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Researching a Property in Milwaukee

How to organize your research

1. The physical history of the building

  • 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 N. Broadway Building. Staff at the microform 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.

  • Some plans exist for commercial buildings. Uses that are considered "public assembly" such as churches and theaters are the most likely to be retained. They are kept on microfilm in the City Records Center in the basement of the Zeidler Municipal Building adjacent to the Historic Preservation office. Plans were NOT kept for single-family residential buildings or duplexes. Check also at the Wisconsin Architectural Archive on the second floor of the Central Library, 814 West Wisconsin Avenue.

  • 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.

  • 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. UWM now has 1894 and 1910 available online.

  • Historic photographs are valuable tools in determining the original appearance of a building. Collections of historic photos are housed at the Milwaukee 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.

  • 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. For a detailed instruction guide on how to do this, look at Understanding Old Buildings: The Process of Architectural Investigation from the National Park Service.

  • Almost all City address numbers changed in 1930. Many street names were also changed, particularly on the south side. A directory of the changes is available at most of the libraries listed elsewhere on this page or linked here. Fire insurance maps were often updated to show both addresses. 

2. The social history of the building

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.


Milwaukee Address Change Directory—1930 

Milwaukee addresses changed to the current system in 1930. Many street names also changed, particularly on the south side. Please note that numbered streets are alphabetized (Fiftieth is before Fortieth which is before Sixteenth). Milwaukee Address Change Directory (40MB).


Public Documents



Property Tax Records

City of Milwaukee

Early tax records are sorted by Ward (AKA Aldermanic District) and then by legal description.
Ward maps from 1875 to c. 1960 are available here. Earlier maps have not been located.
Beginning with the computer era, c. 1970, they are arranged numerically by taxkey number.

City of North Milwaukee

Town of Granville

Town of Lake

  • Milwaukee County Historical Society
  • City Records Center has 1916+

Town of Wauwatosa

Village of Bay View

Building permits

Begins in 1888 for properties that were in Milwaukee city limits at the time of their construction. Some Granville materials are included starting c. 1950.

Development Center, 809 N. Broadway 1st floor


County Courthouse, Register of Deeds, Real Estate

Property abstract

Rare. Few at Milwaukee County Historical Society

Probate records

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

Register births, deaths, marriages

County Courthouse (414-278-4002)
Birth and Death (no marriages) from Milwaukee Health Department

Coroner’s inquests

Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1929-1973

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

The city has limited material in the City Records Center in the Municipal Building ([email protected] or 414-286-3393). For the most part, plans are only available for commercial buildings beginning in approximately 1915. Plans are most likely to exist for "public assembly" uses such as churches, concert and dance halls, theaters, schools, and any other buildings with an auditorium.


Type of Map


Fire insurance atlases

1876, 1888, 1894, 1910 at Central Library

Fire insurance and aerial photos overlaid on a modern map at Milwaukee County

Online full color 1894 & 1910 at UWM

Digital for various years online at Milwaukee Public 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

Dictionary of Wisconsin History

Encyclopedia of Milwaukee

Milwaukee County Historical Society and Central Library

Published histories


(Direct links to go to complete scans of the books)

Aikens, Andrew J., and Lewis A. Proctor. Men of Progress, Wisconsin. Milwaukee, WI: The Evening Wisconsin Company, 1897.

Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Representative Men of Chicago, Milwaukee and the World's Columbian Exposition. Chicago: American Biographical Publishing Compnay, 1892.

Bruce, William George. Builders of Milwaukee. Milwaukee, WI: Bruce Publishing Company, 1946.

Bruce, William George. History of Milwaukee City and County. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing, 1922. Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III.

Buck, James S. Pioneer History of Milwaukee. Milwaukee, WI: Swain & Tate, 1890. Vol. I (1833-1841), Vol. II (1840-1846), Vol. III (Under the Charter, 1847-1853).

Conard, Howard Louis. History of Milwaukee County : From Its First Settlement to the Year 1895. Chicago: American Biographical Publishing, 1895.

Crow, William L. Wisconsin Lives of National Interest. Appleton, WI: C.C. Nelson, 1937.

Early Milwaukee: Papers from the Archives of the Old Settlers' Club of Milwaukee County. Milwaukee: The [Old Settlers'] Club, 1916

Flower, Frank A. History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin: From Prehistoric Times to the Present Date. Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1881.

