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The House History Guy By Hipchickindc

by Prince Of Petworth December 8, 2008 at 11:00 am 6 Comments

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I live in a house that was built in 1895. Sometimes when I putter around in my kitchen, I wonder about the people who first bought the house, or I think about how life changed through the course of its existence. As some of you may know, I make my living crawling around old houses, and particularly like working with the ones that contain as much of the original details as possible. I love hearing old house stories, like the one from a PoP reader, who discovered an outhouse in the back yard.

The only item I have ever bid for aggressively at a silent auction benefit party was a house history package from Kelsey and Associates. (Unfortunately, my strategy was not very successful and I lost it in the end to some guy who popped up out of nowhere after the two minute warning.) Kelsey and Associates is run by Paul Kelsey Williams, an architectural historian with bases in both DC and Baltimore.

If you have any interest in the history of Washington, DC neighborhoods, you’ve come across Paul’s work. He has written numerous articles and books, including more than a dozen of the Arcadia Press series. What interests me is that instead of focusing on generic monument views or writing about famous people, he goes back in time to showcase local neighborhoods through exhaustive research and collections of photographs.

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I was very excited about meeting Paul Williams in person. I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but he told me to meet him at the former public comfort station in Dupont Circle. If you’ve ever needed a bathroom in the middle of Dupont Circle, or if you’ve ever taken the bus to New York from Dupont, you know the building of which I speak. As the current executive director of the Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets, Paul works out of the renovated historic building, which, fortunately, no longer looks at all like a public restroom on the interior. Continues after the jump.

Based on the body of his work, it is clear that Paul is passionate about what he does. He explained that he had grown up in a big old house. He went on to get a formal education in historic preservation and architecture, but he says he really learned to do house histories by researching his own home.

In an age where we have become used to going online and having information available immediately, Paul’s process of researching a house or a historic neighborhood is intensely hands on. Because the areas he focuses on are predominantly residential, he may rely on photos found in attics and personal collections of family albums. He also researches information on builders and architects, histories of work permits, and census records which reveal information such as former occupants’ names and occupations.

I could (well, I have) spend hours getting lost in the articles and resources that Paul has published online. Most fun is the mapped index of articles he has written, found here. For Paul K. Williams’ website, visit www.washingtonhistory.com. Enjoy!

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