By Raanan Geberer
COBBLE HILL — Say you live in an old house that dates back to the 19th century. You’ve heard conflicting stories about its history and want to find out the truth.
What are your options?
If this were 20 years ago, when the internet was only in its infancy, you would probably have to “get up at 8:15 in the morning” and head to the municipal offices, according to architectural historian Francis Morrone. In this day and age, however, technology gives us a variety of options.
Morrone spoke Monday night at the annual meeting of the Cobble Hill Association at Long Island College Hospital. He is a teacher at New York University and the author of five books, including An Architectural Guide to Brooklyn.
One of the best physical (as opposed to online) resources, he says, is the library of the Brooklyn Historical Society in Brooklyn Heights. Among other things, it contains several Brooklyn atlases, dating from about 1855 through 1930. These were published by private companies, mainly for fire insurance purposes, and show detailed maps of each street — block by block, lot by lot.
The library also contains “land conveyance [or property] records” from the 19th century. Particularly for older neighborhoods such as Cobble Hill, said Morrone, these are important because the former City of Brooklyn’s Department of Buildings only began keeping records in the 1870s or afterwards.
As for the records of the current New York City Department of Buildings (DOB), they give good basic information and are available online.
While most information is available by block and lot number, not by address, the page has a feature that converts your address to block and lot.
If you want more information from the DOB than you can find on the web site, however, you could run into problems. You have to request information from the DOB’s Brooklyn office at 210 Joralemon St. ahead of time. Much information, Morrone said, is no longer available because many files were moved to warehouses, and “some of these files fell off the back of the truck.”
Even so, Cobble Hill residents are particularly lucky because their neighborhood has been designated as a landmark district. The Neighborhood Preservation Center’s website has links to the original Landmarks Preservation Commission reports recommending that particular neighborhoods be designated as such. These reports, said Morrone, are extremely detailed, mentioning many individual houses and street addresses.
Census records, Morrone continued, are also increasingly being put online by the U.S. Census Bureau. These records show exactly who lived in a residence during a particular census year. He quoted one report from many years ago that showed a house as being occupied by a man, his wife, his children, two Irish-American servants and a Scandinavian woman who was listed as the man’s “companion.”
This brought chuckles from the audience — although Morrone hypothesized that the woman merely might not have wanted to be defined as a servant.
Finally, Morrone mentioned newspaper sites — in particular, the online records of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from 1841 to 1902, which are available on the Brooklyn Public Library’s web site (eagle.brooklynpubliclibrary.org) and The New York Times’ archives, which are available to Times subscribers.
In both cases, he said, the digital age has made searches easier. Now, you can search these online documents for any word, name or phrase. In the past, when you had to consult reference books like The New York Times Index, you could only search by keyword.
Morrone ended his talk by saying that the Cobble Hill Association is working on a new historical website. It will be a wiki site, meaning one that readers can change or contribute to online.