Gathering the Research Data, Part I
CITY OF ALBANY ASSESSMENT ROLLS
The Assessment Rolls are the basic primary source used in the
research of a building's history. These records have been compiled annually
since 1813 for city property tax purposes. Albany County Hall of Records
has a complete set of Assessment Rolls from 1846 to 1976; some of the
volumes for the years 1813-1845 are missing and assessment information for
several wards is not available prior to 1840. Assessments for the years
1813-1818 contain only the names of property owners and the amount of tax
each was charged, making them less useful to the building researcher.
The Assessment Rolls contain such information about a parcel of
property as the owner, occupant or usage, lot dimensions, structures on the
lot, surrounding properties and the assessed value. When this information
is collected for each year of the building's existence and arranged in
chronological order, the researcher will have an outline of the history of
the building that includes the date of construction, owners'names, dates of
The Assessment Rolls for an individual year may encompass one or
more volumes. The city of Albany has been subdivided into as many as
nineteen wards (at present there are fifteen), or as few as four wards
(1813). At the beginning of each ward is a listing of all of the streets
located within it and corresponding page numbers. Each street is assessed
by blocks in all but the very early books. Assessments for Lancaster
Street, for example, will be divided into the following sections: north side
between Swan and Dove Streets, north side between Dove and Lark Streets,
etc., south side between Swan and Dove Streets, south side between Dove and
Lark Streets, etc. Under these sections the separate lots are designated by
number, with the following information included for each:
1.Owner: The owner's name may be followed by such abbreviations as "et.al."
(and others), "Est. of" (Estate of),etc. The name might also be accompanied
by informative designations, such as "heirs of" or "trustee".
2.Occupant or Usage: This column will list either the tenant(s) in the
building or the purpose for which the building is used, such as "dwlg."
(dwelling), "mer." (mercantile), "rel." (religious), etc... The information
found under this heading will vary according to year, with no information
for the years 1870-1920.
3. Dimensions: These are the dimensions of the lot on which a building
stands, not of the building itself. The frontage and depth of the lot will
always be included in this column. Sometimes dimensions for all sides of
the lot will be included with each boundary designated according to
direction, (i.e. N.30, E.57, S.30, W.57).
Names of streets and/ property owners whose lots form boundaries of the
property being researched may also appear in this column. The manner in
which the lot dimensions are recorded varies from year to year.
4. Description: This column will include a brief description of any
structures on the lot, indicating the number of stories and building
material. In the earlier Assessments (prior to 1840) the information is
more detailed, sometimes indicating the condition of the buildings and their
present (and sometimes past) uses.
The word "rear" in a description indicates that an extension has been built
onto the back of the original structure. For example, "3 brick with 2 brick
rear" indicates that the two story structure is attached to the three-story
structure, or in rare instances, it indicates a separate building on the
back of a lot.
5. Assessed Value: This is the amount upon which the owner pays property
taxes; it rarely indicates the true market-value of the property. The
column may be headed "real property", "personal property", or"value of land
exclusive of buildings thereon".
When "Ex." appears in this column, a tax-exempt property is indicated.
The sum listed in the "Amount of Exemption" column is comparable to the
real property value.
Other categories of information found in the Assessment Rolls
(such as "Military No." or "map line number') do not pertain to the building
survey and will not be discussed.
The researcher should copy the entire side of the block. In order
to locate Assessment data it is necessary to know in which ward the block is
located. If this information is not provided, it can be obtained from the
City Treasurer's Office.
Collecting the Data
1. The researcher should first consult the most current volume of the
2. Once the block has been located, the street number, owner, occupant,
dimensions, description and real property value should be copied for all
properties. See example #1 on page 16.
3. The year,ward and page number should be noted for all years for which
the Assessment Rolls are consulted,even those years for which no data is
4. After the current tax assessment data has been copied, the researcher
should work backwards through the volumes until he meets one of the
a. The lot on the street is described as vacant. (No building is on the
b. The property is no longer assessed, usually indicating that either all
lots were vacant, the property was not within the city limits at this
time, or that the street had not yet been officially opened.
c. There are no available volumes for the ward in which the property is
located; this will usually occur in 1813, 1823, 1835 or 1840.
