How to research the history of your St. Louis home — and learn all about its past residents
Do you ever wonder who once sat in your living room?
Dennis Northcott has spent the past 30 years flexing his detective skills as an archivist for the Missouri History Museum. Combing through digital indexes, census records and old newspapers, he helps curious St. Louisans discover who previously lived in their home, what they did for a living and sometimes even what their homes looked like at the time.
He enjoys helping curious searchers. “It's just the thrill of the chase,” he said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air.
Just one trip to the Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center off Skinker Boulevard could result in a wealth of information — and it’s completely free to the public. No appointment is needed to conduct research.
Northcott has helped hundreds of house history hunters and amateur genealogists discover their roots, John Savio included. Savio recently bought his home in St. Louis’ Tower Grove South neighborhood. He knew the two-story brick home was built in 1908, but he wanted to know more.
In just one morning at the library, with Northcott’s expert help, Savio found out that the architect who built his home also co-designed St. Louis City Hall and Union Station. He even found a photo of him. Gustav Wuest, he concluded, had “quite the mustache.”
Maria Giardina lives in the Soulard neighborhood, which is known for historic homes. She spent 10 months researching her home and amassed a binder of documents three inches thick. With Northcott’s help, she learned the names of 29 people who have owned her home.
“They were all working-class people,” she said, amazed. “They were shoe clerks and they worked for lumber yards and they worked on the river. There was a longshoreman, saddle makers, bakers. … It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, these were living, breathing people.”
Tips for researching your home’s history
Here’s how you can start investigating your home’s history, according to Dennis Northcott and Neil and Veronica Putz of the Soulard Restoration Group’s Historical Committee.
First, begin with your address and an estimate of when your house was built (if you have that).
Keep in mind that potential roadblocks can occur because of street name changes, house number changes and building vacancies.
A decent amount of information can be found at home, thanks to the internet. The St. Louis Mercantile Library is the oldest library west of the Mississippi and has an extensive digital library. For example, you can examine maps to see a street view of your neighborhood in 1909 and you can examine the 1900 St. Louis City directory to see who lived in your home.
Online databases including newspapers.com and ancestry.com can be useful to search your address and the names of people who once lived in your house. Old newspaper articles often included full addresses whenever they mention a person. With a St. Louis or St. Louis County library card, you can use newspapers.com for free and search copies of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis Globe-Democrat and German newspapers as far back as the 1800s.
If you’re up for field research that requires you to leave your house, city of St. Louis residents can visit the Recorder of Deeds and see every deed of sale for their home or property dating back to the Louisiana Purchase. Those documents will tell you the names of previous homeowners.
St. Louis City Hall also has city directories dating back to the 1800s. At times, you may need to use microfiche to view documents.
The place where you can find a personal guide to find this information is the Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center, just across the street from Forest Park. The library has been indexing its information into a genealogy database for over a decade. You’ll need to go to the library to actually view the records, but Dennis Northcott and his colleagues are happy to help.
The library has original city directories (formatted like phone books) where you can look up your address and find out who lived there and what their occupation was. It also has census records, which allow you to see some pretty impressive cursive handwriting. The 1950 census is being released on April 1.
Other handy resources:
- Bellefontaine Cemetery genealogy research
- If you’re a Soulard resident, you can join the neighborhood association and the Soulard Restoration Group’s Historical Committee will help you conduct your house research. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got additional tips? Share them with us at email@example.com and they may help shape future coverage — or get added to this guide.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.