Dear PoPville – Learning the History of Your Home?


Photo by PoPville flickr user caroline.angelo

“Dear PoPville,

I was wondering if anyone out there knew a good way to find historic information about a house. I’m about to move into a farm house from 1923, and I’d love to find out if it was a model kit offered by Sears, etc like so many around here are. It would be great to have some old ads or blueprints for it. Even some vintage photos of the house or street would be awesome to get.

Any ideas?”

In the past I think some have recommended checking out the Washingtonia room at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Any other suggestions?

40 Comment

  • My nearby library (Petworth) had some pamphlets at the main desk about how to research the history of your home. I have yet to do it, but am very curious about my home as well.

    So, as they used to say in the Saturday morning cartoons, “Check your local library!”

  • you can get the lot number and look it up at national archives, or, there’s a company that will do it for you for a fee: http://washingtonhistory.com/

  • Check out washingtonhistory.com. Paul Williams specializes in researching the history of individual homes in DC. He also writes the Scenes from the Past feature in the Intowner newspaper.

    • Paul conducted a house history search for me. He did a great, thorough job. I highly recommend his services.

  • There are certainly places (like libraries) where you can go, but if you’re if you prefer you can hire someone. My neighbors and I got together a few years ago and hired this guy to do a great block history for us (2200 block of 12th Place NW): http://www.washingtonhistory.com

    I understand he does house histories as his primary thing. Contact me through my Facebook page if you would like me to send you a PDF of what he did for us: http://facebook.com/UStreetNW

    P.S. – I have no relationship of any sort with him; I never even met him, in fact.

  • clevelanddave

    Also try the historical society of DC at Mt. Vernon Square…

  • When this discussion happened back in 2008 or 2009 on PoP, we sent a friend the recommendation for washingtonhistory.com. She ordered a history of their house for her husband as a Christmas present and they were both very pleased with it. Perfect idea for those hard to shop for people!

  • You can find a lot of the info at MLK Library, the DC Deed office, DC Historical Society, DC Gov Archives, Lexis Nexis and Wikipedia. It’s a lot of fun but also takes a long time and requires you to learn all the quirks of the DC governments records. www. washingtonhistory .com can go much deeper into the back story behind your house such as who the people were who lived in the house. Either way its fascinating stuff to know.

  • My husband had Paul Williams do a house history for me as a housewarming gift. We were really pleased with it. This is the guy
    http://www.washingtonhistory.com/?q=content/historical-report

  • 4500 bucks for a history of a house? Wow. I dont need to know that badly.

    • Yeah, if you’re paying mortgage in DC that’s probably not affordable!

    • If you’re referring to Paul Williams, he does not charge $4,500 for a history profile. The cost is much lower than that, and as I recall it was more in th e$500 range. Not sure where you got the $4,500 pricing.

  • For those who have done it themselves… where do you start? What am I looking for when I go to the library?

    • Like others have said the Washingtonia collection at MLK. There is also material at the National Archives. Talk to the archivists there who specialize in DC and they can point you in the right direction.
      Also on a lark just plug your address into google. I found records of my house, which was owned by someone whose papers are at Catholic University. They just happened to have had the finding aid with a folder list on line.
      I find people more interesting than structures, so I favor the census (go to http://www.stevemorse.org/ to figure out what enumeration district your house was in) and city directories that tell me who lived in the house before me.
      If you have access (via special library or Library of Congress) to Proquest and historical newspapers, put in a search for your address using various forms of the address (ex. 1234 Q Street northwest, 1234 Q ST nw, etc).

      • ah

        +1. The librarian there was really helpful to me–you can see the permits and additions, although I don’t think they have blueprints available. You may be able to get those through some other source if you really want.

        Also you can go to the recorder of deeds to find the chain of title for your property–i.e., who’s owned it. More recent records are online, but for pre-1970 you need to look at either microfilm or paper books. The older your house, the more work you’ll need to do though.

  • Hold a seance..

  • OP: Post the address in question and I will tell you what you want to know. Well, SOME of what you want to know. The rest you’d have to pay for. Did the seller’s agent describe it as a farmhouse?

