© Copyright 1995-2003 by Christopher Gray

It's like the weather: Everybody talks about the history of their buildings, 
but nobody does anything about it. And why should they? While historic 
preservation has become a billion-dollar industry, actual historical research 
on buildings is a near-orphan, and there is no manual, guidebook or even a 
list of the commonest sources for local-history research in New York City. 
The blind alleys and travel time between archives can discourage even the 
most dedicated researchers; novices often give up, not knowing how close they 
may be to their goal. And so New York's history usually remains a remote, 
inaccessible idea. No wonder walking-tour guides get by with outlandish tales. 

Marie DelValle of Manhattan has a common query: "How can I obtain more 
information on the history of my building at 233 West 72d Street?" Even an 
amateur can look at her building and accurately guess it is a rowhouse built 
about 100 years ago for a private family, and since altered. If your house is 
in a district designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission 
http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/lpc/home.html), their designation 
reports almost always contain original construction data plus, sometimes, 
information on the original occupancy and later changes. (A full historic 
district report can cost up to $100, but the Commission will usually Xerox 
the page of your house for you.) 

But although Mrs. DelValle's building, between Broadway and West End Avenue, 
is not in an historic district she is fortunate in two ways. First, her 
building was occupied by the propertied class, which does helpful things such 
as putting up other buildings and having their obituaries appear in the 
newspapers. Second, it's in Manhattan, where the records are much richer, 
although more complicated, than in the other boroughs. To encourage 
interested amateurs, including Mrs. DelValle, here is a speed dig for the 
history of her house: Wear sneakers and depart at 8:20 A.M. 

First stop (9 A.M.): The public-access terminals of the computer 
building-application index at the Manhattan office of the Department of 
Buildings, at 280 Broadway, at Chambers Street (http://www.nyc.gov/html/dob/home.html). Record-keeping started there in June 
1866; it began as late as 1898 in the other boroughs. LOOK confused and one 
of the regulars will either tell you to hurry up or walk you through the 
keyboard protocols to find your address. The index lists two New Building 
applications, NB 92 of 1888 and NB 1716 of 1895. Record any "Alt" -- for 
Alteration -- numbers you see, and also the block and lot numbers. (Finish at 
9:15 A.M.). For offsite access to the link, click here. 

The hard copy folders holding the actual permits are in a long-term 
microfilming project; instead, walk six blocks southeast to the Municipal 
Archives at 31 Chambers Street, Room 103 (NYC 10007; 212-788-8580; 
http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/doris/). There the director, Kenneth Cobb, has 
had the Department of Buildings' docket books -- yearly summaries -- 
microfilmed. In other boroughs the Department of Buildings still controls the 
docket books. 

You will discover that the 1888 application is an indexing error, but that 
the 1895 application covers the construction of five rowhouses completed in 
1896, at 233-241 West 72d Street. These were designed by Henry F. Cook for 
Charles Buek. (Finish at 10 A.M.) Sometimes, the entries are in "metes and 
bounds" descriptions -- the application might describe a row on the south 
side of the street beginning 200 feet west of an avenue, and your own house 
(within that row) might be 240 feet west of the avenue. In such cases, you 
are wise to have consulted a landmap, preferably of an early date, which 
gives the original configuration of the lot. 

On the 1912 Belcher-Hyde landmap of Manhattan, 233 West 72nd Street is shown 
as Lot 19 on Block 1164, 180 feet west of Broadway. Landmaps are also useful 
for intensive building research, especially where a building permit is not 
apparent. There is no single source, but the Map Division of the New York 
Public Library and the Library of the New-York Historical Society have good 
collections. The collection at the Municipal Archives is not as good, but 
adequate for initial research. 

Deeds, in the Office of the City Register, used to be located at 31 Chambers 
Street, but have since moved to 66 John Street, 13th Floor, New York, NY 
10038, 212- 361-7550. (Other boroughs: 
http://www.nyc.gov/html/dof/html/email.html#register.) Don't bother to look 
up the actual deeds; just scan the bound indices, by block and lot number, 
for a brief title search. This indicates that Buek sold the house at 233 to 
Theresa Rawitzer in 1898, and that the next sale was not for more than ten 
years. At this point it is still not certain if Theresa Rawitzer occupied the 
house; she might have held it for investment. (Finish at 10:20 A.M.) 

