Looking for an old photograph of your house?

Nearly every house history researcher wants to see old photographs or drawings of their house.  Who wouldn't, right?  Unfortunately for Portland-area house history buffs, this can be one of the hardest bits of house history ephemera to track down!  But don't despair; there are surviving photographs of some houses and it is possible (sometimes) to find them. 

The challenge is that there has never been a comprehensive house-portrait project in Portland -- or any other city or town in our area -- so there is no treasure trove of photos of local homes that you can dig through.  You might wonder, if there's no big archive of house pictures, where should you start?  There are a few possibilities:

First, ask your neighbors or the people in your neighborhood association.  People who live on your street may have their own old photographs of family events, parties, or other occasions which include your house in the background.  And a bonus -- when you find that long-time resident and photo-saver, they may share stories about past residents of your house or other interesting neighborhood lore!

Houses sometimes appear in the background of photographs taken to record activity on the street.  The city of Portland has a lot of photographs of infrastructure and maintenance work they've done over the years. 

Many of these images are carefully preserved in the Portland City Archives collection. These images usually show city workers doing something in the neighborhood (such as repairing the sewer like in the photo at left) or were taken in connection with city planning work, like a street scene before the installation of a new traffic light.  You can search for records (including photographs) using the Archives' catalog, Efiles, and some have been published on the archives's Vintage Portland blog -- see below for more about that! But, most photographs in the collection aren't available online.  To look at original photographs in person, you'll need to visit the Archives reading room downtown (1800 SW 6th Ave., Suite 550; 503.865.4100).  

NOTE: As of March 2021, the Portland City Archives is closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic.  Contact them to see what services they can offer remotely.

The Oregon Historical Society library is another treasure trove for house history researchers.  Their collection includes more than 2.5 million photographs and negatives of people, communities, commerce, and life in the Pacific Northwest -- the photograph collection doesn't have a section devoted to house portraits, but you may find photographs of your street, or photographs indexed under the name of a former owner of the house.  Some of the library's photographs have been digitized and are available through OHS's Digital Collections website, but many, many images are available only by visiting in person (1200 SW Park Ave.; 503.222.1741).  

Another potential source for house portraits and street scenes is the Vintage Portland blog, run by the Portland City Archives.  Every weekday the site features a different historical photograph (or sometimes a map or drawing) of Portland.  The posts are sorted into categories for neighborhoods, street names, time periods, and topics.  For example, if you are curious about the development of your neighborhood as well as the history of your house, you might want to look at the blog's many aerial photographs; or you might try looking at a neighborhood street like Foster Rd., Powell Blvd., or 82nd Ave.

If the house you're researching happens to be in the Albina district, you may find a photograph of it in The History of Albina, by Roy E. Roos.  The book begins with a brief a history of the district (and former city), but it also includes brief architectural history for a selection of houses and other buildings that are representative of different eras in Albina's development.  Many of the brief house histories are illustrated with contemporary photographs or have no pictures, but some have historic photographs or drawings.

Have fun hunting for a historic photo of your house!


  Questions? Ask the Librarian.


Would like old photos
Hello! The post above offers some advice about how to find old photographs of Portland houses -- if you are looking for other types of photos or if you have more questions and you'd like a librarian's help, we're absolutely happy to provide that service! Call the library's Information Services line at 503.988.5234, or email us from multcolib.org/help to get personalized assistance from a librarian. --Emily-Jane D.
I have pictures of the current home built around 2007. I would like pictures of the home built there in 1940 and any other homes in-between. I have an appointment to look at the one set of pictures in the county archives but am not hopeful they are from the 1940s home because it looks to me they are from an architect in 1990s. 9741 nw kaiser rd portland oregon. The assessor said they don't have pictures like some other counties keep. Is this a lost cause? Someone else may have contacted you, she said she received no reply. I said that wasn't possible, so maybe she submitted wrong or something. Thank you for your help. Kris
Thanks for your comment, Kris -- we appreciate your confidence that the library will always reply! In fact, the best way to get your research questions to us is to call/email/text/chat us at https://multcolib.org/contact -- or of course to chat with the librarian on duty when you're at the library in person. I've gone ahead and sent your question on to our team of librarians, and they should be in touch with you by email within the next few days . . . . . . . . . . For everyone else who's curious about how one might find a photo of the 1940s-era house at 9741 NW Kaiser Rd., well, that's tricky. It's outside city limits, and there aren't many sources for early photos of houses in unincorporated Multnomah County. It is possible that the Multnomah County Archives ( multco.us/records/county-archives ) may have some other early records, beyond the 1990s photos Kris mentioned, that could be useful. I would definitely suggest visiting the Oregon Historical Society as well -- as I mention in the blog post above, they have an incredibly deep collection. Good luck, and thanks again for your question! -- Emily-Jane D., reference librarian