Historical municipal sources for building and property research

One of the more common types of requests we receive is from researchers investigating the history of buildings and properties throughout the municipality. Whether you're an archaeologist delving into the deep history of a property, a developer looking for structural plans, a lawyer dealing with tax histories, a property owner applying for heritage property status, or a homeowner hoping to learn more about your house, this source guide will help you find relevant materials in the Municipal Archives' holdings relating to the history of buildings and properties.

Getting started

The following tips and considerations can help you get started on your property research.

  • Building and property research is a lot like solving a mystery, requiring you to search for clues and make deductions. Rarely will you find a definitive source telling you specifically when a building was built and by whom.
  • Write down everything you know about the building you want to research. It can often be easier to work in reverse chronological order (from the present backwards).
  • Talk to previous owners of houses or buildings, if possible. Neighbours and older locals can also be good sources of information.
  • If the building was built by or lived in by someone of particular note, check local histories for relevant information.
  • Government functions and activities change over time, and the types of records and the way we create them today may not be the same as the way we did in the past.
  • Some information was never recorded, some records were not kept, and others have not survived.
Colour image of a building floor plan

Halifax Armouries ground floor plan, 1936. HMA 102-39P-JJ-2-9551.3

Civic Addressing cross reference tool

Many property sources are organized by civic address, so that is a key piece of information you need to start with. Between 1958 and 1966 the City of Halifax renumbered all civic addresses, moving to the current 4-digit system. Our Civic Addressing cross reference tool helps you identify the correct civic addresses for the time period you need.

Photographs

The Municipal Archives holds many photographs which can be useful for building and property research. Many images have been digitized and can be viewed on our Flickr page, or in our online database.

City of Halifax Engineering & Works photographs, 1948-1982  (sub-series 102-39-1)

Black and white photograph of a house with no curb in front of it.

95 Ralston Avenue, [between 1957 and 1963]. HMA 102-39-1-1162.1

Photographs in this series were taken by building inspectors for the City of Halifax Works Department to document unsightly premises, fire and flood damage, construction projects, or to assist with city planning activities. Images typically depict houses, buildings, and properties, but also include streetscapes, excavation and building sites, and aerial views. Photographs also often show neighbourhood life (cars, pets, children, laundry, billboards, etc.).

The vast majority of these images have been digitized and are available in our database. Most photos are identified by civic address. We also have a virtual exhibit of photographs from Halifax’s 1958-1969 Urban Renewal process.

Dartmouth Neighbourhood Improvement Program (NIP) photographs, [196-?]-[198-?] (sub-series 101-80C-7)

Colour photograph from a hilltop showing parkland, a parking lot, a large brick building, and a bridge in the background, and a smattering of snow lying gently upon the grass in the foreground.

NIP Harbourview area, composite panorama, [ca. 1976]. HMA 101-80C-7-3.2

In the early 1970s the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) developed the Neighbourhood Improvement Program (NIP) in order to rehabilitate low-income neighbourhoods nation-wide. The program funded infrastructure improvements for parks, recreation facilities, curbs, sidewalks, etc.

This sub-series includes images and viewplanes used for NIP project planning, photographs documenting project implementation, and transparent map overlays to accompany reports and presentations. 

We also have a virtual exhibit of NIP photographs.

Aerial photographs, [194-]-2001

Black and white aerial photograph of a park with baseball diamonds and residential neighbourhood in the background.

Dartmouth Common [aerial photograph], [between 1972 and 1974]. HMA 101-80C-1-4-H-53

We have many aerial photographs which can be useful for building or property research or for seeing how areas have changed over time. As there are approximately 600 aerial images spread throughout our holdings, we recommend researchers start with our virtual exhibit of aerial photographs.

Researchers can also search our online database for "aerial photographs."

 

Pam Collins photograph collection, [191?]-[201?] (sub-series CR30K)

Colour photograph showing street with parked cars, buildings, and the first storey facade of a stone building

Argyle Street, 1964-1968. HMA CR30K-1-1.13

Lou and Pam Collins were ardent advocates of Halifax's history, particularly its built heritage. This series consists of over 5,000 images taken by Pam Collins in support of her and Lou's work with heritage organizations, as slides used in Lou's lectures and tours, and as part of her personal artistic pursuits.

