How to research building history
Delving into history is a fascinating endeavour. Through local history research, you will likely uncover interesting stories, connections and little-known facts that shaped the lives of individuals, families and citizens. Understanding our heritage and respecting the lives of those who have travelled before us is important to shaping our culture and building a great city.
This information will help you begin your journey researching the history of a specific property. As you read through, please keep in mind these important considerations:
- Your time commitment to complete the research will vary depending on the desired level of detail and information available. There may be fees associated with the retrieval or reproduction of some information.
- When reviewing both primary and secondary sources, read with a critical eye as not all records are necessarily 100 per cent accurate.
Site-specific information includes:
- date of construction
- architect and/or builder
- original layout and appearance
- materials used in construction
- assessed value of property at the time of construction and over time
- renovations and physical improvements
- original and subsequent owners
- use and occupants
- relationship to nearby buildings
Site specific information is often gathered from a variety of public and private sources. It is possible that not all details will be found. Some information may no longer exist or may never have existed. Nonetheless, site-specific information is the most reliable way to begin researching a historic property.
The first step in researching a property’s history is to identify the title of the land on which the building sits. A land title search can provide details about original and subsequent ownership, lot size, and mortgages and liens that have been registered against the property.
Land title searches can be conducted at any Government of Alberta registry office. Information is also available through Service Alberta. Please note that Land Titles are managed and administered by the Government of Alberta and searches may be subject to a fee. The office you contact will explain the fees and process.
When requesting a land title search, you will need to provide a legal description for the property which can be obtained by contacting The City of Calgary Planning Services Centre at (403) 268-5311.
There are three types of land title searches:
- The Regular Search provides information going back to approximately 1990 and can be requested through any registry office.
- The Historical Search provides information on a specific land title registrant or date. When requesting this type of search you will need the specific name and year associated with the land title. You can begin your Historical Search at any registry office. You may be referred to the Calgary Land Titles Office (See ‘Research Contacts’ below).
- The Back-to-Patent Search provides information on all land title transactions recorded on the property. You can begin your Back-to-Patent Search at any registry office and they will refer you to the Calgary Land Titles Office if necessary.
When conducting any type of land title search, it is important to consider:
- The identified owner(s) do not, or did not necessarily live on the property.
- The title will not show exactly when a building was constructed. The earliest indication of a mortgage might indicate that a building was constructed at approximately the same time, but this should be confirmed through other sources.
The City of Calgary Archives is located on the first floor of the Administration Building (Municipal complex) and holds records you can research, including building permits.
You will need the property’s legal description to conduct property research at the Archives. This can be obtained by contacting The City of Calgary Planning Services Centre at (403) 268-5311.
The following records will assist with your research:
- Assessment History Cards were produced between 1935 and 1950 and include a brief building description. Unfortunately, the cards were seldom dated on the initial collection of information. The cards usually include the construction date and materials, building dimensions, general condition, assessed value and record of inspections. Although the construction date is an estimate, you can confirm the date by referencing Assessment Rolls and building permit applications.
- Assessment Rolls are compiled annually by a municipality to assess the value of the land and any property improvements for tax purposes. The roll will provide the name of the property owner(s), an assessed value of the property, and an assessed value for any buildings or improvements on the property. The first year where a property shows an assessment for buildings or improvements may be a construction date.
The early records also provide information on the amenities a building had when first constructed, such as electric lighting, sewer, water, gas connections and sidewalks. Since the early Assessment Rolls are organized by legal description (e.g. section, plan, lot and block number), and the later rolls are organized by roll number, it is helpful to have both when conducting your research.
- Photographs of residential streetscapes can also be useful - you can search for photos at The City of Calgary Archives.
- Knowing the Annexation history of Calgary can also be helpful, as it is unlikely The City holds records about properties prior to the land being part of Calgary. The History of Annexation map may help identify when land became part of Calgary.
- The Archives has original records created by the Towns of Bowness, Montgomery and Forest Lawn, and from the Village of Crescent Heights prior to their annexation to The City of Calgary. These records may also be helpful to researchers.
