Is My House a Wooden House?

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Fire insurance map of Williamsburg and Greenpoint in 1907

We all know it’s possible to live in a wooden house disguised as a brownstone. But do you ever wonder if clapboard or shingles actually lay hiding under your stucco, vinyl or aluminum exterior? Today, the Wooden House project presents a surefire method to determine your house’s primary material.

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Historic atlases of New York City color code buildings by material: yellow for wood, pink for brick

keyThe simplest way to determine a building’s original material is by visiting the New York Public Library’s online Map Division and searching through the Atlases of New York City. There you will encounter a long list of digitized atlases for all five boroughs. If you look closely, you’ll see that many of the atlases are of Brooklyn: 1855, 1898, 1907, etc.

Why are we looking at these maps? Because most of them were created for fire insurance purposes, the artists were careful to color code the buildings according to how flammable their materials might have been. Wood was very flammable, so these colors will tell you a lot about your house! Building materials were indicated on fire insurance maps as early as the 1850s, but not all wood-frame houses were built by then. If you’re unsure when your house was built, we suggest checking out the 1898 map or the 1907 map; because of fire limit laws, most wood-frame houses in Brooklyn were built by those years.

In their original forms, these atlases are gigantic books. The New York Public Library has digitized them page by page (or plate by plate, as they were called). Just like with a roadmap, you’ll need to use the first few pages to determine on which plate you’ll find your house. You can do this by zooming in on either the Street Index page or the Map Outline page (use the zoom tool above the image).

Once you’ve found your plate, open it up and start exploring! Use the zoom tool once more while viewing your plate to find your street and address.

By looking at the adjacent 1907 map key, we see the various ways that the map artists used color to indicate materials. Frame houses are indicated with the color yellow, brick houses are pink, and frame houses with brick fronts are yellow with a pink strip to indicate a masonry facade.

What did you find — pink or yellow? Let us know if you’ve discovered a wood-frame building hiding under a stone facade!