5. Although the researcher should check every year, it is not necessary to
copy the information if it remains the same as in the last volume to be
consulted. He may simply note the year, ward and page number on which
the information is found and indicate that the data had not changed,
(See example #2, p. 17) If, on a block of five or more buildings, only one
change occurs, the researcher should note the change and indicate that the
data for the other properties remained constant (example #I. page 16).
After several such changes occur all information for the block should be
copied in order to avoid confusion later.
When the researcher finds that a block is no longer listed under a
particular ward, he should check the indices for the other wards to see if
the block had been "lost" as the result of a ward change and included in
another ward. Most ward changes occurred in the following years: 1834-1835,
1840-1841, 18691870, 1871-1872, 1894-1895, 1915-1916, 1965-1966.
Handwriting and Spelling Discrepancies
The Assessment Rolls from 1813-1916 are handwritten. When the
writing is illegible the researcher should write down what he thinks it says
and note that there is some question about it. Also, the Assessments will
often list several different spellings for a single owner's name; when this
happens the researcher should note all of the spellings.
Organizing the Data
Once the appropriate Assessment data has been compiled it must be arranged
into chronological order. This should be done for the individual structure
as illustrated in example #2 on page 17,showing all changes which have
occurred throughout the property's history. It is important to note changes
in house numbers and significant changes in lot dimensions in order to avoid
confusing one building for another. It is understood that if a year is not
listed, there had been no changes in the character or ownership of the
The researcher should note that while the assessment data is
gathered from the present years backwards, the assessment breakdowns begin
with a vacant lot and proceed forward to the present year. This can be
confusing so it is important to note the correct year of change when
compiling the individual structure outline.
CITY OF ALBANY WATER RENTS
Like the Assessment Rolls, Water Rents are compiled for city tax
purposes and are very similar in both form and content. However, there are
several important differences which make the Water Rents useful as a
"back-up" source to resolve the confusion which sometimes arises from
Water Rents for the City of Albany are available from 1851 to the
present. With a few exceptions, they are divided into wards, blocks and
street addresses in the same manner as the Assessment Rolls, The Water Rents
list the following information:
1). Owner of the property.
2). Occupants of the building, although not consistently.
3). Various categories of Water Rents and when these were paid.
4). Building usage.
5). Front dimension of the building.
6). Number of stories.
7). Dimensions of lot.
8). "Remarks" column which often notes that a building is under construction
or alteration; or it may elaborate on the description of a tax-exempt
property when the Assessments do not. This column may also include
additional information about outbuildings.
The Water Rents should be consulted when the Assessment data has
been compiled and there is some confusion over whether the designation "in
progress" indicates new construction or an alteration to an existing
structure. (Observation of the building may immediately solve the problem;
however, it may still be wise to consult the Water Rents as an additional
source of written evidence.)
Example: In 1864 the Assessments describe a building as a 2 story brick
valued at $3000. The next year the description changed to "2 Brick
in Progress", but the assessment value remains $3000; in
1866 a 3 story brick building valued at $3500 is listed.
Here it is unclear whether a new 3-story brick building was erected
or whether a story was added to the 2-story brick. In this case the
researcher should turn to the Water Rents, checking the data found in the
Assessment Rolls against that found in the Water Rents for the years
1863-1867 (the two sources often have a discrepancy of one year in their
information, probably because the data was collected at different
times of the year). The Water Rents may clear up questions that arise from
consulting the Assessment Rolls by indicating that either:
1. the building is undergoing alteration, sometimes specifying the nature of
the alteration, such as the addition of a story.
2. the front dimension of the building has changed.
3. that a new building is under construction.
If both the front dimension and the number of stories changed, a
new building probably is indicated; however, if the dimension remains
unchanged and the number of stories increases, it may indicate only an
alteration, as a new building might not have the same front dimension as the
old (except in the case of attached row houses). Again, personal
observation may be the most valuable source of information.
Information found in the Water Rents should be noted with the year,
ward and page number of the volumes used. Data should then be copied, as in
the assessment rolls, including: owner, occupant (if any), lot and
building dimensions, use of building, description of building, and any
CITY OF ALBANY BUILDING PERMITS
Building Permits for the City of Albany are issued to a property
owner who wishes to alter his property and/ or building in some way. In
Albany, they exist from about 1904 and are still issued today. The permits
were originally issued by the City's Fire Department; since 1909, they have
been issued by the Building Department. Unfortunately, many of the permits
dating prior to 1916 are missing; those distributed by the Fire Department
are in poor condition and many are illegible.