Collins' photographs document the architecture and built environments of downtown Halifax, focusing on historic buildings and the preservation of the Historic Properties and Granville Mall areas, which the Collins' activism was instrumental in protecting during urban renewal developments in the late-1960s.

Pam continued to photograph the Historic Properties area into the early 2010s. In addition to heritage-focused work, Pam actively documented her and Lou's participation in community events, and people on the streets of the city.

Search all Pam's photographs in the Archives Database, or browse a small sample album.

Graham Lavers photograph collection, 1918-2000, predominantly 1980-2000 (CR40)

Colour photograph showing the military cenotaph in Grand Parade with St. Paul's church in the background

St. Paul's Church, [1989?]. HMA CR40-23-14

Professional photographer Graham Lavers was often hired by the City of Halifax and Halifax County to document special events and create publicity materials. The images he donated to the Archives show Halifax landmarks such as the waterfront, ferry terminal, Spring Garden Road Memorial Library, the Grand Parade, Cenotaph, St. Paul's Church, Dingle Memorial Tower, Horseshoe Island, Sir Sandford Fleming Park, Point Pleasant Park, Hemlock Ravine and its heart-shaped pond, the Public Gardens, Halifax Common recreation facilities, etc.

Search through Lavers' photographs in the Archives Database.

Documents

City of Halifax Building Permit application records, 1892-1949, 1973-1978 (sub-series 102-39I)

Colour image of a building permit

Sample building permit, 1909. HMA 102-39I-55

Building permits were required for construction of new buildings and repairs or alterations to existing buildings. Applications give the location of the construction, name of owner, date of application, name of architect, builder, estimated cost, type of building, and construction details (information required varied over time).

City of Halifax permits are listed in the Archives Database. We do not have any permits from the Town of Bedford, Town/City of Dartmouth, or Halifax County.  Current building permit records may be accessible through other municipal offices – see Other Sources below.

Property Assessment records

Property assessment records primarily tell us who owned what property, when they owned it, and its assessed value for property tax collection. The Municipal Archives holds property assessment records for the City of Halifax, the Town/City of Dartmouth, and the County of Halifax from the early-to-mid-1800s until 1978, when the province of Nova Scotia took over responsibility for property assessments. The Municipal Archives does not have assessment records for the Town of Bedford proper, as it was incorporated as a town in 1980, after the province had taken over assessments. Assessment records for the Bedford area prior to 1978 can be found in the Halifax County assessments.

Assessment records 1979-2006 can be accessed through the Nova Scotia Archives; records 2006-present can be accessed through the Property Valuation Service Commission.

Properties were not assessed every year, so researchers may need to check multiple years to find a specific property.

  • City of Halifax Property Assessment rolls, 1817-1975 (sub-series 102-19A). The information contained in these rolls varies over time, especially for the earliest years, but generally includes the name of the property owner, the address, and the valuation. Earlier years sometimes include descriptions of properties and notes relating to liens or payment of poll taxes, while later years identify the type of property, whether residential or commercial. Entries are geographic by civic address and street within each ward. 
  • City of Halifax Property Assessment field cards, 1921-[197-] (sub-series 102-19B). Field cards were a tool used by assessors to record features of a property in order to determine its assessed value. Field cards were used to record details about each property (both land and the buildings) and were updated yearly. Assessors noted details about each property (both land and buildings) in pencil and included information on: plumbing, roof type, heating, occupancy, number of rooms, commercial or residential nature of the property. Field cards from the 1950s-1960s will sometimes include black and white photograph(s) of the property appended to the card. They sometimes also include references back to their corresponding assessment roll or the assessment plan.
  • Town/City of Dartmouth – Property Assessment rolls, 1873-1978 (sub-series 101-19). Information recorded for each property varies over the years, but typically includes the name of the owner, address, municipal ward, description of property (house, land, shop, etc.), and valuation of real and personal property.
  • County of Halifax property assessment rolls, 1835-1978 (sub-series 312-86A). Information recorded for each property changes over time, but typically includes name of property owner, occupation and age of ratepayer, mailing address, valuation of property, and other notes such as explanation of tax exemptions and record of taxes paid. Entries are by property owner within a geographic district, so you need to know who owned a property at a specific time. Properties were reassessed every 3 years or so; researchers may need to consult several years to find a specific property.
Photograph of a yellow form with red writing indicating details about a property on needham street including owner, address, lot size, house size, construction material, no. of rooms, heat, out-buildings etc.

