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Community History: Buildings

If Walls Could Talk

Old structures, homes and businesses, can be found in towns and in the country all across Smith County.  They are the proverbial witnesses to stagecoaches and supersonic jets.  Whether you grew up in one, bought one later, or just drive past it every day, the questions arise.  Who built this?  When did they build it?  Why is it right here?  Has it changed over the years?  Who all have lived here?  What has existed on this corner through the years?

How To Books

Howe, Barbara J. et al.  Houses and Homes:  Exploring Their History.  Nashville:  American Association for State and Local History, 1987.  E180 .H68 1987 and E180 .H68 1997 (reprint).

Danzer, Gerald A. Public Places:  Exploring Their History.  Nashville:  American Association for State and Local History, 1987.  E180 .D36 1987 and E180 .D36 1997 (reprint).

Bibliography of Smith County, Texas

If you already know the name of the home or building, check the Bibliography of Smith County, Texas, under Architecture.  Then do a Find from your browser to get to the matching entry.  Unfortunately, many of these do not have a street address attached.

Key Sources

Here are the most important sources from the bibliography:

Gajda, Patricia.  The Faces of Tyler.  Tyler:  Tyler Museum of Art, 1978.  Oversize NA6152.T9 G3.  The UT Tyler Library has three copies--one upstairs that can be checked out and two in Archives (one in the faculty publication collection). 

Chronicles of Smith County Texas, particularly the old homes issues of vol. 3, no. 1 (Spring 1964) and vol. 6 no. 1 (Spring 1967), although there are many more over the 40+ years of publication.  These homes are located all over the county.

Home files at the Smith County Historical Society Archives.  The volunteer staff at the Historical Society are dedicated to collecting information on homes from any and all sources, including Christmas and Azalea Trails home tours.  The Archives is in the Carnegie History Center, corner of S. College and W. Elm, across the street from Tyler Public Library.

The City of Tyler Historic Preservation Board awards Tyler Historic Landmark markers to buildings across the city.  See their Landmarks and Districts page for links to public and municipal sites, residential sites, national districts, places of worship, and a map of National Historic Districts.  For example, the Residential Sites link takes you to a list of historic homes, with photos, construction date, address, and brief history.  The Board retains the more extensive application files at the Planning Department, 423 West Ferguson.  Go here for a map of Tyler's landmarks.

Need to identify an architectural style?  See Identifying American Architecture:  A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms, 1600-1945, by John J. G. Blumenson.  2d ed.  New York:  W. W. Norton, 1981.  NA705 .B55 1981.

Other Sources

Current land ownership appears on the Smith County Appraisal District website.  Be sure to only use Internet Explorer with it--other browsers do not work.  There are other quirks, so read the pages carefully.  You can zoom in on a map, search by name, or search by address.  Detailed information will include the year built and square feet, along with subdivision, block, and lot information.  The map will show the property outline.

If you are researching a historic building inside the city of Tyler, check with Historic Tyler, Inc. They have an online Tyler Landmark Register with photos and brief histories.  They also work closely with Tyler's Historic Preservation Board to establish ordinances.  If you are interested in a downtown property, check with Heart of Tyler.

Another organization to contact is the City of Tyler Historic Preservation Board.  They approve Tyler Historic Landmarks, which can be public and municipal, residential, or places of worship.  They can also designate historic districts.  Each application must include exhaustive documentation, more than that which appears with each building on their website.  Contact the Board staff if you want to know more about any of the landmark buildings.

City directories are discussed under the People tab.  In later years they developed into criss-crosses, with sections listed by personal name, by street address, and by telephone number.  The street address section in particular is useful for tracking the history of a city lot or of rental property occupancy, since there will be no deed record for that.

Deeds are also discussed under the People tab.  You may start with the current owner and work back, or the first owner and work forward.  There are also plat maps of current (less than about 20 years old) neighborhoods and subdivisions at the County Clerk's office in downtown Tyler.  Older maps of surveys from about 1900 to about 20 years ago, will be at the Cotton Belt Bulding.  Old deed records often refer to specific buildings on the land, or "improvements."

Abstracts are discussed in the "Who is Where, When" section under the Communities tab.  Sometimes a current property owner will own the abstract of the property up until he or she purchased it that will outline every time it changed hands.  The abstracts at the Smith County Historical Society will be useful mostly only for the nineteenth century.

Once you have a date of sale or other detailed information, newspapers may be useful.  Unfortunately, almost none of the Tyler papers are indexed, so you really need a date to work off of.  You may find articles on construction, fires, or demolition, or advertisements describing a property for sale.

Property often changes hands after a death.  See the probate records section under the People tab

Tax records are also discussed under the People tab.  A jump in the value of a lot may indicate that a structure was built on it that year.

Sources of city/town maps are listed under the Communities tab.  Pay particular interest to the Digital Sanborn Maps, and the Well's New Map of the City of Tyler.  However, even the Soil Survey Map and the earlier county highway maps will show little black boxes for homes, boxes with crosses for churches, and boxes with flags for school buildings.

A mechanic's lien is form of security given over a piece of property to make sure a debt is paid.  If a carpenter works on a house, he may file a lien to make sure he gets paid.  The lien will include type of construction or repairs to be completed.  They are on file in the Cotton Belt Building or in the County Clerk's office, depending on date.

The City of Tyler requires building permits, but I do not know where they are stored nor how far back they go.

No city or county department holds architectural plans, but the current home owner may own them.

The Smith County Historical Society Archives includes an extensive collection of photographs.  Visit with them to check for any historic views of your building.  Robert Reed maintains a wonderful website of Tyler postcards that includes 14 images of residences and 28 assorted street scenes.

And, of course, talk to people--current owners, current neighbors, previous owners if you can find them, family members or friends who may have visited.  They may also have photographs in their private collections.

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