Finding Buffalo House Plans

First Floor of Buffalo City Hall courtesy of Buffalo City Hall


You may be looking at this page because you are not one of the lucky home buyers who found a set of plans & drawings stashed in your attic. Or acquired them from the previous owner when you bought the property.

When seeking plans and drawings, it helps to know that the the three parties most likely to have them are:

  • The architect’s own office
  • The original client or current owner
  • The government office that approved the plans and issued the building permit. In the city of Buffalo, that is the Permits & Inspections office.

The three parties most likely to have plans & drawings are the architect’s own office; the client/owner; and the government office that approved the plans and issued the building permit.

If the firm is defunct and the original client long deceased, your local government may have something. Dates vary as to when cities, towns, and villages required you to submit plans & drawings in order to get a building permit, but today, they all do. Some have required it for over a century. The newer the building, the greater the chance that the municipality has plans for it. And, frustratingly, sometimes a government office just doesn’t have certain records.

One important category of drawings that governments invariably retain are the plans for their own buildings: schools, libraries, fire houses, police stations, town halls, courthouses, etc. If you are researching a public building, reach out to the public works office in the government that built it.

Some of you have plan book houses. For over two centuries, Americans have been able to purchase pre-made plans for houses, barns, churches, and other buildings. Almost 250 of those plan book catalogs are online at Google Books.

You can learn more about plan book houses from this book by Dr. Daniel D. Reiff, retired professor of architectural history from SUNY/Fredonia. It is illustrated with examples from around Western New York. The link shows you libraries who have it in hard copy.

If you did not inherit your house plans from a previous owner or find them at city hall and you don’t have a plan book house, now what? First, the bad news: your chances of finding plans are low. There are two reasons why.

  1. There is no guarantee that plans & drawings survive. Architects are under no obligation to give their papers to libraries, universities, archives, or museums. And these repositories are not required to accept everything they are offered.
  2. When plans & drawings do survive, they may not represent 100% of the office’s output. Stuff gets destroyed in fires & floods. Stuff gets lost or damaged when people move. Stuff gets discarded when people retire or pass away.

The good news is that some architectural plans & drawings do end up in repositories such as universities, libraries, archives, historical societies, and museums. The purpose of this page is to help you locate those surviving collections.

This Google Doc shows what we know about surviving plans & drawings for Buffalo buildings:

A Tedious Essay About Government Record-Keeping Practices

A man stand at a counter, surrounded by enormous stacks of paper.
New York State Assembly Document Room, 1914, courtesy of the New York State Archives

One of the most obscure departments in New York State government, unless you are a historian or genealogist, is the New York State Archives (NYSA or State Archives). Even its own homepage does not convey to the casual visitor what, exactly, it does.

The NYSA does not, for example, collect cool stuff about New York State and its communities from wherever it may be found: books, newspapers, maps, scrapbooks, letters, diaries, your attic. That is the role of the New York State Library (NYSL).

While you might learn a lot about businesses, nonprofits, families, and more at the State Archives, it does not collect records created by businesses, nonprofits, families, or any other non-governmental entities. This distinction is important.

The primary role of the State Archives is to house and make available the records of New York State government after they are no longer needed for everyday business.

The primary role of the State Archives is to house and make available the records of New York State government after they are no longer needed for everyday business. There are about 3 centuries of government records from the colonial era to the present in the State Archives.

The secondary role of the State Archives is to oversee and standardize government record-keeping practices in the counties, cities, towns, villages, school districts, police & fire departments, etc., in New York State. They have additional duties, but today we’re going to focus on their role regulating local government records.

Let me pause here to make a distinction between a record and a publication.

Let me pause here to make a distinction between a record and a publication.

For the purpose of this essay, a record is the kind of stuff those of us with office jobs generate all day long: emails, spreadsheets, schedules, budget proposals, payrolls, memos, statistics, sign-in sheets, strategic plans, procedural manuals, Powerpoints, databases, and so on. These are not usually designed for public consumption, so we can also call them unpublished records. New York State is proactively putting a lot of born-digital records online (publishing them) at its Open Data Portal. Plus, the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) enables citizens to request unpublished records from their governments.

A publication or government publication is a document designed and released by a government department for public comment and consumption, such as an annual report, a budget, a revitalization plan, a recycling guide, council meeting minutes, an environmental impact statement. Unlike records, publications issued by state & local governments and commercial publishers end up in the New York State Library.

Let’s look back to 1971. This is when the State Archives was established as an official department of New York. The state of New York had no formal, centralized government record-keeping function until 50 years ago, making it a relative newcomer in Albany. Here is the condition of record-keeping in New York in 1912.

The state of New York had no official, centralized government record-keeping department until 50 years ago, making it a relative newcomer in Albany.

When the State Archives was founded, it was authorized to develop records retention schedules: legally binding rules about how long certain kinds of government records must be kept. For example, vital records must be kept in perpetuity. Your mileage log, if you have a government job that requires travel? Probably not in perpetuity. These record retention schedules apply equally to all counties, cities, towns, and villages in New York.

Before 1971, elected and appointed officials and civil servants in New York more or less decided on their own what to keep or toss. Even today, there are people in local government who are not well-trained in the record-keeping requirements pertaining to their job or department and they unilaterally delete or discard files.

Say you work in a public school somewhere in NY State and you find an ancient attendance ledger in a closet. You might be inspired, with the best of intentions, to offer it to the nearest historical organization. And you’d be wrong. Your school district has a records management officer who must first be consulted about that ledger, because it is public property and isn’t yours to dispose of. In cities, towns & villages, the city, town, or village clerk is the records management officer.

This is a very long way of explaining why local government offices might not have the records you are expecting to find. And why “there must have been a fire” is a convenient explanation, even when it is false. Sometimes it means Oops, someone threw that stuff out.