Sample field assessment card for a Hydrostone property. HMA 102-19B

City of Halifax Planning Department reference files, 1959-1995 (sub-series 102-105-3)

These reference files document all significant developments or zoning changes in Halifax. They are incredibly rich files where the Planning Department collected newsclippings, excerpts of council minutes, correspondence, maps, and photographs about specific developments or properties. List of files can be searched in the Archives Database.

City of Halifax Engineering and Works department subject files, 1884-1981, predominantly 1965-1978 (sub-series 102-39B)

These subject files can be a rich source of how the Works Department changed the City.  They typically include correspondence with the public and community groups, departmental correspondence and memos, staff reports, relevant excerpts from Council minutes, photographs, maps and plans, and newspaper clippings. Files relating to streets typically contain information about street renumbering projects (mid-1960s), street lines, information relating to general maintenance and repair (paving, sidewalk renewal, etc.), housing and building inspection related issues, and sometimes street renaming or closing information.

City of Halifax Fire Department records of fire, 1903-1917, 1919-1922, 1931-1980 (sub-series 102-111-2)

These ledgers were used to record calls attended by the City of Halifax Fire Department, called "companies records" and "records of fires." Records include the date, time, address of fire, number of ladders raised, and the gallons of chemicals used. The records of fires include the date, time, address of fire, name of owner and the number of occupants in the dwelling, the type of occupants (e.g., tenants or owners), the cause of fire, the cost of damage and type of building and roof construction (wood, shingle, etc.).

Access to these records is restricted due to personal information; contact the archives for further information.

Council minutes

Council minutes are a great catch-all for most municipal activities. Council minutes are rarely useful for researching individual properties, but can be very useful for researching regional planning matters such as zoning issues or amendments, development agreements, planning strategies, area subdivisions, urban renewal and redevelopment projects, etc. All pre-amalgamation (prior to April 1, 1996) council minutes for the City of Halifax, Halifax County, Town/City of Dartmouth, and the Town of Bedford have been digitized and can be searched and viewed online through our website.

School Board records

Researchers interested in the history of school buildings will find our school board records useful. School boards were responsible for administering all aspects of schools granted under the Education Act, including staffing, communicating with parents and residents, selecting and acquiring sites for new school constructions, improving school grounds, building and repairing school buildings, purchasing equipment and supplies, and administering enrolment and other student issues.

City of Halifax Board of School Commissioners records, 1865-1995 (series 102-53). Consists of Board minutes, correspondence, and other administrative records.

Town/City of Dartmouth Board of School Commissioners records, 1864-1872, 1887-1932, 1936-1980 (series 101-62). Consists of Board correspondence, minutes, and registers. The later minute books also include minutes from various school sub-committees.

City of Dartmouth District School Board records, 1984, 1989-1996 (series 1010-15). Consists of minutes and Board by-laws.

Halifax County Municipal School Board records, 1883-[1891?], 1928-1982, predominantly 1942-1955 (series 312-74). Halifax County was divided into a school districts, which were then subdivided into school sections. Includes minutes and agendas, correspondence, staffing records, budgets and financial reports, etc.

  • Halifax County Board of School Commissioners for Eastern District annual minutes, 1865-1940 (series 312-80)
  • Halifax County Board of School Commissioners for Rural District annual minutes, 1864-1903, 1906-1915, 1919-1939 (series 312-82)
  • Halifax County Board of School Commissioners for Western District annual minutes, 1864-1941 (series 312-81)
  • Halifax County Board of School Trustees, school section # 75, Lower Sackville, records, 1959-1997 (series 312-78)
  • Halifax County Board of Trustees of Oldfield Consolidated School records, 1977-1996 (series 312-76)

Town of Bedford Board of School Commissioners minutes, 1979-1982 (series 103-6). Includes School Board minutes. Prior to Bedford's incorporation in 1979 its area schools were administered by the County of Halifax Municipal School Board.

