Research Sources: Architecture Glossaries

There are literally hundreds of specialized terms for the parts of a building, and it can be hard to find precisely the right word you need to describe one part of your building. Here are a few suggestions, from the basic to the specialized, to help you start identifying the parts of your house with confidence and precision.

For a basic overview of the “bones” of the house, the recommended book is Francis Ching’s Building Construction Illustrated. Older editions are recommended for legibility.

For a simplified visual guide to identifying house styles, basic floor plans, and exterior parts of a house, the go-to book is Virginia Savage McAlester and Lee McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses. The pictorial glossary is in the first section of the book, before the discussions of identifying architectural styles.

For more specialized terms, Cyril M. Harris’ Historic Architecture Sourcebook contains numerous illustrations and alphabetical listings of uncommon architectural terms. The downside of this book is that you must either have an idea of the word you are searching for, or plenty of time to flip through the book.

A number of older, out of copyright architectural glossaries can now be searched and read on Google eBooks. A free version of John Henry Parker’s classic A Concise Glossary of Terms Used in Grecian, Roman, Italian, and Gothic Architecture (1869) is available. An American-specific glossary The American Glossary of Architectural Terms (1887) by George O. Garnsey is also available. The text of both can be searched for broad terms to find more specific related words.

If you would just like a quick dose of new architectural vocabulary in your life, visit National Trust for Historic Preservation Blog and search their “Preservation Glossary” entries, which offer illustrations and short definitions. A similar slideshow of unusual terms is available at This Old House.

Do you have any other favorite places to find architectural terminology? Let us know!

Research Source: Buttolph Collection of Menus

If you are searching for some unorthodox means to create historically accurate menus, the Buttolph collection of menus at the New York Public Library may be just the collection you need. From the description of the collection at the New York Public Library:

The menu collection originated through the energetic efforts of Miss Frank E. Buttolph (1850-1924), a somewhat mysterious and passionate figure, whose mission in life was to collect menus. In 1899, she offered to donate her existing collection to the Library — and to keep collecting on the Library’s behalf.

Most of the menus are from New York or adjacent states, but the collection is not geographically limited. Two menus from Virginia are currently in the online collection, both from the celebrated Hygeia Hotel near Fort Monroe from the 1880s. You can read more about the Hygeia Hotel in a promotional booklet from the 1880s at the Internet Archive.

Read more about the Buttolph collection and its offerings at The History Blog.

How to Prevent Frozen Pipes from This Old House

Extended cold weather and even our first significant snowfall are on the horizon for Winchester, and in addition to worrying about your pantry being stocked this weekend, you may be concerned about freezing pipes and the resulting damage that can ensue. This Old House expert Richard Trethewey demonstrates some common pipe insulation techniques and some tips for when that pipe does freeze. Watch the clip on YouTube and read the full supply list in the video description.

How To: Find Restoration Materials and Contractors

Often when performing a restoration or a rehabilitation of an older property, you need unique or unusual materials that can’t be found off the shelf at Lowe’s or Home Depot. PHW’s research library contains pamphlets on some of these companies and products, but thanks to the internet, many of these can now be found online. Here is a quick overview of some places to look for more information on restoration materials and companies:

The Old House Journal has a Restoration Products Directory listing more than 2000 companies. They also have products broken down by categories for easy browsing.

Preservation Directory also has a section dedicated to Businesses, Products & Services. Not only does it include actual materials and contractors, but also to consultants for associated aspects of preservation like National Register nominations.

If you have access to the National Trust for Historic Preservation Forums, you may wish to search past topics for information and experiences with unusual materials.

Don’t forget our local architectural salvage business, Maggie’s Farm in Front Royal, VA.

The Virginia Department of Historic Resources has a consultant directory. DHR’s directory is not an approved or all-inclusive list, but a starting point for owners seeking professional help with their preservation project. Download as a PDF.

Finally, PHW has a contractor directory to local craftsmen who have specialties in historic preservation work, or even just small odd jobs around old houses. We are always accepting new craftsmen to be included in our directory; drop us an email at to update your listing or submit one to us. You can download a blank consultant form here.

