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Preservation Brief No. 4: Researching Historic Properties

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Lower Merion Township and its built resources are rich with intriguing history waiting to be uncovered. The first section of this HARB Brief is a guide through the basic steps to researching the history of a building, it's construction date, and past owners. Even if construction was recent, documentation about the land dates back to William Penn's proprietorship of 1682, early colonists, and the Lenape Indians.

The last part of the Brief provides a Bibliography of important resources available in the Township library system on Lower Merion's history and building history research and a list of regional Research Collections and Web Sites with contact information and details on types of material available in each collection.

To Begin Research

Determine whether historic research on the property has been compiled by Lower Merion Township's Planning Department or if the building is in the Township Historic Resource Inventory. Use the Township's Searchable Database of Historic Properties.

Many architecturally significant buildings or historic properties built before 1913 are included in this inventory. For listed properties there is usually a brief written description, approximate date of construction, and name of the architect, if known. Additional literature on the property may also be cited. If a house was an outbuilding such as a barn, carnage house, or garage on a former estate that still exists, check the address of the estate for further information. If the building is within a Township Historic District, written property documentation can be obtained through the township Building Department, 75 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore. Architectural drawings of many buildings constructed or altered after 1926 can also be viewed in this department.

If you find no data or want further information, look first at The Lower Merion Historical Society's recent publication The First 300, The Amazing and Rich History of Lower Merion. This book incorporates extensive descriptions of properties and has a good index. It is available in township libraries and bookstores. If your property appears to have some significance, it may also have been referenced in a newspaper article. Clipping files on historic properties exist at The Lower Merion Historical Society located at Ashbridge House in Rosemont, at Ludington Library in Bryn Mawr, and at the Gladwyne Free Library.

Dating with Railroad Atlas Maps
(ca. 1871-1961)

The easiest and quickest way to determine how long a building has been standing in Lower Merion Township is to trace the chronological history of the property through railroad atlases that were published nearly every ten years between 1871 and about 1961. These atlases helped railroad companies identify property ownership; today they are invaluable resources for historic research. Each atlas includes about 20 plates to cover the 24 square-mile Township. Use the index at the beginning of each volume to determine which plate to examine for your community and street. Street names often changed and street numbers are not always included, but building footprints help locate a building.

The most complete set of atlases is available online through the auspices of the Lower Merion Library System at Historic Property Atlases webpage.
Atlases are also available for public use through The Lower Merion Historical Society and the Pennsylvania Room of the Gladwyne Free library; a few can also be found at the reference department of the Ludington library.

When reviewing atlases, start with the most recent atlas, locating the community, the street, and lot or building footprint. Compare the footprint with the existing building. If the pattern seems completely different or is located in a different area, then the building may be more recent than the atlas, limiting research to the land and its previous buildings. If the footprint is the same, trace the building and the land backward through each earlier atlas.

The research sequence will show that housing was sparse in 1871, but land ownership large. As development occurred, roads and streets changed and house lots became smaller. When a house fails to appear in an earlier atlas, it was built between the date of that atlas and the one in which it last appeared; this provides an approximate construction period. The last atlas might provide the name of the first owner of the house as well as the name of the land owner who first sold the land for development. Note these names, as they will provide clues for the next map search.

John Levering Map of 1851

The 1851 John Levering Map of Lower Merion Township is the best available before 1871 to check land or building sites by owner name. This map may be found as a Special Map in the back of the 1908 A. H. Mueller Atlas of Properties on the Main Line Pennsylvania Railroad and is often reproduced separately today. Use the communities, roads, railroads, and Mill Creek to help locate the site of the land or building under investigation. The name and acreage of the earliest land owner of your property may be on this map. The owner may have been written up in the historic annals of the 19th century. Check Bean's History of Montgomery County (1884) and Toll's The Second Two Hundred Years. The owner's name should also be researched in the clipping files at the collections mentioned above and in The First 300. Other books on Lower Merion Township in the Gladwyne Library's Pennsylvania Room will also be valuable resources for pictures and further historical data (see the Bibliography).

Deed Research or "Chain of Title"

To follow a deed back in time, use any of the locations listed under Research Collections convenient for carrying out the research. County deed offices always have a complete set of records which will usually be on microfilm. The best way to begin is with the current (or relatively recent) owner's name. Use the correct deed index to get the deed book and page number. Order the deed book or microfilm and use the "recitation of ownership" in this deed to get the previous deed book and page number.

Continue this process back to 1784 in Montgomery County. Prior to 1784, use Philadelphia County deeds, patents, and warrant books. Mortgages can be researched the same way. Deeds provide names, location, occupations of owners, land survey data, names of neighbors, references to buildings, topography, and water rights. Each name opens doors to further research.

