Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Philadelphia History on the Web

I'm nearing the finish line on my project with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which means I'm tying up a lot of loose ends.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been updating and expanding the Alliance's inventory of African American historic sites in the city. And with an October 1 deadline looming, I can't put off the toughest decisions about what to do with conflicting or absent information. Do I ignore it, try to context it, or fix it?

Like all public historians, I have limited time and resources to solve these thorny issues. So I make decisions on a case by case basis, and try to use the most efficient sources at my fingertips. For this project, that often means using the Web.

Here are a few of my favorite online sources for information about Philadelphia buildings:

* Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network -- The Interactive Map Viewer is fun to play with even if you're not researching city properties. For my project, the 1875, 1895, 1910 and 1942 layers helped me solve more than a few property mysteries.

* Philadelphia Architects and Buildings -- This database incorporates a wealth of information about individual buildings, including links to other resources like HABS files in the Library of Congress. You can also read up on individual architects. You might have to look up a property several different ways to find what you're looking for. You can search by street name, by specific location, or by building info, among others, but I've found some properties only by searching all three ways.

* PhillyHistory.org -- The City Archives has been getting accolades for years now for its database of historic photos. You can search by address or intersection, by keyword, and more. Sometimes you end up with a photo of a sewer grate, but this site is a treasure trove of easily accessible information.

* PhillyHistory.org's Historic Street Name Index -- The City Archives also hosts this neat little tool to look up old street names in the city.

* Pennsylvania's Historic Architecture & Archaeology (ARCH) -- Although a little out of date now (it was last updated in March 2007), the state has a searchable database of National Register and National Historic Landmark properties. Even better, you can view many of the original scanned applications.

* Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program -- The state also has a searchable database of its historical markers.

For leads on other resources about Philadelphia, check out these subject guides:
* Bryn Mawr's Places In Time: Historical Documentation of Place in Greater Philadelphia;
* Penn's Philadelphia History Research Guide; and
* Temple University's Philadelphia Guide.


  1. What a great resource--thanks for compiling this!

  2. Thanks for this. After 45 minutes of searching I found out my loft in Fishtown on Susquehanna and Trenton was once on Otis, then Wood, until it was named Susquehanna.
    There was a building on the lot as early as the Civil War. By 1875 a chap named Rob Weir was turning the patch into tenement housing it seems. Twenty years later (1895) "Electric Light Works" built a factory (now PECO), which regressed into some type of coal dumping ground after WWII and today the property is a hipster loft and at the back end some horse stables for the tourist coaches!
    Philadelphia is filled with irony.