homeowner
On a street filled with ersatz 1960's Colonials, the two-story white clapboard house with the black shutters exudes antique charm, especially when one notices the quaint sign hanging at the end of the driveway: Suttonfields, ca. 1734. The sign dates to 1983, after Gladys Schondorf, who owns the Somers, N.Y., house with her husband, Jack, did a deed trace on the property. Working with the town historian, she learned that her 2.7 acres had been part of a farm established by one John Sutton in the early 1700s and that a structure existed on the land in the 1730s. Schondorf presumed that her house included part of that original homestead—but now, after more digging, she's unsure if Mr. Sutton ever lived within its walls.

As Schondorf discovered, tracing the history of an old house is like making your way through an overgrown garden maze. In most cases, unless you are a descendant of the original owners and have an attic full of memorabilia, finding out when your house was built, who lived within its walls, and what changes various homeowners wrought can be a challenging—but fascinating—journey. Anyone who undertakes it will need to be equal parts architectural historian, oral historian, research librarian and genealogist.

The first step in compiling a house history is to identify the era in which the structure was built. With the help of an architecture book or two, most home owners can discern a core style—even among a century or two of renovations and additions—by examining the silhouette of the house and its layout, as well as the style of the windows, doors, and other features. A mansard roof, for example, may be of the Second Empire style of the late 19th-century, while a hip roof might indicate a Queen Anne house built a decade later. But keep in mind that while looking at visible features reveals a lot, there may be a hidden chapter to the story. Many a contractor has been surprised to uncover an old wall, a few stair steps, or some other vestige during a renovation. If you are not inclined to dismantle your house, a tour of the neighborhood to scope out similar homes can suggest the original blueprint lying within altered walls.
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