Halifax County-Bedford District School Board records, 1982-1996 (series 312-79). Includes minutes and financial statements.

City of Halifax Heritage Advisory Committee records, 1981-1996 (series 102-88)

Series consists of records created and accumulated by the Heritage Advisory Committee and its subcommittees, including textual records, architectural drawings, and photographs.

  • Heritage properties inventories and research, 1981-1996 (sub-series 102-88C). Sub-series consists of inventories of designated historic properties within the City of Halifax. Sub-series also contains records related to research and hearings concerning the designation of heritage properties.
  • Province of Nova Scotia Heritage Inventory Site Forms, 1986 (sub-series 102-88D). Sub-series consists of inventory forms for designated heritage properties. Forms include description and history of the property, descriptions of notable architectural details, history of ownership, historical commentary, and often a photograph of the property.

City of Dartmouth Cultural and Heritage Advisory Committee records, 1981-1996 (series 102-14)

Sub-series consists of the minutes of the City of Dartmouth Cultural and Heritage Advisory Committee, and photographs of heritage properties, both registered and unregistered.

Halifax County Heritage Advisory Committee minutes, 1982 1994, (sub-series 312-114-1)

Consists of an incomplete set of minutes and submissions from meetings of the Heritage Advisory Committee. Also includes a registered heritage property plaque issued by the Municipality of Halifax County.

Town of Bedford Heritage Advisory Committee records, 1982-1992 (series 103-5)

Series consists of the minutes, correspondence, and property records of the Town of Bedford Heritage Advisory Committee. Also includes photographs of special events, such as heritage designation ceremonies, and historical buildings in the Bedford area.

City of Halifax Landmarks Commission records, 1964-1980 (series 102-108)

The Halifax Landmarks Commission was responsible for reviewing city development plans and their impact on historic sites and landmarks. Consists of minutes (1970-1979), correspondence, reports, and case files. Records often have detailed information on specific heritage buildings or streetscapes.

City of Halifax Advisory Committee on the Preservation of Historic Buildings records, 1965-1976 (series 102-80)

The Advisory Committee on the Preservation of Historic Buildings (also known as the Interim Advisory Committee on the Preservation of Historic Buildings and the Civic Advisory Committee on the Preservation of Historic Buildings) was formed in 1965. The committee’s function was to indicate which buildings within the redevelopment area of Upper Water Street between George and Buckingham Streets might be worthy of restoration; to recommend how such restorations might be financed; and indicate how the buildings might be used once restored. Series consists of primarily the meeting minutes, some reports and pieces of correspondence of the Advisory Committee on the Preservation of Historic Buildings. Also includes some minutes of the Coordinating Committee for the Waterfront Historic Buildings and the Historical Co-ordinating Committee - Feasibility Study - Brunswick Street. Series also includes meeting minutes of the advisory committee's successor body, the Halifax Landmarks Commission.

Lou Collins fonds, 1879-2006 (CR30)

Local historian Lou Collins collected research and records on many historic sites and buildings in Halifax for general interest, academic work, and his advocacy for the preservation of local built heritage. Collins was also Civic Historian for the City of Halifax, and a member of both the Landmarks Commission and the Heritage Advisory Committee.

Brian Cuthbertson research material, [19--]-2008 (CR48)

Heritage researcher Brian Cuthbertson wrote many reports about Halifax and Dartmouth heritage for Halifax Regional Municipality. His files include final reports and associated research materials - including textual records, publications, correspondence, graphic records and audio recordings.  

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Maps and Plans

Hopkins atlas, 1878 (CR10-004)

Colour image of a map

Hopkins Atlas, Plate K, 1878. HMA CR10-004.

The City Atlas of Halifax, Nova Scotia. From Actual Surveys and Records by and under the supervision of H.W. Hopkins, Civil Engineer--more commonly known as the Hopkins Atlas--shows the City of Halifax as it was in 1878. The atlas shows landmarks and public spaces, institutions, brooks and water sources, footprints of buildings, civic addresses, and includes some ownership and occupancy details.

Buildings are colour-coded to identify construction type (e.g., brick, wood, or stone). Also visible are many of the larger estates and land holdings which would later be subdivided to furnish much of Halifax's early-to-mid 20th century growth. The Hopkins Atlas can also be viewed online courtesy of the Nova Scotia Archives.