Wills and Inventories, Sheriff Sales,
Tax Lists, Census Data, Personal Papers,
Photographs, Images

If you are willing to take the time to be a sleuth, all of the above resources can shed valuable information on your property or the families who owned it. The institutions included in the Research Collections list are the main resources for such information. Each should be able to offer helpful directions within their own collection. Many offer special programs for historians and genealogists and printed leaflets to assist researchers through their collection.

Insurance Surveys

Fire insurance records from the 18th century to the 20th century can provide accurate written building descriptions of properties in Philadelphia and the suburbs. Often, plans or photographs are included if a property was insured. Check the Historical Society of Pennsylvania for such records. The Philadelphia Contributionship is the oldest company and one that still exists, but suburban buildings were less frequently insured. The company may be contacted directly for inquiries.

Sanborn Insurance Atlases from ca.1896-1927 that show footprints of properties can be viewed on microfilm at the Map Collection of the Philadelphia Free library. These do not cover the entire Township, however, but focus on commercial and railroad-related buildings plus neighboring residences.

Resources in the Township Libraries

The Township library system has a good selection of current publications on the history of the community, architecture, and restoration of old buildings. The HARB has helped to expand the collection by purchasing publications directly related to restoring buildings. These are generally housed at the Gladwyne Free library to assist owners in the historic districts in that community. Books may be found by using subject headings such as "historic preservation","building restoration", "house histories", "architecture", "masonry restoration," "windows" , an architect's name, etc.

Sharing the Research

Results of property research can be rewarding and informative, often explaining the reason for an architectural style, the added wings of a house, or the context of a neighborhood's development. Should you choose to follow the research path and you discover valuable information on your property, please consider sharing it with the HARB or The Lower Merion Historical Society for inclusion in their records.


For the convenience of those who want an instant bibliography of literature on the history of Lower Merion Township (some with images), and books on how to carry out research, important sources are listed below.

Bean, Theodore W., ed. The History of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. 2 vols.
Philadelphia: Everts & Peck, 1884. (Portions also available on a website.)

Becker, Gloria 0. Mill Creek Valley: Architecture, Industry, and Social Change in a Welsh Tract Community, 1682-1800.
Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1984.

Brandywine Conservancy. Protecting Historic Properties A Guide to Research and Preservation.
Chadds Ford: Brandywine Conservancy, 1984.

Browning, Charles H. Welsh Settlement of Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia: William J. Campbell, 1912.

Develin, Dora Harvey. Historic Lower Merion & Blockley
Philadelphia: Dora Harvey Develin, 1922.

Doebley, Carl E. Lower Merion-A Portrait.
Ardmore: The Lower Merion Historical Society, 1976.

Fitch, James Marston. American Building.- The Environmental Forces that Shaped It.
NewYork: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

Glenn, Thomas Allen. Merion in the Welsh Tract.
Norristown: Thomas Allen Glenn, 1896.

Hotchkin, S. F. Rural Pennsylvania in the Vicinity of Philadelphia.
Philadelphia: George W Jacobs, 1897.
(Places in Time website includes on-line images.)

King, Moses. Philadelphia and Notable Philadelphians.
New York: Moses King, 1901.
(Places in Time website includes on-line images.)

Light, Sally. House Histories.- A Guide to Tracing the Genealogy of Your Home.
Spencertown, N.Y: Golden Hills Press, 1989.

The Lower Merion Historical Society. The First 300: The Amazing and Rich History of Lower Merion.
Ardmore, PA: The Lower Merion Historical Society, 2000.

Maier, Phyllis C. and Mary Mendenhall Wood, eds. Lower Merion - A History.
Ardmore, PA: The Lower Merion Historical Society, 1988.

Moss, Roger. Paint in America
Washington, D.C: Preservation Press, 1994.

Pakradooni, D. Loyd and Timothy M. Michael. Glimpses- A Pictorial History of the Great Main Line.
[n.p.]: International Printing Company, 1975.

Tatnian, Sandra L. and Roger W. Moss. Biographical Dictionary of Philadelphia Architects.- 1700-1930. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1985.
(Out of print; available at Bryn Mawr College Rhys Carpenter Library.)

Toll, Jean Barth and Michael Schwager. Montgomery County: The Second Hundred Years.
Montgomery County Federation of Historical Society, 1983.
(Two volumes. Be sure to read the Architecture section as well as the history of Lower Merion Township.)

Whiffen, Marcus. American Architecture Since 1780: A Guide to the Styles.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.