Peculiar Pittsburgh

Just how old is your old Pittsburgh house? Here’s how to find out

We looked into a Mexican War Streets row house for a Peculiar Pittsburgh reader.

mj slaby / the incline
MJ Slaby

The Mexican War Streets row house was built before the neighborhood was even part of Pittsburgh — and its latest chapter included five minutes of fame on HGTV.

But exactly how old is this old house?

Knowing when a home was built isn’t always clear, and that’s why a reader, who wanted to remain anonymous, asked this of Peculiar Pittsburgh, where you submit queries and The Incline staff investigates (Ask us here.):

Is it possible to date the construction of my North Side row house to 1864?

A realtor told the question-asker that his house was built in 1910. But while on the Mexican War Streets House & Garden Tour in September, the owner learned that a house near his was from 1864, prompting him to wonder if the realtor’s estimate was accurate.

In October, this house was even featured on an episode of “House Hunters,” where it fit the bill for one of the house hunters, but the other not so much.

It turns out, the owner was right to wonder about the age of his house. Archives, maps and preservation experts point to the house being built in the 1860s. Here’s what we found — and how you can determine how old your house is, too.

1. Search for the deed.

A deed will tell you who owned the property and when.

Start by going to the Allegheny County Real Estate Portal. There, you can fill in the address to discover recent owners.

To go back further, head to the Allegheny County Department of Real Estate to search large volumes of deeds that go back to the 1700s. The farther back you go, the deeds will go from being produced on a typewriter to cursive to written with a quill, said Matthew W.C. Falcone, president of Preservation Pittsburgh. (Tip: You don’t need an appointment, but make sure to bring cash if you want copies.)

A deed from 1861

While deeds focus on property and not always buildings, a search of Allegheny County Deeds found the oldest deed for the Mexican War Street property went back to June 1861. In the document, it’s noted that there is a building on the property.

2. Learn about architectural styles

But how do we know the deed refers to the house that’s still standing today? We don’t, said Lauren Uhl, a curator at Heinz History Center in the Strip District.

If you know your house’s architectural style, you can usually narrow its age to within 20 years, advised a guide, “How to discover the history of your old house,” that Uhl helped write. Like clothes, styles change, so it can be helpful for dating a home, per the guide. Check the library or search online for guides to architectural style.

Italianate architecture

In this case, it’s likely the same house, due to its Italianate architectural style.

Its decorative brackets and ornate windows, porches and doorways were very popular in the 1860s, ’70s and ’80s, Uhl said. Plus, it’s one of the styles of the Victorian era used throughout the neighborhood.

You can also double check the deed by looking at fire and building inspection records, Uhl said.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Pittsburgh from 1926

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Pittsburgh from 1926

MJ Slaby / the incline

3. Check maps and research your neighborhood.

When it comes to historic maps, you’ve got two options: G.M. Hopkins Company Maps and Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. Check them out online or at the Detre Library & Archives at the History Center or the Oakland branch of the Carnegie Public Library.

Toggle between Hopkins maps from the late 1700s to now to see if a building is in one edition, but not the previous one to narrow down the date range when it was likely built. You can also find the Hopkins maps online at Historic Pittsburgh.

The fire insurance maps also have a coding system for what the building is made from and interesting footnotes like if there is a night watchman, Falcone said. See fire insurance maps online through Penn State.

The North Side house had been built by 1872.

The Mexican War Streets were laid out in 1848 by General William Robinson, Jr., who named the streets after battles and Generals of the Mexican-American War, per the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission. By 1852, frame cottages and small brick homes appeared on Palo Alto Street and Resaca Place, and by 1872, the neighborhood was well-settled.

It was a “pseudo-planned community,” and most of the homes that are there today were built between the 1860s and 1880s, Falcone said.

For the house in question, an 1872 map of Allegheny City — the oldest map of the city at the Heinz History Center — shows the reader’s house. Before 1907, the Mexican War Streets were part of Allegheny City, which was then annexed by Pittsburgh.

The 1926 map color-coded for fire insurance describes the house as a two-story dwelling. Its pink color indicates it is a brick or stone building, and the yellow box behind it shows a frame building there.

4. Search newspaper archives and city directories.

Now that you have the names of the people who owned your house from the deed, search newspaper archives to find out more about them and the property. Old newspapers will have society and social pages detailing weddings and even vacations, Falcone said.

City directories date back to around of the time of the Civil War and show who lived where, Uhl said. This is helpful to see if the property owner actually lived there or it was someone else, like a family member or renter. You can find these at the History Center, the library or online through Historic Pittsburgh.

What questions do you have about Pittsburgh and our region?