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How to organize your research

 1. The physical history of the building

a. If your building was constructed after 1888 and was built within the city limits of Milwaukee, take the address of the property to the Development Center on the first floor of the 809 North Broadway Building. Staff at the microfilm desk will pull the microfiche for the property. This will contain a record of all construction, plumbing, electrical and HVAC permits taken out on the building. Commercial buildings will also have records on elevator inspections and repairs. Certificates of Appropriateness that approve alterations to historically designated properties will also be on the microfiche. The permits list the owner, architect, builder/contractor, cost of the project, and a brief description of the construction or alteration. Sometimes owners or contractors did not take out permits when alterations were made, so it will be difficult to date a specific change made to the building.

b. Some plans exist for commercial buildings, churches and theaters. They are kept on microfilm in the City Records Center in the basement of the Zeidler Municipal Building. Plans were NOT kept for residential buildings. Check also at the Wisconsin Architectural Archives on the second floor of the Central Library, 814 West Wisconsin Avenue.

c. If your building was constructed prior to 1888, you will have to go to the tax rolls to determine the exact date of construction. Milwaukee tax rolls are now on microfilm at the Central Library, Periodicals Desk. Milwaukee tax rolls separate the assessed value of the property from the assessed value of improvement (structures). You will need the property’s legal description and know in which ward of the city the building was located. The Central Library Humanities Room has a handy guide to the ward boundaries and tax rolls. The legal property description can be obtained from the City Assessor’s office, Room 507, City Hall, 200 East Wells Street, over the internet, or the County Treasurer’s office, Courthouse, 901 N. 9th St. If your building today is in Milwaukee, but was originally in the Town of Wauwatosa, Town of Lake or another municipality that was later annexed by Milwaukee, you will have to check that municipality’s tax records. Many of these old township records are now housed in the Central Library’s City Archives or UW- Milwaukee Archives.

d. Fire Insurance Atlases from 1876 to 1910 (updated to 1962) can be found at the Milwaukee Central Library Humanities Room. The 1910 edition can be found at the Milwaukee County Historical Society. UW-Milwaukee also has some of the fire insurance atlases. The atlases show the footprint or outline of the building and are color coded to indicate the material it was built from such as wood, brick, etc., and what type of roof was on the structure. The atlases are helpful in determining a building’s date and when additions or porches or other changes were made to a structure such as the brick veneering of a frame structure or the construction of a carriage barn or garage behind a structure.

e. Historic photographs are valuable tools in determining the original appearance of a building. Collections of historic photos are housed at the Wisconsin County Historical Society, 910 North Old World Third Street, the Central Library and the UW-Milwaukee Archives. Not every building was photographed. Most photos remain in the hands of descendants of the original owners.

f. Conduct a physical examination of the building. Building techniques, molding profiles, types of glass, types of materials and finishes all give clues to a building’s age. Ornamental detail, massing, and roofs also help to identify the building’s style which will enable you to establish a time frame for the building’s construction. If the physical evidence does not agree with the documents connected with the building, for example if the style is early or the details are from the 1850’s, but documents such as the tax rolls show no building on the site until 1910, the building was most likely moved to the site. Your research will then have to include the earlier site if you know its location.


 2. The social history of the building

a. Go through the city directories (at the Central Library or Wisconsin County Historical Society) to compile a chronological listing of who lived at or occupied your building. Names of spouses, children, and other relatives may appear at the same address. List the occupation of the occupants and where their place of business was located. The street guide begins in the 1921 directory. Prior to that year, you will have to rely on names from permits, deeds or property abstracts.

b. Go through the property abstracts, if they are available. Compare ownership wit occupants; sometimes the property will be in the name of a parent or in-law rather than the occupants and sometimes the building will have been rented out. Abstracts are a shortcut to researching the deeds on a property. Title companies stopped compiling abstracts in the late 1950’s-early 1960’s, but some property owners have held onto their copies and pass them down to each new owner. In the absence of an abstract, you can research the deeds at the Milwaukee County Courthouse. Staff there can assist you. Deeds may include such interesting information as wills, leases, and other legal information pertaining to the property. A deed is only the record of the property transfer itself and not a history of the building, but sometimes the deeds will refer to a structure for livestock, etc., which can give clues to the building’s age.

c. Once you have a chronology of the building and its occupants, flesh out the histories of the occupants. Where did they live or operate their business before moving to the present building? Where did they move to after they left the property? For residential properties check the Federal Census to see who occupied the buildings; often there will be extended family members living under one roof and even maids and housekeepers. Census records are available at the Central Library and the Milwaukee County Historical Society. A lot about a family’s history can also be found checking death certificates at the Courthouse (appointment required) or the City’s Department of Vital Statistics (appointment required). Check probate records at the Courthouse; look up obituaries and published histories. Track families in the city directories to locate descendants who may have photos, plans and interesting stories about their ancestors, other previous occupants or the building itself.

d. If the occupant owned or was partner in a business, find out about the company, its location, partners in the firm, what the company produced, whether it is still in operation (maybe under another name) and whether the business closed or was taken over by another firm.


