This is a guide to using the Rhode Island Historical Society Library resources to build a house history. Keep in mind when you are tracing the history of your house that not every house will have a detectable past, some records may not have survived as long as the house. Keep detailed records of your research and work chronologically backwards to establish a “deed chain.” Good luck!

Houses with Historic Plaques

PROVIDENCE: See The Gowdy Collection of documented house histories in the Reading Room

OTHER TOWNS: See the town-specific reports of the Rhode Island Preservation and Heritage Commission, filed by town name in the Reading Room

Age of the House

Find the approximate age of your house by checking early maps which indicate existing buildings and their locations. If your house does not appear on one map, but does appear on the next map, your house was likely built sometime between the publication dates of the two atlases.


G. Beers & Co. Atlas of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. 1870.

G. M. Hopkins. City Atlas of Providence. 1882.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps.

Date of First Owner / House Construction

A more exact date can be determine by checking city directories for the presumed first owner of the house. Alphabetical directories for Providence have been published since 1824. Directories organized by street have been published since 1892 as “House Directories”.

Check the House Directories for the earliest entry of your house.

Check the Census for the Names you Found Listed in the Directories

If you find the name of a resident of the house during a census year you can check the census for their listing. Federal Census is every decade marking ten years, i.e 1860, 1870, etc.; State census every ten years on the five, i.e. 1865, 1875, etc. After 1850 this would provide a list of all residents in the house including women, children, boarders and servants.

Check Deed History at the local Tax Assessor’s Office and Land Records Office. In Providence, these are located at City Hall.

House History Bibliography

Books available in the Reading Room

Cady, John Hutchins. The Civic and Architectural Development of Providence. Providence, RI: The Book Shop, 1957. Ref. F 89 .P9 C143

Gowdy, Mrs. William B. and Antoinette F. Downing. Gowdy Collection: Providence Preservation Society House Histories. Providence, RI: Providence Preservation Society, c. 1950. RdRm NA 7238 .P9 G6

Historic American Buildings Survey. RdRm VF H629

Jordy, William A. and Christopher P. Monkhouse. Buildings on Paper: Rhode Island Architectural Drawings 1825-1945. Providence, RI: Bell Gallery et al, 1982. RdRm NA 2706 .U6 J67

Woodward, Wm McKenzie, Edward F. Sanderson. Providence: A Citywide Survey of Historic Resources. Providence, RI: Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, 1986. RdRm F 89 .P9 R459

Light, Sally. House Histories: A Guide to Tracing The Genealogy of Your Home. Spencertown, NY: Golden Hill Press, 1995. Ref. E 159 .L54 1995


Providence Preservation Society 21 Meeting St Providence, RI 02906 (401) -831-7440.

Government Agencies

Rhode Island Preservation and Heritage Commission 150 Benefit St., Providence, RI 02903. (401) 222-2678 or 222-2077.

Local Town Halls or Clerk’s Offices

Other Sources in the Reading Room

The Place File, available in the Reading Room, is a collection of photographs arranged by Town. This is a good place to look for images of the house you are researching.

Be sure to check the card catalog for more titles on specific towns and neighborhoods.

If you want to register your house as historic in:

Rhode Island:   Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission
Providence Only:    Providence Preservation Society
The National Register of Historic Places

Established by Congress under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register of Historic Places is a list of buildings, districts, historic sites, archaeological sites, and other properties that are officially recognized by the United States government as being especially worthy of protection and preservation. See also National Register Bulletin: Researching A Historic Property, by Eleanor O’Donnell 1991, revised 1998