You know the date of the house -- now check the census. Federal census 
records for all boroughs are at the New York Public Library at 42d Street and 
Fifth Avenue (http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/lhg/genea.html). Go to the 
Local History Room (Room 121, New York, NY 10018-2788, 212- 930-0828) and ask 
a librarian to orient you on how to use their records, which are on 
microfilm. The 1900 census lists no one at that address. But the 1905 New 
York State census, also on microfilm, hits the jackpot: 13 occupants, 
including Herman Rawitzer, 45, born in Germany; his wife, "T. Rawitzer," 30, 
American-born; two children, and Herman's brother and sister-in-law, Simon 
and Harriet Rawitzer. Also listed are seven servants, all foreign-born, from 
cook to governess. (Finish at 12:15 P.M.) 

Then there are city directories and newspaper indices, for which the research 
landscape is rapidly changing. You could use them at the New York Public 
Library, but the lines are often long. It's worth the trip to the New-York 
Historical Society's excellent library (170 Central Park West, at 77th 
Street, New York, NY 10024, 212- 873-3400, Reading Room: ext. 225, ext. 226, 
Manuscript Department: ext. 265, fax: (212) 875-1591; 
http://www.nyhistory.org/libinfo.html). Scan the Manhattan city directories 
-- actual books, not microfilm -- and notice that Herman Rawitzer, "rags," 
first appears at 233 West 72d Street in 1899. Other directories describe him 
as a wool merchant and mention that in 1898 he, or someone in his family, 
built the Rawitzer Building, which still stands at 285 West Broadway, at 
Canal Street. Other boroughs have scattered sources for early city 
directories. When you run into trouble, directories can be particularly 
useful. The NYHS has a pretty full set, running from 1786 to the 1920's, when 
telephone books come in. 

"Address directories" - listings of householders arranged by street address - 
are less reliable, but also useful. The 19th century has a single one in 
1812, another in 1851, and a run of Phillip's Elite Directories beginning in 
1874, and continuing on with Dau's New York Blue Book until 1937 - these list 
only upper middle class householders. More democratic are the address 
directories for telephone subscribers, beginning in 1928 - the early ones 
list even unlisted subscribers! This group is on film at NYPL. 

Digitized directories are beginning to show up - and vanish. For subscribers, 
Ancestry.com offers digitized versions of the 1786, 1869 and 1890 directories 
for New York - you can word-search for "stable", or "44 Lexington" or 
"Rawitzer" (they also have some vital records, plus census returns for 1830 
and before). The company PSIMedia had various directories from 1840-1920, 
although more crudely developed than Ancestry.com 
-- but they deleted this valuable resource in December 2001, reverting to 
sales of the same material on microfilm - sic transit digitalia! 

For standard biographical information, you can just search the web, or check 
Ancestry.com. For local obituaries - the only time most people make the daily 
papers - the traditional approach has been to skip the rather limited New 
York Times Obituary Index and pick up Byron and Valerie Falk's comprehensive 
New York Times Personal Name Index. That leads you to the 1897 marriage of 
Herman Rawitzer to Theresa Rosenthal at Delmonico's and, in 1924, the notice 
of his death at Aix-les-Bains. The "P.N.I." also cites a 1922 article about a 
$40,000 theft at the Rawitzers' house by a band of burglars who lived in the 
building while the family was traveling in France. You are lucky to have such 
a juicy tidbit, but unfortunately other newspapers of the same date did not 
provide additional coverage (or pictures) of the story. But now we are on the 
crest of a tsunami of digitized newspapers -- the Brooklyn Public Library is 
digitizing the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and the firm ProQuest has brought out a 
digitized version of The New York Times back to its first issue. There are 
many unironed wrinkles in this new resource, but it demonstrably captures all 
sorts of trivia, including classified ads, shipping news and even weather 
reports. Most libraries have a subscription to this astonishing resource. 

