Map the History of Your House

By Jennifer Irsfeld James

Want to research the history of your Drake Neighborhood house? A rich historical resource, the digital Sanborn Fire Insurance maps show the footprints of houses and outbuildings. Savvy homeowners use these maps to help date the construction of houses and outbuildings—and determine the exact footprints of original porches to be reconstructed, torn-down carriage houses/garages to be rebuilt, and inappropriate additions that need to be removed. Such maps can help with careful restoration, an important consideration for fetching top dollar in the current housing market. The beautifully restored Colonial Revival foursquare on the southeast corner of 28th and Cottage Grove includes all original windows, repainted original wood siding, the original garage, original interior woodwork—sold in 2012 for $230,000.

Digital access to the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps is available to all Des Moines Public Library card holders. (The downtown library also has these maps on microfilm.) The Sanborn company produced these detailed plans for use by fire insurance companies and fire departments during a time when fires were a common hazard. Maps of Des Moines were drawn in 1884, 1891, 1901, and 1920, with updates made through 1956. Each map shows the most developed areas of the city, where the threat of fire was greatest. The maps detail the footprints (outlines) buildings and their placement on the lot (labeled by address), noting construction materials and number of stories/floors. This allows today's homeowners to see where porches and garages that have been removed once stood.

Houses are marked "D" for dwelling. The mark "S" indicates a store. Public buildings and important businesses and institutions -- such as Drake University and various churches -- are labeled. Unless marked as brick or stucco, buildings shown are frame (clad in wood).

1901 Sanborn citywide map: Within each Sanborn map, use the citywide map to find the area of town you want to research. Note the number for the area. Only the most developed areas are included, so it's possible you may not find your address on every map.

Porches are indicated by dotted lines. Additions, such as the common 1-story rear kitchens, show a doorway leading from the main structure to the addition. Outbuildings can include carriage houses, garages, outhouses, and barns. For example, the 1901 map shows that the house at 1155 26th St. was a 1-1/2-story frame (wooden) house with a front porch. Development in the Drake Neighborhood didn't begin until the 1880s, with most houses being built around the turn of the 20th century. That means the 1901 map is the first that shows most of the neighborhood. Be aware that some street names and numbers (addresses) have changed over the years. In addition, construction of I-235 and university expansion have destroyed many houses, so it can be a bit disorienting to look at pre-1950 maps. Also keep in mind that these maps were drawn by hand -- so even though they are highly accurate, some minor errors were made. Those caveats aside, the Sanborn maps are a key resource for unlocking the history of your house.

Page 43 of 1901 Sanborn map: Locate your portion of the neighborhood using the page numbering system.

How to Find Your House on the Online Sanborn Maps

Here's how to look up your house on the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps located online at the Des Moines Public Library:

Start with the 1950 or 1956 map and work backward until you find a map that doesn't feature your house. Then compare the maps to see how your house has changed -- or remained the same -- over the years.

  1. Go to the Des Moines Public Library's page for "Digital Sanborn Maps for Iowa."
  2. Click on "Go to Digital Sanborn Maps for Iowa."
  3. The next page asks for your barcode number (on your library card) and a PIN number (often the last four digits of your telephone number).
  4. Select the state (Iowa), then the city (Des Moines), and the year of the map.
  5. Select the year -- 1884, 1891, 1901, 1906 (downtown only), 1920, 1920-1950 (shows changes made between these years), or 1956 reprint of 1920 (I haven't had time to compare to see how this differs).
  6. Then look at the citywide map located in the first few pages and search for the section of the city or specific street you're looking for. The maps are sorted into page numbers, so once you find your street, look to see what number it's assigned.
  7. Then search for the page number (located on the upper left or right corner of each page).
  8. Enlarge the page up to 560 percent, print off copies, and/or make digital images of the map.

Tips: If you have problems accessing the maps, make sure your computer is set to accept cookies. Otherwise, refer to the technical help page on the library site for more information.

1155-26th St. in 1901: Study the map of your house to see the the number of stories of the house, location of porches, and types of outbuildings.