    • Thanks so much for offering! (This is the OP.) I’m definitely going to try to go to the MLK Library this weekend, but any advice would be appreciated. If you get in touch with PoP, he can give you my email address and we can talk directly :)

      • The first thing the librarian will likely do is pull up your address in my building permits database and give you the info from the permit to build your house. That’s all I was going to do for you, anyway. You might ask the librarian to print out a report showing data from your linear block.
        You want to look at the city directories to see who lived there through the years. If the date you have is close to accurate then you can only look at the manuscript (detailed) census for 1930.
        Look at the real estate maps over time to get a visual sense of the development of the area.
        Ask about photos, but also peruse http://www.loc.gov/pictures/
        Spoiler Alert!
        It’s not a farmhouse. Realtors love to sell “Wardmans” and “farmhouses”.

  • To DIY, go to Washingtoniana (at MLK) and chat up the librarian at the desk. He or she will get you started.

  • DC Preservation League just had a Historic House Toolbox, and in one session they helped you figure out how to research your house. Unfortunately, I was put off by the Green Line’s dysfunction, so didn’t make it. Maybe if you contact them, they can give you some tips or put you in touch with someone who can: dcpreservation.org

  • I searched Washington Post historical editions (1887-1994) from home for free by getting a Montgomery County Library card (yes, Washington residents can get one for free). Probably DC libraries offer the same benefit. Found many original advertisements for houses and rows with photos and builder, realtor, and price info. Very addicting hobby. http://proxy.montgomerylibrary.org:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/hnpwashingtonpost?accountid=47412

  • My company, EHT Traceries (www.traceries.com), does house histories all the time. It’s about $125 an hour.

    To do it yourself, go to http://propertyquest.dc.gov/ to find square and lot. Then go to NARA or Library of Congress to get building permits. You can also search a variety of websites for historic photographs.

    • LoC for building permits? PoPsters, please go to Washingtoniana to research your house. The Kiplinger Library of the Historical Society of WDC is closed indefinitely. I spent years working at the National Archives and nobody there knew how to find a DC building permit. The DC Archives will turn you away unless you know exactly what you want and you know they have it. They suck. Go there LAST. LoC has photos, mostly available online, and other random things. “WASH” is full of great stuff, has a good staff, and you can do most of what you need to do right there. You can walk in and get started almost anytime.

      • The microfilm at the National Archives is clearer, and the archive library has hard copy directories. If you can find the index in the microfilm room you can be pretty much self directed in finding a building permit.

      • The Library of Congress does not have building permits but it does have a good collection of the old tax assessment books from Lusk (http://lccn.loc.gov/97656224) which will give you the historic owner of record (some of that is available at MLK in a microform collection from a realtors association). Sometimes if there have been big changes (the original lot size decreased) that will be reflected. The library also have old business directories in the Microform reading room (http://www.loc.gov/rr/microform/uscity/dc.html) that do include residential information with a reverse street address function. Often they will say where some person worked and it is good for who actually lived there as opposed to who owned the property (I found that several of the people who lived at my house worked at St. Elizabeth’s).

        News sources may be helpful as they posted real estate sales. They can also be used for people search. But searching digitized sources is a trial so it may take many searches. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ has good DC paper coverage – and its free. I found some articles about various homeowners one of which was a big time horse racing trainer and another was an attorney that defended some police officer from some sort of malfeasance (it was a big story in the day).

    • The Historical Society’s library is closed indefinitely because of budget problems, but there are lots of good leads in its Guide to Building History Research

      • That is a total bummer because they had some great photos from the Wymer collection which would provide an older picture.

    • you go Emily.

      hey folks, traceries is a great company.

  • I have worked with and recommend Brian Kraft. He recently did a history for a home that I have listed in Bloomingdale.

    • saf

      I have also worked with him, and agree, he does great work.

      He researched and wrote the Columbia Heights Heritage Trail. And he’s a Petworth guy!

  • Has anyone here done research on the history of their house, only to find out things about it that they wish they’d never known? I bet there are some interesting stories out there.

  • Thanks for all the kind words…we’ve been specializing in house history in DC since 1995, and have completed over 1,500 to date! Our going rate is $600 for a complete history, so you know upfront how much it costs. Our genealogical expertise also can sometimes connect living relatives of the first owners to the current owners: they are the people that have all those fascinating family photo albums that never make it to the the various archives.

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