Do you have any other favorite sources to go to for restoration materials? Let us know!

How To: Research an Old House

Due to the fortuitous circumstances of rearranging the PHW library for the 2015 Holiday House Tour, PHW will be digitizing some of our research materials that are full of good information but have received little attention from researchers. To start the series, we will begin with perhaps the most common question we receive – how to research an old house.

Many frequent research topics and resources are linked at PHW’s page Research Your Property. The starting point of any effective, in-depth history is finding the chain of title, or the history of the property’s owners. It is assumed you have some familiarity with researching deeds in the following collected tips.

From John G. Lewis:

First check:
1. What I Know About Winchester by William Greenway Russell for any names he may have and those of adjacent property owners.

2. Map of Winchester showing the in-lots by number, as these were often used in the deeds.

3. Sanborn Insurance Maps

4. The Story of 100 Old Homes in Winchester, Virginia by Garland Quarles for his deed references.

5. The 1976 survey files held by PHW, as some contain deed research. (If you complete deed research on a property, PHW will gladly add a copy of your findings to our files.)

City Clerks Office, which holds the deeds, deed indexes, wills-chancery cases, and land books. Look for copies of auction advertisements or listing of improvements. Note that if a woman inherits a property it will be in her father’s will and not in the deed indexes. If you hit a dead end like this, check adjacent lots for owners of the lot you are working on, prior to where you are, and check will indexes for that name to see if the lot was left to a daughter or widow who has since remarried, etc.

As some deeds are in both the City and County Clerks Offices, in your notes use WDB (Winchester Deed Book) WWB (Winchester Will Book) or FCDB and FCWB for the County.

Be sure of the location and adjacent owners, and make notes of these, as some people owned numerous properties in different locations and left some to sons of the same name!

When you get to original owners, circa late 1700s or early 1800s, and after checking construction materials of the original and/or and changes of additions and what if any outbuildings there are, check the Mutual Assurance Policies in the Handley Archives in the names of the early owners. Most of these show a location and the width/depth of the structure, number of stories, and kind of building material, like the Sanborn Insurance maps.

Sometimes you have to play the long shots of a possibility based on your information at hand; these often pay off, and sometimes not.

Street directories, found in the Stewart Bell Jr. Archives at Handley Library, are the quickest way to find and track resident names if you have a street address. Note that street numbers and names have changed over the years, and you should verify the names uncovered through the directories through other resources. Learn more about the resources and tips for researching old houses at the Handley Library website.

Via the National Trust for Historic Preservation, remember to check census record, probate records, marriage records, court records, building permits, and minutes of public bodies like the city council. Consult obituary records for previous owners, articles on natural disasters or arson, and articles on development of subdivisions. If you are lucky, you may find original architectural plans, but those are seldom available. Don’t forget to check the local archives for family records like diaries, letters, account books, and scrapbooks. Corroborate any oral traditions you can collect with other research materials to verify stories. If you can, you may use dendrochronology and nail chronology in dating the building.

From Margaret T. Peters, a former research historian from the Division of Historic Landmarks (now Virginia Department of Historic Resources) come the additional tips:

Check Swem’s Index for a comprehensive index to several publications concerning Virginia history and genealogy. Check patents under a family name in Cavaliers and Pioneers. Check the index to the Virginia Gazette edited by Lester Cappon and Stella Duff for advertisements and public notices of auctions, runaway slaves, and ship sailing dates from 1735-1780. This is most useful for the Tidewater region. Check church parish record for births, deaths, and marriages. The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War can be useful if there was Civil War activity near your property. This book is a reprint of the 1891 report Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

All of these tips are just starting points and suggestions – not all sources are relevant or applicable to all properties and families. Researching your house is like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces hidden in a scavenger hunt with few clues to their locations. You may not find all the pieces of the puzzle that you would hope to find, regardless of how long and diligently you research. All the individual pieces, however, will add up over time to form a more complete picture of the house and its occupants.