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Is My House Haunted? And Other Property Research Questions

September 3, 2022

I planned to write this blog post sooner, but coincidentally, we've been busy responding to many property research questions lately so I've been catching up on those! But because we've received many more of these questions lately, here's a brief summary of what our property research entails, what we have to help you (and what we DON'T have), and how you can conduct your own research from the comfort of your own home!

Hillside home from the Tennessean Magazine
Hillside home drawing, in the Tennessean magazine.

What Is Property Research?

This description shouldn't take too long since the title "property research" is pretty self-explanatory, but here goes anyway. So say for instance you just bought an adorable little home in the Sylvan Park area or you're under contract but you've learned that a famous Nashville doctor lived there before (hypothetically speaking), so you're curious about what other stories the home could tell - you then start property research (a.k.a. genealogy for your home)!

Cool...But What Does that Really Mean?

Unless your home was just customized and built for you (like one of the tall skinnies), your home is going to have some history to it. So here are the basic resources we start with, and you can too since they're free online...

  1. Davidson County Property Assessor's Website
    • This is a good starting point because you can search by address or homeowner on the website. From there, the website provides the basic details of your home such as who the owner is (you), what you paid for it (yes that's public record), the approximate year it was built, specs of the property (acreage, square footage, etc.), and historical data. Plus plenty more details but we tend to navigate to the historical data. From there, you can see the sales history of the home and the previous appraisal amounts. But there's another website that goes one more step further for you...
  2. Nashville Planning Department's Parcel Viewer
    • Props to David Kline and the Planning Department for creating this gem of a website that provides ownership history, property history, zoning history, assessment history, permit history, a giant zoomable map, and pretty colors. For real though, you can start here in your research and spend hours. Not only are there deeds included on the website, but as opposed to the property assessor's page, you can click on and view each deed as opposed to tracing them (like we have to do before a certain date). 
  3. Census Records
    • Census records are useful for more than just researching your family genealogy; you can also use these records to learn about the neighborhood you are researching, who lived in each household and what they did for a living, birthplace info, and especially for the 1940-50 census' - answers pertaining to the military. 
  4. Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
    • While we also have several physical sets of these books in our archives, the Library of Congress website also offers them online to be downloaded. These are great resources to show what existed on your property before your home, around your home, and even help narrow down its build date (if unknown).
Sanborn Map from 1888 - Between Church and Charlotte, west of 5th Ave N

More Online Resources, With a Catch

Tennessean headline for the Real Estate and Building Review

NEWSPAPERS!

Easily my favorite resource because of their enormous wealth of content (and often hilarious headlines), newspapers are great resources for just about any type of research you're conducting. No - the information in the stories are not always correct but they provide important details we need as researchers to continue down the proverbial rabbit hole, for example: dates, names, addresses, and sometimes photos.

So for your home, you can search the newspapers for either the address or the name of the owners and/or residents, to find some interesting details about what occurred in your home before you lived there (hopefully they are details you want to know).

We use our own internal subscription to Newspapers.com (sshhh, don't tell anyone) to conduct research but there's another free resource online called Proquest for anyone to use as well, and it's accessible from the Library's genealogy website. The only caveat, I think, is that you need to be in a library building to access this database.

If you choose to come conduct your research in person, we also have what we call "vertical files" or "clippings files" on various parts of town or families, that also provide helpful context to your research. 

Tennessean clipping from August 4th, 1962

What We Have in the Archives, and How We Can Help

Old Tennessee State Library & Archives Lab
Old Tennessee State Library & Archives Lab, City Photographer Collection.

To start and address the ghostly elephant in the room...no, we can't tell you if your home is haunted, sorry; our historical medium went missing after the last investigation ;) 

But we MIGHT be able to tell you if someone died in your home! So whether that's the former resident tickling your toes at night or just your cat, is up for you to decide. And if you have concerns - best just go ahead and move out, just in case. Or find a way to make peace with your spectral roommate. Jussstttt teasing, of course!

Unknown creepy female from the Hicks-Green Glass Plate Negative Collection
Unknown female from the Hicks-Green Glass Plate Negative Collection (Metro Historical Commission) - Giers Photography. This might be whose haunting your house!
Tennessean clipping from a home in Ohio, in 1871
Tennessean clipping from a home being haunted in Ohio, in 1871.

But outside of the paranormal, there's still quite a bit of information we can help you with. After you follow the above suggestions of starting your research from home, here are your next steps...

Visit Us, If Possible!

1. If you are in the area and able to visit us, that'll be the best way to maximize your research since there are plenty of resources we only have in person that you can use to continue your research (see below for the records I'm referring to). We ask that you call ahead to let us know you are coming as well, so we can prepare some records for you to view. 

Can't Come In? Bear With Us, As Property Research Takes Time!

2. If you not able to visit us, we're happy to assist you down the path of research (though there will be some things we won't be able to share just for sheer size of the materials). Feel free to send us a message of what it is specifically you're wanting to find about your home, for example - verifying the year it was built, names of residents, if there are any photos, etc. - and we'll respond with what we're able to find as soon as possible.  

What We Have

Deeds

Deeds are important records that help trace property ownership. This is typically what we start with when conducting research on a home, because it's going to provide you with all the names of the previous owners, when they purchased/sold the land, the price they paid for it, and specific details about the property at any given time. The Parcel Viewer website that I referenced above will include copies of previous deeds to your homes, though I can't say there is a consistency with how far they go back; but typically as far back as the property history on the Property Assessor's website. 

