Suggestions for Researching The History Of One’s Home?

A reader writes:

“I was wondering if you had any suggestions for resources, which I could use to learn more about the history of my house, who lived in it before me, and so on. I recently browsed through the Historical Society of Washington D.C’s. online catalogue but I was not able to references to any exact images of my house.”

8 Comment

  • We went to the DC Historical Society, located in the old Carnegie library across the street from the Convention Center. We looked in old phone directories (they have them back to the late 1800s) to find the names of people who lived in our house before us. Surprisingly, you can search by your address and get the name of the person who lived in the house at the time. The phone directories also list whether or not the person was the owner of the house, his/her occupation and, later, whether or not s/he had a phone. Some of the years are on microfilm and the collection is incomplete in the 50s and 60s. But we got a really good picture of the previous owners of our house. Also, once we knew the names, we searched in earlier volumes to find out where they had lived before moving to our house.

    The library is open Tuesday through Saturday and the librarian is very helpful. They also have maps, photo collections, and a searchable online database.

  • Look carefully at the mail you get that’s not yours. Ask your oldest neighbors about your house and the neighborhood.

  • The downtown library on the 3rd floor has some great research files. I found out my house was owned from 1916 – 1927 by a guy named Goldstein, who sold it to a man in 1927 who died and left it to his sister that same year. The guy who owned my house from 1960 – 1997 owned a couple of pool halls and liquors stores in the area. There are even some great shots of the neighborhood that you can find as far back as 1920.

  • I am not sure if you already did this but if you search the catalog using the parameters of your block, you may get more results. The photographs were mainly cataloged by block or intersection so not many will have the exact address. If you have time to visit the library, they will be able to show you the photographs.

    In addition to the city directories, there are also vertical files on D.C. neighborhoods, a building database that will tell you who built your house and when and plat maps which give a good idea of the footprint of your house and what the rest of the block looked like from 1897 on.

  • Am not sure where this is in DC, but I had an old Victorian in Maryland that I researched back to the original owners in 1886. I had to go Annapolis and look up old tax assessment records. Someone owns the property before the house is built, and then at some point, an improvement is put on the property. That’s the year your house was built.

  • plug your address into the Historic Washington Post archive, which is linked to from the DCPL site.

  • you can search recorder of deeds on line from the website. there are small fees to see the deeds online but you can at least get names for free if you know your lot/sqaure.

  • Matthew Gilmore, who edits H-DC, the DC history listserv, occasionally offers classes at the Washingtonia division of MLK. The class guides you step-by-step through the process of searching old phone books, old maps, and through their clippings collection for the history of your home, block and neighborhood. It’s very thorough. Here’s the home page of H-DC:

    Or you could pay this company to do the work for you:

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