THAT should take you to 1:30 P.M. In half a day you have learned more about 
your building than most people -- even architectural historians -- know about 
theirs. But any answer usually leads to another question. For instance, when 
Mr. Rawitzer died the family was living at 270 Park Avenue, one of the big 
new apartment houses that siphoned off private-house tenants, especially from 
newly commercial streets like 72d. So how long did 233 West 72d Street remain 
a private house? The next entry on the Department of Buildings computer is 
for Alt 2359 of 1926. 

The original application, in the block and lot folder at the plan desk of the 
Department of Buildings recorded the building as having a "public dining 
room" on the first floor, offices on the second and third floors, and 
dwellings on the fourth and fifth floors. But since those records are not 
available, try the microfilm versions of the docket books, and also the 
address telephone directories. 

A picture of the Rawitzers? Best bet is to contact a real Rawitzer. Try 
following Herman and his relations in city directories for several years, 
especially in census years, and even at other addresses. Next, check the 
census records again to get a wide selection of family members. Then check 
ProQuest or The Times Personal Name Index for obituary and other articles; in 
the case of obituaries, always examine the "paid notice" column around the 
time of the obituary, which may have biographical data that a published 
account lacks. 

The paid notice for Herman Rawitzer lists a daughter, Theresa Kann. A Times 
story in 1932 said that she was a painter, that she suffered from 
"melancholy," and that she committed suicide with poison that year. Another 
technique is to check directory assistance for Manhattan and the nearby area 
codes 718, 516 and 914, but they have nothing; directory assistance in the 
201 and 203 area codes does not do area-wide searches. 

There are now also now national telephone directories on the web and on 
CD-ROM (at the New York Public Library), although these often have 
disconnected numbers and other errors. One lists about 15 Rawitzers, but 
preliminary inquiries suggest that most are descended from a different 
Rawitzer who arrived in the Midwest in the 19th century. Another way to find 
a Rawitzer portrait is to check the classic "mug book" for white males of the 
era, King's Notable New Yorkers (1899). But Mr. Rawitzer didn't make the cut. 
However, he does appear in the obscure Empire State Notables (1914), also at 
the Historical Society. If you're really dedicated, ask for help at the 
library of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, at 122 East 
58th Street (NYC 10022; 212-755-8532; fax: 754-4218; http://www.nygbs.org/), 
the power nexus for professional genealogists, many of whom take on 
family-history projects. 

Members ($60/year) in the "G&B" also have on-line access to the ProQuest 
digitization of The New York Times. This is a fair demonstration of how to 
investigate a building, although it does not show the blind alleys and false 
leads that often confound a researcher. It touches on the main resources for 
a late-19th-century house occupied by a family of means; the techniques for 
recovering information on a tenement family would be much slimmer, and 
slightly different. In such cases municipal records -- births, deaths, 
marriages, naturalization -- become very important. These are split up in a 
crazy quilt among the Office of the City Clerk, the Department of Health, the 
State Supreme Court, Surrogate's Court and the Municipal Archives although 
Archives has most of the ones people want. Many staff members at those 
locations know how to do this type of research, but anyone will profit from 
Estelle Guzik's terrific "Genealogical Resources in the New York Metropolitan 
Area," published at $29.95 by the Jewish Genealogical Society and available 
from out-of-print book dealers for $30-50. 

There are also other sources: The index (1875-1906) of the gossipy New York 
Tribune, a great source for things The Times considered unfit to print; this 
index is widely available in hard copy, and recently on-line (if your library 
subscribes) from the digital publisher Paratext - it is a tremendously 
valuable source, and they also include an index to The New York Times in the 
19th century and other news journals. There are also historic photographs 
(widely dispersed, but Kenneth Cobb, Director of the Archives personally 
saved the astounding, building-by-building collection of "tax photos" of 
1939-1940; http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/records/html/collections_photographs.html); 
voting-registration records (which are rarely tapped); doing research on the 
architects and builders or the occupants of apartment houses. New York's 
buildings are as varied as human beings, and each one calls out from a 
different path. 

The journey is as much fun as reaching the destination. 

Christopher Gray