Frank, Louis, F. German-American Pioneers in Wisconsin & Michigan: The Frank-Kerler Letters 1849-1864. Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee County Historical Society, [1971]. (Searchable, but no full-text access)

Gregory, John G. History of Milwaukee Wisconsin. Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1931. 4 volumes.

Gregory, John G. Southeastern Wisconsin: a History of Old Milwaukee County. Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1932. Volumes III & IV. (It is unclear why Volumes I & II are not available online)

Koss, Rudolph A. Milwaukee. Milwaukee, WI: Schnellpressendruck des “Herold,” 1871. (German only)

Men of Milwaukee : A Biographical and Photographic Record of Business and Professional Men of Milwaukee. Milwaukee, WI: Associated Compilers, 1930.

Reed, Parker McCobb. The Bench and Bar of Wisconsin. Milwaukee, WI: P.M. Reed, 1882.

State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography. Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1960. (Updated online version)

State Historical Society of Wisconsin. Wisconsin Necrology. Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1968. (MPL Central microforms)

Still, Bayrd. Milwaukee; the History of a City. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1948.

Swichkow, Louis J. History of the Jews of Milwaukee. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1963.

Watrous, Jerome A. Memoirs of Milwaukee County. Madison, WI: Western Historical Association, 1909. Vol. I. & Vol. II.

Wheeler, Andrew Carpenter. The Chronicles of Milwaukee. Milwaukee, WI : Jermain & Brightman, 1861.

Society Blue Books

Milwaukee County Historical Society & Central Library

Ordination papers

Milwaukee County Historical Society

Historical Messenger of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Milwaukee County Historical Society, Central Library, and Municipal Research Library

Civil War rosters

Milwaukee County Historical Society

Portrait photos

Milwaukee County Historical Society, Central Library

City Directory

Milwaukee County Historical Society, Central Library, & Municipal Research Library

Jewish Community Blue Book

Central Library. 1924-1925 & 1926.

Wisconsin Magazine of History

Online, Milwaukee County Historical Society, Central Library, and UWM. Recent issues are available at the Municipal Research Library.

Online Newspapers




Newspapers.com Library Edition - World Collection (BadgerLink)

Limited Milwaukee Coverage, works with most Wisconsin public and college library cards

Milwaukee City/County Library card required

Limited Milwaukee Coverage, 

Archive of Wisconsin Newspapers (BadgerLink)

Limited Milwaukee Coverage, works with most Wisconsin public and college library cards

Milwaukee Journal & Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
(Milwaukee City/County Library card required)

Journal-Sentinel 1995-present, text only

Journal 1884-1919 & 1921-1995, full page images
Sentinel 1844-1865, 1910-1995, full page images

19th Century Newspapers
(Milwaukee City/County Library card required)

Various Milwaukee papers are available through 1899 including the Sentinel.

Business Histories



Incorporation records

Milwaukee County Historical Society

News Clippings

Milwaukee County Historical Society

Central Library (at Business Desk)


Published Histories

Milwaukee and Wisconsin Architecture


Dorr, James. Downtown Building Survey: Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee, WI: Milwaukee Redevelopment Corporation, 1978.

Gerlach, Frederick (Fritz). Fritz Gerlach’s Milwaukee. Milwaukee: Bookfellows, Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library, 1987.

Lawniczak, Joe. “A Layperson’s Guide to Historic Commercial Building Styles in Wisconsin.” WEDC (blog), January 11, 2018. https://wedc.org/blog/laypersons-guide-historic-commercial-building-styles-in-wisconsin/.

Perrin, Richard, W. E. The Architecture of Wisconsin. Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1967.

Zimmermann, H. Russell. The Heritage Guidebook: Landmarks and Historical Sites in Southeastern Wisconsin : Historically and/or Architecturally Significant Buildings, Monuments, and Sites in Five Southeastern Wisconsin Counties. Milwaukee, Wis.: H.W. Schwartz, 1989.

Physical Locations

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

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

Milwaukee Development Center
809 N. Broadway, 1st Floor

Zeidler Municipal Building
841 N. Broadway
City Records & Historic Preservation Offices, Room B-1
Municipal Research Library, Room B-3

Milwaukee County Register of Deeds (at the Courthouse)
901 N. 9th St.  Appointments are strongly encouraged

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

Vital Statistics
Zeidler Municipal Building, Room 109
414-286-3516 – appointment may be required

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