- Architectural Plans are also helpful. Although The City’s Archives has very few residential property plans, it is still worth reviewing the Archives’ holdings.
- An approximate year of construction can be obtained through myproperty, but these dates are sometimes inaccurate.
- Building permits provide comprehensive information about construction activities, but represent a single snapshot in time over the life of a property. A building permit includes the application date, the permit number, the legal description, the applicant and/or builder name and the name of the architect (if applicable). It also includes the purpose or type of building, and the project’s value. Since these permits are organized by year and are not indexed, the best way to search for the original application is to use an approximate date of construction.
Municipal directories and telephone books can be used to supplement information about land ownership, taxation and regulation. However when using directories, exercise caution as they were not always updated promptly. Also be aware that street names and/or numbers changed over time, as did house numbers.
One of the most useful municipal directories are the Henderson’s Directories. This series of privately published directories allows you to search a property either through a street address or a resident’s name. The first editions of Henderson’s Directories focused primarily on Winnipeg and secondarily on towns in the Northwest Territories. By 1908, Calgary and other Alberta centres had their own directories.
In addition to address and occupant information, Henderson’s Directories typically list businesses and available services in Calgary for each year. Be aware that there is variation in layout, available data, and accuracy between different editions of the Directory. If a property was occupied by the same person or family for several years, it is helpful to compare consecutive editions. Common variations include:
- Alternate spellings of occupant names
- Addresses changing as street names evolved (ex. Memorial Drive was called Boulevard in earlier editions)
- Residents being unlisted if not home during solicitation by Henderson’s
You can search the 1910 to 1953 Calgary Henderson’s Directories online through the University of Alberta. The City of Calgary Corporate Records, Archives has a limited number of Henderson’s Directories from 1955 to 1991. Both the Glenbow Library and Calgary's Story collection at the Calgary Public Library (Central Library) have the Calgary Henderson’s Directories from 1906 to 1991.
Henderson’s Directories are available both online and in hardcopy, and there are some important differences between these two searches. Viewing the online version will allow you to conduct a wider search, while the hardcopy version is easier to navigate through the different sections.
All three facilities hold copies of Gronlund’s directory from 1902 and the Burns & Elliot’s directory from 1885, titled Calgary, Alberta, Canada – Her Industries and Resources.
Calgary telephone directories from 1903 to present can be accessed in the Calgary's Story Collection at The Calgary Public Library (Central Library).
Fire insurance plans are a useful research tool because they include detailed urban maps. These maps were produced for the Canadian insurance industry. Frequent community surveys made it possible to keep these maps current in regard to building alterations and new building construction. The building layouts, their location on the lot, roof types, construction materials, the number of storeys, property lines, the purpose of the building, and even architectural details, fire walls, and elevators are documented. In addition, the names of commercial and government structures are often provided.
The City of Calgary Corporate Records, Archives holds a collection of fire insurance maps. Those from 1908 to 1947 are an incomplete set and are mostly of Calgary’s downtown area. The maps from 1954 to 1972 are a complete set.
The Glenbow Library maintains a full set of Calgary fire insurance maps from 1908 to 1972 as well as historic street maps and a list of street names before they were changed to street numbers in 1904.
The Calgary's Story Collection collection at the Calgary Public Library (Central Library) includes selected street maps from 1907 to present.
Outside of permit drawings, some blueprints are archived for significant public or large commercial buildings. These may be available through The City of Calgary Corporate Records, Archives, the Canadian Architectural Archives, the Glenbow Archives, or the Provincial Archives of Alberta.
These documents are usually organized by the architect’s name or firm. When using blueprints, be sure to confirm if changes were made between blueprint preparation and construction. Architecture plans are typically included in building plans after 1970.
Significant historical architects can be searched through the Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada.
There are several helpful sources for historical photographs including:
- the Glenbow Archives
- the Williams & Harris Shared History Centre at the Calgary Public Library
- City of Calgary Corporate Records, Archives
Keep in mind that you may find your building in photos of the site or in photos of events such as parades, street festivals and ceremonies.
