Researchers that are interested in New York City are going to be thrilled when they learn that you can view online images of nearly every building in the five boroughs of New York City from the year 1940. It was announced by the New York City Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) in 2018 that they have completed a project that digitized over 720,000 historical photographs of New York City buildings. These photos have been published online and are available in the New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery.
They join a similar set of photos dating from the early 1980s that are also available at the same location. These images are known as ‘tax’ photographs and were taken by the city’s property tax office in an attempt to modernize the tax assessment process. The collection consists of nearly every building and house of the five boroughs, with the exception of tax-exempt properties.
The project was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and photographers were hired, but individual photographers who contributed these photos haven’t been identified by their name. Until the digitization, the collection had only been available to view on microfilm at the Municipal Archives in Manhattan, but thanks to the advancement in digitization technology and a lot of hard work by DORIS, the online images now come from the original negatives of the photos, meaning they are of much higher quality than the microfilm images.
There is a distinct collection of images for each of the five boroughs, and within each borough’s collection, the photographs are organized by the block number and lot number assigned to the address. To find an image of a building at a specific address in 1940, you’ll need the block and lot number for that address:
Visit the NYCityMap website, and enter the building’s address, and click on search. The lot at that address will be highlighted on the map interface, and you’ll also come across a lot of useful information on the right-hand panel of the screen. At the very top, you’re going to see the block and lot number that you need. Here is an annotated image of the search:
Once you have the necessary information, you should return to the Municipal Archives Online Gallery and type the following search string into the search field of the upper-right-hand corner of the screen:
block=[block number] AND lot=[lot number]
So, if I’m looking for block 3057 and lot 30, I would type:
block=3057 AND lot=30
And hit search – you should then see a thumbnail image of the building you’re seeking.
The image viewer on the Archives’ website is going to give you a nice look at the building in question, and you’ll notice a high level of detail available when you zoom in. Researchers can obtain a low-resolution, watermarked version of the image by clicking the ‘print’ button at the top of the screen and then saving the image as a JPEG.
For a much better version of the photograph, researchers can order a print copy of the image or order the original high-resolution file from DORIS. It’s easy to do that by clicking the ‘buy prints’ button to the right of the building’s image. Remember, regardless of how you obtain the image, copyright restrictions may still apply to it. Therefore, before working with any images from the website, we recommend that you read the DORIS Terms and Conditions.
If you’re interested, the same process is going to work for the equivalent tax photograph collections from the early 1980s. It can be fascinating to find out how your ancestor’s building changed over the years, either when they still lived there or after they left the building.
Finding photographs of buildings in your family history can be an eye-opening experience, and there is nothing like a photograph of your ancestor’s home to help round out your understanding of their world. It’s also possible that you come across interesting clues in the photographs, whether they are neighborhood features, cars, or even some people.