Gossip Survey plans, [1858-1859], 1862 (102-39P-A-1-8 to A-2-69)

Colour image of a map showing waterfront docks and elevation

Gossip Survey, Halifax waterfront, 1859. HMA 102-39P-A-2-68

William Gossip, Jr. was contracted to conduct the first survey of the City of Halifax after its incorporation in 1841. Field work took place 1857-1858, and the completed plans were presented to Council in summer 1859. Known as the Gossip Surveys, these plans show the layout of streets, extent of land grants, "altitude" of streets above the harbor, and longitudinal bearings of all streets, public buildings, sewers, and wharves.

Plans show the frontage of buildings (not the full footprint), and buildings are colour-coded to indicate type of construction (i.e., buildings made of brick appear yellow, wooden buildings are pink, and stone buildings appear blue). Later plans in the series follow the same style set out by Gossip but appear to have been done several years later.

 

City of Halifax Property Assessment plans (series 102-19G), [1917]-[196?]

Black and white image of a map

Property assessment map, [1917]-[196?]. HMA 102-19G.13

Property assessment maps were used as working documents by the city property assessors. Each sheet shows property boundaries and dimensions, and the footprint of any buildings. Property owners are often identified, though it is unclear from what time period as the plans were updated over time but changes were rarely dated. These maps also show changes over time to street names and layouts, as well as railways, piers, wharves, tram lines, etc.

 

City of Halifax Engineering and Works plans, 1801-1996 (sub-series 102-39P)

Colour image of a map

Plan of the south commons lots, 1880. HMA 102-39P-H-3-445

The City of Halifax Engineering and Works maps and plans series sometimes includes materials useful for building and property research. These plans were used for engineering projects such as changing street gradings, roadway redesigns or street realignments, water and sewer infrastructure installations or repairs, street profiles, or plans of land to be expropriated for street or redevelopment purposes.

Some plans show complete or partial footprints of buildings in the work area and can be used for property research. There are also some building and architectural plans in this series, usually between 1880-1920, and typically for more notable buildings. Post-1920 building plans are almost exclusively for municipally-owned buildings. The Planning and Development department took over planning-related activities in the 1960s and building plans were no longer included in this series.

Series also contains plans of the major subdivision of large estates and land holdings on the peninsula in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but these can be difficult to locate as they are often indexed under the informal name for the subdivision, typically the name of the individual whose land was being subdivided (e.g., Skimmings, Collins, etc.) or the name the estate was commonly referred by (e.g., Rosebank, Jubilee, etc.).

This series also includes plans relating to 1950s-1960s urban renewal projects such as Uniacke Square, Mulgrave Park, the downtown Scotia Square area, and various Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation projects.

Unfortunately this series cannot yet be searched online, but can be searched in-person on-site.

Dartmouth fire insurance plans, 1934 (CR10-111), 1961, partially revised 1973 (CR10-046)

Colour image of a map

Insurance plan of the City of Dartmouth, 1961-1973. HMA CR10-046 p.7-3

Fire insurance plans are a fantastic resource for building and property research. These plans show street layouts and building footprints for specific areas, and are typically colour-coded to indicate building material type (wood, brick, etc.).

The Municipal Archives has but two lonely fire insurance plans from the Town/City of Dartmouth, 1934 and 1962 with the latter including Shearwater and Eastern Passage . Other fire insurance plans can be viewed at the Nova Scotia Archives.

City of Halifax Building Inspection plans, [1940-1996] (102-39H)

blueprint of an architectural drawing of a duplex.

Sample drawing

After 1940, architectural plans had to be submitted as part of the City’s building permit application process. Some of those plans have survived on microfilm and a very few in original paper, but only for the former City of Halifax up to the 1990s. 

Consult the microfilm listing in the Archives Database to see if your property’s plans are available. (Note this index does not yet include all civic addresses.) 

Anyone can view the elevations (drawings of the front, rear, side of building), but permission of the current owner is required to view/copy drawings of the interior or technical drawings.