Air photos enable you to map out changes to a particular property and surrounding community over time. The City of Calgary’s Archives has a collection of air photos of Calgary and the surrounding area from 1951 to 1999. Additionally, SANDS (Spatial and Numeric Data Services) at the University of Calgary’s Taylor Family Digital Library maintains a collection of air photos dating back to 1924.
Newspapers are useful for finding accounts of buildings under construction. During the pre- World War I boom, newspapers in Alberta communities included accounts of most public buildings and high profile private residences. Read local newspapers with a critical eye as they were not always accurate.
The Glenbow Library and Calgary Public Library (Central Library), have collections of Calgary newspapers available on microfilm. Most Alberta local newspapers are available at the Legislature Library in Edmonton, and many can be found through Peel’s Prairie Provinces from the University of Alberta.
The City of Calgary’s Inventory of historic resources is a list of sites that have been evaluated by the Heritage Calgary according to the Council-approved evaluation system. Sites are evaluated based on a set of criteria which includes historical and architectural significance. Placement on the Inventory is a formal acknowledgement of heritage significance. Some of the sites on the Inventory are legally protected and regulated by the Government of Alberta and by The City of Calgary.
The Government of Alberta maintains a large database of records of non-archaeological heritage resources in Alberta. Culture and Community Services has made the Alberta Heritage Survey Program available online.
The Glenbow Archives maintains a hardcopy of the Alberta Historic Site Service. Calgary Buildings Inventory, which is a Government of Alberta heritage study identifying historically significant Calgary properties prior to 1940.
The second type of information is contextual history. It helps make sense of site specific information and provides a broader perspective, since the building must also be understood in the historical and architectural context from its date of origin.
The contextual history allows you to assess the building’s significance within the parameters, norms and conventions of its time. The emphasis is on effectively finding and using literature, including general histories of Calgary, and works related to building type, occupancy, and also the kinds of activities that took place inside. This can include overviews of a certain architectural style, histories of individual communities in Calgary, publications on major projects, and personal accounts and memoirs.
Even though they are not original records, secondary sources of information are valuable. Secondary sources include works such as historical accounts, scholarly books, and articles. Even if nothing has been written about a specific building, you can often find information on buildings of a similar type or period or on related subjects that will help place the building within its historical and architectural context.
General histories of the province and region provide a good starting point and will help to locate a particular building within the framework or development of the province. Local histories provide a more focused context and are useful for identifying periods of growth or development of businesses, services, or institutions. General architectural histories may also be useful in evaluating a design in terms of broad stylistic trends. However, these studies are most relevant in assessing large, architect-designed buildings.
The Calgary Public Library is a good resource for contextual information.
The Calgary Public Library (Central Library) Calgary's Story collection also has reference materials that you can use for research, such as books about our province and city; history and architecture; and house and plan catalogues.
The City of Calgary Corporate Records, Archives contains a variety of local history materials, including publications by individual communities that may discuss the building or location you are researching.
The City of Calgary
Fourth Floor, Municipal Building
800 Macleod Trail S.E.
Land Use Planning & Policy
Heritage Planning #8117
PO Box 2100, Station M
Calgary AB T2P 2M5
Planning Services Centre
Third Floor, Municipal Building
800 Macleod Trail S.E.
Calgary Public Library
Calgary's Story collection
800 3 Street S.E.
Calgary AB T2G 2E7
Canadian Architectural Archives
Archives and Special Collections
Taylor Family Digital Library
The University of Calgary
2500 University Dr. N.W.
Calgary AB T2N 1N4
Culture and Community Services
Historic Resources Management Branch
Old St. Stephen’s College
8820 112 St. N.W.
Edmonton AB T6G 2P8
Glenbow Museum Library & Archives
130 9 Ave. S.E.
Calgary AB T2G 0P3
Land Titles Office – Calgary
Service Alberta Building
710 4 Ave. S.W.
Calgary AB T2P 0K3
(Spatial and Numeric Data Services)
Taylor Family Digital Library
The University of Calgary
2500 University Dr. N.W.
Calgary AB T2N 1N4
Provincial Archives of Alberta
8555 Roper Rd.
Edmonton AB T6E 5W1