These records are also important when tracing the history of redlining in various neighborhoods in Nashville; check out this Storymap project that documents the history of housing segregation in Nashville. 

Deed Book C_pg. 500 - outlining the transfer of property to William and Samuel Donelson
Early deed from Book C outlining the purchase of land by William and Samuel Donelson, dated 1796.

Wills 

Like deeds discussing transfer of property, wills provide similar information pertaining to property ownership. In the case of when someone passes away, it almost goes without saying that they might provide details in the will regarding their heirs of their property, as well as business dealings. 

See the will of Maybelle Carter below for an example of the wording in a will, pertaining to estate matters...

Will of Maybelle Carter

Subdivision Plats 

Subdivision plats are one thing we have for almost every home, and is easiest to view in person since some are in pretty fragile condition.

They can be identified on the deed of the property, and will show the drawing/outline of a neighborhood or subdivision. Why are they important? Because they not only show a general date of the construction of a home (if it's close to the date of the subdivision survey), but also will be one of the oldest records we have of a part of town. 

The plat below is from book 57 and it's of the West Nashville Subdivision, date: 1881.

Plat Book 57, pg. 13 - West Nashville Subdivision

City Directories

Similar to phone books but obviously are the prequel, city directories are the best resource when researching who lived in your home before you. Each book (mostly) starts with a "Chamber of Commerce"-type discussion of the city as a whole and its history, then usually there are business listings, a directory of individuals (listed by last name), and then reverse indexes by street names. 

The books even go into detail about a person's occupation, their spouse, whether they own or rent their home, etc. Good stuff! 

From the 1909 City Directory, a page from the last name Sullivan...

1909 City Directory, page from the last name Sullivan

Court Records

Court records, especially Chancery Court which is an equity court and typically handles property cases, is another valuable resource. Property information can be found in our Chancery Court minute books, case files, and/or plan books, and they date from 1846-1935. See the example below of a plat from the Chancery Court Plan Books...

Chancery Court Plan Book 3, pg. 20 - revised plat of Thompson's Glen Leven Subdivision
Chancery Court Plan Book 3, pg. 20 - revised plat of Thompson's Glen Leven Subdivision.

Cultural Resources Survey

The Davidson County Cultural Resources Survey was an architectural survey conducted by the Metro Historical Commission on historic homes throughout the county from 1985-1995. Each home that was surveyed has a file, which is available at Metro Archives on microfilm, and the file gives various architectural information about the structure. Photos are included from when the survey was conducted, but they're not the best quality. 

New Stuff: Bureau of Fire Prevention Records and "Green Monster" Files!

The newest records we have that we hope will be beneficial down the road for property research are the following two from different departments...

Bureau of Fire Prevention Records 

I happened upon these records at our storage facility recently, since I'm slowly scanning/processing the Fire Dept. Collection. There's only one box but these records were created when the Fire Department appeared to inspect various buildings around town for fire safety. Most include drawings with more or less further detail, the name of the business, maybe the approximate built year, and other fire-related deets. 

We've only just started scanning/indexing these records so it'll take some time, but as you can see with the included record for the former Maxwell House Hotel (4th Ave), they'll be incredibly educational...

Anyone else recognize the irony of this record? ;) 

Fire Dept. Collection, Bureau of Fire Prevention Permanent Record of Inspection for the Maxwell House Hotel

"Green Monster" Files

Why these are called "Green Monster" is the true mystery, but these files from the Tax Assessor's Office are currently being indexed and scanned (if they have photos) because they are important tax records for properties. And it seems like most of the ones with photos are of buildings no longer in existence, like the home included below that was previously located at 1407 3rd Ave N (now a condo/apartment building). 

Green Monster Files from the Tax Assessor's Office, home at 1407 3rd Ave N
Green Monster Files from tax assessor's office, file from 1407 3rd Ave N

What We Don't Have

Photos*

From the MDHA Collection, photo of 923 Russell St.
From the MDHA Collection, photo of the home at 923 Russell St. Home still standing today!

The reason "photos" has an * next to it is basically answered with the above record mentioned - the "green monster" files; we might have a photo of some homes and some - we might not. Photos of homes can come from any of our photo collections - MDHA, Metro Photographer, Fire Dept., Police Dept., Banner Negatives...and the list can keep going.

Mostly it's because our records are primarily government related, so each department didn't have a reason to take photos of every home in the city (unless like with MDHA, that home was to be torn down). Also, without proper identification, as most of the images that come to us don't have, it's sometimes hard to find the one you might be looking for.

Or there are a variety of other reasons that we won't have one, but that doesn't mean we don't look! Like the above-mentioned current projects, we're constantly working on projects that'll improve our researcher experience and provide more resources. 

So my best suggestion - it doesn't hurt to ask, or keep up with our social media account (soon to be accounts, I hope), where we often share plenty of images from around town! 

Architectural Drawings

And lastly, we get this question often so just to clarify - we don't have any architectural drawings of your home, nor anything to do with the realtor. While we have some architectural drawings, they all primarily pertain to governmental buildings or parks. Like below. 

Architectural drawing of the Centennial Park swimming pool

Sorry if a lot of this is repetitive from what's on our website, but we're hoping it helps clarify the process to all interested parties. And provide a good head start for people that are genuinely curious about how their home came to be. 

'Til next time, 

Sarah 

If you're interested in property research - would you be interested in an in-person program assisting with property research?

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Sarah

Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.