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Secondary Sources

Colour image of a planning report cover

A functional planning report for Harbour Drive (cover), 1965. HMA 711.409716225 F 1965

The Municipal Archives' Reference Collection contains local history publications and municipal  reports, many of which are related to regional and community planning within the Halifax area. These materials are usually better for macro-level development research than for investigating individual properties. Search our online database to find relevant publications.

City Directories

City Directories are a great way to find out when a building was built, and who its occupants have been. Directories include a business listing; a city directory, listing people and their profession, business and organizations; a street directory, listing each civic address for every street; information about city government and services; lists of clubs, societies, associations, etc.; and delightful period advertisements.

The Municipal Archives has the following directories:

  • McAlpine's Halifax City Directories, 1889, 1893-1915, 1920, 1921, 1923. Reference Collection: 917.16225H
  • Halifax-Dartmouth City Directories, 1932, 1934, 1936-1960, 1962-2000. Reference Collection: 917.16225H

Directories are also held by the Nova Scotia Archives as well as Halifax Public Libraries. Many of these directories can also be viewed online, thanks to the Nova Scotia Archives and Library and Archives Canada.

Other Sources

Halifax Regional Municipality

Current property records (i.e., post-amalgamation, April 1, 1996) are still actively being used in other municipal offices. Researchers investigating built heritage may find the following other municipal sources useful:

As-of-Right Development
The As-of-Right Development group administers the building processes for the municipality, including building permits and development agreements. They have records for individual properties which can be useful for homeowners looking to find more recent information about their home and property (especially post-1996). Records in their property files often include copies of building permits or development agreements, drawings and plans, site plans, variances, and zoning information. Researchers interested in accessing As-of-Right Development records should contact the municipal 311 phone line.

Heritage Properties
Heritage Properties administers the municipality's Heritage Property Program to conserve significant heritage resources, including buildings, streetscapes, sites, areas, and districts that reflect the municipality's built heritage. Heritage Properties have case files which contain a wealth of information for heritage properties. 

Note that there are also federal and provincial heritage property programs.

Civic Addressing
Civic Addressing manages all civic addresses within the municipality, including approving all new street names and confirm community boundaries; correcting addressing issues that may result in renaming and or renumbering of existing streets under By-law C-300 and Administrative Order #29; maintaining the Official Street List; coordinating the installation of community and private road signs; and administering the commemorative naming of municipal assets through the Asset Naming Committee.

Halifax Public Libraries

Halifax Public Libraries have several useful sources for researching buildings and properties, including local history publications and city directories. Consult their Built Heritage Resource Guide to discover more.

Nova Scotia Archives

Nova Scotia Archives is the repository for provincial government records and historical records with a provincial scope. The NS Archives is particularly useful for researchers investigating the archaeological and architectural history of Halifax and for those interested in the history of Halifax prior to its municipal incorporation in 1841. Their holdings include several early photograph collections which include a number of images of Halifax in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They also hold a large map collection, including fire insurance plans. NS Archives also has property assessment records from 1979-2006.

NS Archives has compiled a built heritage guide to direct interested researchers.

Property Valuation Service Commission

The Property Valuation Service Commission is the non-profit government agency responsible for administering property taxation assessments 2006-present.

Provincial Land Registry Office

The Provincial Land Registry Office is responsible for administering land ownership within the province of Nova Scotia. Their records include deeds, land ownership records, and maps. They also administer the Property Online system.

Provincial Natural Sciences Library

The Natural Sciences Library houses a collection of materials including books, journals, maps, aerial photographs, Crown land grants, and other resources that support the work of the Department of Lands and Forestry and the Department of Energy and Mines. Resources include information on geoscience, mining, land use, forestry, wildlife, Crown land, and related topics. The Library serves Department of Lands and Forestry and Department of Energy and Mines staff, provincial and federal government personnel, mining and forestry industries, prospectors, scientists, consultants, educators, students, and the general public.

Dartmouth Heritage Museum

The Dartmouth Heritage Museum collection includes maps and photographs which are a good source for building research in Dartmouth.

Scott Manor House and Fort Sackville Foundation

The Scott Manor House and Fort Sackville Foundation holds a number of local history resources relating to Bedford, including photographs and historical maps.

Fultz House

The Fultz House collection includes artifacts, photographs, and records of historical significance relative to the social and economic development of the Sackville, Beaver Bank and Lucasville areas.

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