built. For example, a house may not appear on the 1898 map; if the house appears on the 1909 map, a researcher might conclude the house was built between 1898 and 1909. These maps also show an outline shape of the house, allowing researchers to trace the structural changes the building has undergone over time. The Sanborn maps tend to show only houses built in the center of Downers Grove. Houses on the outskirts of this area may not be included on the maps.

Once you determine the names of the previous owners, you can conduct a genealogical search to learn more about them. The library owns many introductory genealogy books, as well as genealogy databases. Ask at the Reference Desk for assistance.

It is often helpful to consult neighbors who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time. They may know the house history. It’s possible they are still in contact with previous owners or that some of their old photographs taken in the yard include pictures of your house.

Prepared by Bonnie Reid, October 2007
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