Building Permits will generally be used only when a researcher is
certain that there has been an alteration to his building (determined by
observation) and finds evidence in the Tax Assessment Rolls or another
source that the change occurred after 1904. They are very useful when
trying to date an alteration made to a structure, demolition of a building
or, less often, to determine a date of construction.
The standard Building Permit will have a number, the date it was
issued, to whom it was issued,the type of work to be done, the contractor
and the estimated cost of the work.
To locate a Building Permit, it is necessary to first check the
indices; there is a separate index for each year from 1909 to 1986 inclusive.
Within each index, the streets are arranged alphabetically by first letter
only; there is no order within each letter. (For example, permits issued
for State, South Pearl and Steuben Streets will all be listed on the same
page; order on the page is determined by the date issued, not
The researcher should know approximately in which year the
alteration(s) occurred. Once the desired permit is located, the researcher
should copy down the permit number and any other available information,
which usually includes the owner, contractor and some indication of the
work to be done. The researcher should next locate the appropriate volume
of Building Permits (arranged numerically), then turn to the .original
permit and copy all information listed on the permit. The number and date
of issue should be noted.
Deeds are the most accurate means of discovering the exact date that
a property transaction occurred and the names of all parties involved.
Although deeds are sometimes not recorded until several years after a
property transaction has taken place, they always include the date of
transaction as well as the date that the deed was recorded. Deeds also
include the location of the property, its dimensions, and the name of the
city or town in which each party involved lives at the time of the sale.
Usually a deed will indicate that the property being sold is either a vacant
lot or includes a building or buildings; this fact may be useful in
determining construction dates, particularly when a description' of the
building is included. Occasionally a deed will be accompanied by a map,
blueprint or photograph of the property that is changing hands.
Grantee-Grantor Books (index to Deeds)
In order to consult a deed it is necessary to first check the
Grantee or the Grantor books (part of the Index to the Public Records of
the County of Albany,) for the page number and volume in which the deed is
The grantee is the party purchasing the property, The grantor is the
party selling the property. The name of at least one of these parties must
be known in order to locate the deed. The names in these books are listed
in alphabetical order and there are several volumes of each type of book
(Grantee or Grantor). The following information is found in both sets of
books: 1) the names of both the grantee and the grantor; 2) a description of
the property, indicatingthelotandorthedistance6ftheproperty,from a given
location;3) the book and page number of the Deedv book in which the deed is
located; 4) the date of transaction and 5) the date that the deed was
1630-1894: If the deed was recorded betweeen 1630 and 1894, the researcher
must look up the name of either the grantee or the grantor in the
appropriate volume; these are arranged alphabetically. When the same person
is listed as a party in numerous transactions. check the "Date" column for
the year in which the transfer is believed to have taken place, and then
theNote" column for a description of the property. The "Recorded" column
includes the book and page number in which the deed is to be found.
1895-Present:If the deed was recorded between 1895 and the present,
the same procedure as outlined above may be followed with the exception
of the first step. The names of the grantees and grantors for these years
are not listed in strict alphabetical order, but according to the first two
or three letters of the last name. For example, all deeds involving someone
by the name of "Anderson" would be indexed on the same page number as those
deeds involving someone named "Andrews", but the two names might appear
anywhere on the pages designed for the names starting with'An" rather than
all transactions involving people by the name of Anderson appearing in one
place and all transactions involving people named Andrews in another. At
the beginning of each volume of the Grantee-Grantor books for 1895-1986 is
a table of contents indicating the page number on which transactions are
listed. It is important to know that there might be several pages of
transactions involving people whose names start with the same sequence of
letters but that all of these pages will have the same number.
Locating Corporation Deeds:
1630-1894: If the party buying or selling the property is a corporation,
the transaction will be listed under the Corporation Deeds section of the
"C" volume of the Grantee-Grantor books. Any transactions involving a
company, a religious, educational or governmental institution, etc., will be
indexed in this section. In the front of the section entitled "Corporation
Deeds" is a table of contents listing the pages on which the various
categories of corporations are indexed.
1895-1939: Corporation Deeds for these years are indexed in the back of
individual volumes according to the first initial of the corporation's
title. See the table of contents in the front of each volume for the page
1940-Present: The later sets of Grantee-Grantor books contain separate
volumes for Corporation Deeds.