Learning the Stories of Your Heritage Building
by Terra Barrett
Learning the stories of your heritage building can greatly enrich your understanding and appreciation of it. Things like who owned it over time, how it was used, the lifestyles of the people who inhabited it and interesting accounts associated with a structure can be as significant as its age and style of architecture. There are a wide range of sources for historical information.
Start with the Basics:
When conducting any research it is good to get an idea of what material already exists. You can draw on this material for your own project and it is work you do not need to duplicate. The first thing to do is a quick Google search on the building’s address, year built, architects or builders, and any significant events or individuals associated with the building.
Where to Look:
Next thing to consider is what other repositories exist. While some archives offer online collections many are unable to place material online. In many cases you will have to reach out by phone, email, or in person to find out if an archives or other institution has information pertaining to your heritage building.
Great sources include:
Association of Newfoundland and Labrador Archives (ANLA) – Can provide a listing of archives found across the province with contact information. You can search by region or by subject to find more information.
Centre for Newfoundland Studies, MUN – Contains published materials including books, government documents, periodicals, newspapers, maps, theses, and sound recordings related to Newfoundland and Labrador.
City of St. John’s Archives – Contains directories, building and renovation applications, municipal plans, council minutes, and St. John’s building inventory as well as photograph and map collections.
Family History Society of Newfoundland and Labrador – Collection of genealogical and historical material relating to the province.
Memorial University’s Digital Archives Initiative – Online listing of images, pdfs, audio, and video files from across the province. Collections include theses, books, maps, photographs, periodicals and audio and video interviews.
Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Website – Contains information on the province’s history, culture, and geography including significant people and events.
Newfoundland Historical Society – Contains published material and files pertaining to the province.
The Rooms Provincial Archives – Can search some listings online but full collection is available at The Rooms. Collection includes still images, manuscripts, government materials, cartographic and architectural records, genealogical material, etc.
Where to Search in the Archives:
- Voter’s lists
- Crown land grants
- Aerial photographs
- Nominal census
- Cartographic collections
- Directories and phone books
Excellent places to search in municipal archives and records are the assessment books/tax rolls, plan books for building and renovation applications, municipal plans found in planning department, and council minutes.
The province’s Registry of Deeds has a collection of land deeds by surname of buyer and seller from 1825 to present while the Crown Lands Administration has records on land leases and grants as well as cadastral maps.
Once you have an overview of the history of your heritage building through background research you can start to research some of the intangible cultural heritage or the stories associated with your building. If you want to learn more about how and when it was built, what the building was used for, or would like to see old photographs you can reach out to the architect, builder, or the families that lived in the building or used the space before you. In many cases you will not be able to talk directly with the architect, builder, or family but you can gather information from their family members or friends.
It is good to start with a press release or public service announcement stating that you are looking for memories, stories, or photographs related to your heritage building. This release can be sent to local media including radio (CBC, VOCM, etc.), local newspapers, and Eastlink TV’s community bulletin. Other groups to contact include the local 50+ clubs, social groups, and church groups. Let people know who you are, what you are researching, and why you want to learn more about the heritage building. Or just start asking around the community or neighbourhood.
Once you find someone connected to your heritage building set a date and record an oral history interview. Recording the interview means the material will be preserved for future use and allows you to review the material at a later date. Be sure to ask people you talk with if they have any old photographs you would be able to scan or photograph, and if they have suggestions of people to talk to.
Compile and Document It:
The combination of oral history interviews, archival research, and older photographs will give you an overview of your building’s history and show you how the building’s architecture and use may have changed throughout the years. You can use this information to develop the history of and story behind your heritage building. If you plan on publishing your information make sure to obtain the correct permissions from the people who you talk with, the photos you use and that you cite your sources.
For an example of an article that combined oral history interviews and background research see “It’s Like a Living Thing to Me: An oral history of the Jenkins House, Durrell, Twillingate.” by Dale Jarvis and Alanna Wicks at www.mun.ca/ich/resources or listen to the Jenkins House interviews at www.collections.mun.ca