City directories have been published nearly every year from 1870 to the present, although there are a few earlier ones as far back as 1819. Beginning in 1879-80, all directories contain a section devoted to street addresses arranged in alphabetical order by street name and then numerically by address. The year in which a property's address first appears is generally the year in which the building was constructed.
For example, if you believe the property was constructed in the 1890s, you should pick a year between 1890 and 1900 to check. If the property's address does appear in that volume, check future years until it does not. If it does not appear, work backward until it does. (For example, if the property does not appear in the 1898 directory but does in the 1899, then the building was probably constructed in 1898-99.)
Check cross streets to make sure that you are in the correct block; numbering on the block could have changed. A structure could have been replaced by another on the same site as well.
Mss. 10: no. 286, reels 12-14
The Sanborn Map Company issued detailed maps of some sections of Richmond for the years 1886, 1895, 1905, 1908, 1919, and 1924-25, with subsequent updates to 1950. Commercial areas tended to be mapped in the earliest maps, while nearly all sections were covered in later maps.
Each map includes only a few blocks of a neighborhood. Drawn to precise dimensions, the maps show street names and sidewalks, etc. Buildings are indicated by address, configuration, window and door openings, porches, outbuildings, etc. The Sanborn maps can help you determine the general period of construction of a building, but not the exact year. For instance, if a building appears on the 1919 map but not the 1908 map, you may assume it was constructed between 1908 and 1919. However, you will still have to use other sources to determine a more exact date.
Tax records are not available at the Virginia Historical Society. The Library of Virginia holds an extensive collection of Richmond land tax records and personal property tax records dating from the late eighteenth century into the twentieth. The majority of these records have been microfilmed for use by patrons.
A deed search must be done to determine who owned a property at a certain time. Deed books are located in the Clerk's office (804.646.6530) of the Richmond Circuit Court in Room LL4 in the basement of the John Marshall Courts Building at 400 North 9th Street. Deed books for Richmond span the period from 1782 to the present.
Virginia historic landmarks
Nomination reports, required for a listing in the State and National Register of Historic Places, are located at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, 2901 Kensington Avenue in Richmond. The library of the Virginia Historical Society has nomination reports for many historic landmarks and for the following historic districts:
East Franklin Street
West Franklin Street
St. John's Church Area
2900 Block of Grove Avenue
Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row
To determine which additional locations have nomination reports, consult the card file drawers labeled "Virginia Historic Landmarks" at the end of the card catalog next to the wall of portraits in the VHS reading room.
Nomination reports contain an inventory of all buildings in the historic district. The inventory features a brief architectural description of the building and a specific or general date of construction.
If a property is outside of the areas listed above, a useful step is to read about the architecture and history of the city.
Two books, both written by Mary Wingfield Scott, which can be helpful are:
Old Richmond Neighborhoods
Houses of Old Richmond
Both deal specifically with pre-1860 buildings in the Downtown, Church Hill, Court End, and Jackson Ward neighborhoods.
Another helpful source, written by Marguerite Crumley and John G. Zehmer, is:
Church Hill: the St. John's Church Historic District
The authors provide a date or period of construction for almost every building in this district.
Microfilm of Richmond building permits dating from 1908 are available for researchers at the Library of Virginia. These records can help you determine the year in which a building was constructed, the architect (if known), the owner of the property, and the building contractor. In addition to permits, many associated microfilmed and original blueprints are available to researchers. A more detailed description of these records is available online at www.lva.lib.va.us/findaid/37533-intro.htm.
The Library of Virginia holds an extensive record of insurance policies issued by the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia from the late eighteenth century to about 1870. These records can provide researchers with a detailed description of a property, including information such as the dimensions of a structure, the number of stories, and building materials. Additional information about these holdings is available online at www.lva.lib.va.us/whatwehave/business/aboutmu.htm.