Researching your Whitefish Bay Home
What Is the Story of Your House?
At one point or another, you've probably wondered about the history of your home. For example:
- When was my house built?
- Who built it and what did it cost?
- Who are past owners and who has lived in it?
- What changes have been made to my house over the years?
- Is my house historically significant?
- What is its architectural style and why?
- What was the neighborhood and Village like when my house was built?
The best starting point to research your home's history is to review the Village’s property files. The Village maintains a file on every property within the Village. Your file is accessible for review from any of the Village clerks. You file should generally include the original building permit, which can provide a great deal of information. It typically contains the name of the builder and original ownership, original dimensions, and estimated cost. Sometimes the architect/designer is also listed. And on occasion the plan drawings are on file.
Subsequent building permits for additions and improvements should also be contained in the property file, along with plumbing and other permits. By reviewing these records you can piece together a good deal of background about your home.
Unfortunately, property records prior to 1922 are not available. A basement flood back at the old Village Hall destroyed such records. However, even if your home pre-dates 1922 there should still be a wealth of information available in the property file.
While you are at Village Hall, you should also view the Sanborn Company insurance company map for your block. Located on the counter in a large black binder, the Sanborn maps include detailed drawings of every street within the Village, along with an outline of the buildings. Each building represented on the map is usually annotated with the date of initial construction, although pre-1922 dates are not listed.
This map can give you a pretty good idea of what other homes were present in the area when your house was built.
When you are done at Village Hall, walk over to the Library for the next phase of your research.
A good starting point is a review of the Village telephone directories. For many years the Whitefish Bay Women’s Club has published a directory of all homes in the Village. A copy of each of these directories is available at the adult reference desk. While they are stored in a locked cabinet, the reference librarian will be happy to provide you with access.
You should be able to use these directories to determine who occupied your home over the years.
Whitefish Bay Architecture & History Inventory
While you are in the lower level of the locked cabinet in the Library, also check the Village’s Architecture and History Inventory (WFB AHI). This inventory is summarized in a three ring binder, located on the shelf on top of the telephone directories.
This inventory currently contains information on approximately 90 homes within the Village. An index in the back will help you to quickly determine if yours is one of the houses listed in the AHI.
The "Mimi Bird" Files, aka, the Whitefish Bay Historical Collection
Now should be a good time to start some more intensive research. Whitefish Bay is fortunate in having an incredible asset for such research, known as the ‘Mimi Bird’ Historical Collection.
Mimi Bird was a resident of Whitefish Bay since the age of four. In the 1980’s Mimi researched the history of the community during which she compiled materials on the area, photographed homes, businesses and landmarks, and organized it all into a set of thirty-nine volumes which she donated to the Library.
Maintained in a locked cabinet, it is accessible through the adult reference librarian.
Of the 39 volumes, 1 through 11 and 28 are likely to be most helpful:
- Town of Milwaukee settlers, 1850-1880. A-L
- Town of Milwaukee settlers, 1850-1880. M-Z
- Whitefish Bay censuses: 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1892, 1905, 1910
- Town of Milwaukee cemetery: 1917-1988 records
- Whitefish Bay in the 1890s
- Whitefish Bay’s first 60 years: 1892-1952
- Former Whitefish Bay homes and buildings
- Whitefish Bay homes 1860-1899
- Whitefish Bay homes 1900-1916
- Whitefish Bay homes, 1916-1922
- Home development in Whitefish Bay post 1922
- People of Whitefish Bay
While it can take a good deal of time to review the collection, if you are patient and lucky, it can be a very valuable source of additional information on your house.
If the city directories and Whitefish Bay historical collection don't provide enough information on the past residents of your home maybe it's time to check the census records. Every ten years from 1790 forward there was a federal census taken across the county.
The Mimi Bird Historical Collection summarizes the Census data for the Town of Milwaukee, from which Whitefish Bay eventually severed ties to create its own Village. However, not all families are listed - especially for homes that were built after 1910.
Additional census and other records (military service, birth, death and marriage certificates, and immigration data) are available online at the Library through the Ancestry.com website. You can log on to one of the Village’s computers and enter your library card number and 2-digit birth year to access this database.
Other Reference Sources
You may want to obtain additional information on the earliest owners of your house. While the above sources should provide their names, they often don't tell you much about their background. The Frank Zeidler Humanities Room in the downtown Milwaukee Public Library may be able to help out. Among their sources are old volumes of the Wright's City Directory, which lists occupants of homes in the greater Milwaukee area, along with their occupations. The staff in the Humanities Room can also be very helpful in guiding you to other 'leads.'
In order to help define the architectural style of your house, check out the library book entitled, “As Good As New" at the Whitefish Bay library. It contains a large section devoted to describing the various architectural styles commonly used throughout the City of Milwaukee, including significant illustrations of Italianate, Victorian Gothic, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, American Foursquare, Arts and Crafts and Craftsman, Prairie, Dutch Colonial, Georgian Revival, Tudor Revival, Mediterranean Revival, Milwaukee Duplexes, among others.
Architectural drawings are available for a few houses in the Village in the Wisconsin Architectural Archives, which are maintained by the Downtown Milwaukee Public Library (through the Humanities Desk on the 2nd level). An index to the available Whitefish Bay properties is available via the link at the bottom of this page.
Other Sources of Information
- See What Your House Can Tell You - Inspect your house closely. You can learn a lot just by looking. Check out how your house was built and what type of building materials were used. Examine the walls and moldings. Look for original materials, such as the bricks of the fireplace. Housing design has changed dramatically over the years, and you may be able to find some clues as to when your home was built, what substantial changes it has endured, and how well off the original inhabitants were.
- Is your setback the same as adjacent homes on the block? If not, it can suggest that you house was built before the neighborhood was subdivided - perhaps representing one of the original farmhouses that were located within the Village. Is the basement constructed of conventional concrete block? If instead it is built of stone or brick, it is an indication that the home was built prior to or about the turn of last century (1900).
- If you have an original toilet within the house, it might provide a clue to its age. Toilets are sometimes date-stamped under the lid, giving you a rough estimate of when the house was built.
- Talk to Your Neighbors - If you’re new to the neighborhood and want to find out about the recent history of your house, your longtime neighbors may be able to help. Plus, asking about your house and the neighborhood is a great way to break the ice.
- View Your Property Deed - Visit Milwaukee County Courthouse to look at the deed registry. The registry should be available in the clerk and recorder’s office. Ask for the registry of deeds for your particular property. This information is indexed by lot and block number in a city, and a section, township and range for rural property.
Once you have done this, please consider filling out an application to add your home to the Village's architecture and history inventory. That will ensure that the information that you have obtained on your residence will be saved for future generations.
Application forms are available at the Whitefish Bay Library, located in the cover pocket of the Architecture and History Inventory binder.