 Public Documents



Building permit

Development Center, 809 N. Broadway 1st floor

Town of Lake tax rolls

Central Library – City Archives

Town of Wauwatosa tax rolls

Central Library

City of Milwaukee tax rolls

Central Library periodicals (microfilm)


County Courthouse, Register of Deeds, Real Estate

Property abstract

From building owner/some at Milwaukee County Historical Society

Probate records

County Courthouse, Register in Probate, Room 207. Also some at Milwaukee County Historical Society (1835-1889+)

Register births, deaths, marriages

County Courthouse (278-4002)

Coroner’s inquests

Milwaukee County Historical Society (1973-1929)

Circuit Court records

Milwaukee County Historical Society (1837-1929)

Criminal Court records

Milwaukee County Historical Society (1838-1879)

School census

Milwaukee County Historical Society

Naturalization records

Milwaukee County Historical Society

Building plans

Wisconsin Architectural Archive & some beginning in the 1920’s at City Records Center in the Municipal Building



Type of Map


Fire insurance atlases

1876, 1888, 1894, 1910 at Central Library

Lapham 1856, misc. quarter-sectional maps, aerials, birdseye lithographs, Baist’s 1898, 1876 Illustrated Atlas


Central Library

Walling 1858, Baist’s 1898, Misc.

Milwaukee County Historical Society





State Historical Society index

Central Library

Biographies and obituaries

MilwaukeeCounty Historical Society and Central Library

Published histories

Flower 1881
Eve. WI
Men of Milw.
Wisconsin Biographies
Wisconsin Necro

Society Blue Books

MilwaukeeCounty Historical Society & Central Library

Ordination papers

MilwaukeeCounty Historical Society

Historical Messenger/Milwaukee history

MilwaukeeCounty Historical Society & Central Library

Civil War rosters

MilwaukeeCounty Historical Society

Portrait photos

MilwaukeeCounty Historical Society, Central Library

City Directory

MilwaukeeCounty Historical Society, Central Library & Legislative Reference Bureau

Jewish Community Blue Book

Central Library

Wisconsin Magazine of History

MilwaukeeCounty Historical Society, Central Library 


Business Histrories



Incorporation records

Milwaukee County Historical Society


Milwaukee County Historical Society, Central Library (at Business Desk)

Published histories

See above and
Anderson & Blyer

Milwaukee Half-Cent Progress

Milwaukee of Today

Milwaukee at Gathering Waters

We, the Milwaukee Poles

Industry History of Milwaukee 1888

Men of Achievement 1946

Commercial Milwaukee Yearbooks

Milwaukee Leading Industries 1888

Milwaukee, WisconsinCreamCity 1891


Type of Map


Fire insurance atlases

1876, 1888, 1894, 1910 at Central Library

Lapham 1856, misc. quarter-sectional maps, aerials, birdseye lithographs, Baist’s 1898, 1876 Illustrated Atlas


Central Library

Walling 1858, Baist’s 1898, Misc.

Milwaukee County Historical Society


Milwaukee County Historical Society
910 N. Old World 3rd Street, (414) 273-8288

Central Library
814 W. Wisconsin Ave., Humanities Room, 2nd Floor

Zeidler Municipal Building
841 N. Broadway St.
Neighborhood Services (formerly Building Inspection)  – 10th floor
City Records, Room B-1

Milwaukee County Courthouse
901 N. 9th St.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Golda Meir Library, E. Hartford Ave., (414) 229-5402

Vital Statistics
Zeidler Municipal Building, Room 109
(414) 286-3516 – appointment required


Links to related historic information

Compiled by Carlen Hatala, Historic Preservation Planner





Cream of the Cream City
Historic Preservation Awards

Thank you to all who attended the 
Cream of the Cream City Awards ceremony held on May 29, 2014
at Best Place at the Pabst.

View photos of the event below:

Created with flickr badge.

To view past award winners, please visit: