Expert of the house Historian's eye on Capitol Hill

By Duncan Spencer
The Hill newspaper

December 10, 2003

Paul Williams's antique desk is crowded with books, pamphlets, papers and an enormous orange cat; the city's most famous (and only) professional house historian considers the feline, Melvin, part of the writing routine. "He never moves," Williams says.

Williams, 36, is one of those clever young men who saw a niche and developed it. He has already written seven books about Washington's neighborhoods and another - about Capitol Hill - will hit the stores in March 2004. True to his highly personal style, the cover picture, a classic black-and-white photo, shows the Capitol Dome in the background but in the foreground two pretty girls, circa 1926, are frying an egg on the marble balustrade.

The book was written in a whirlwind of concentration in an apartment in Reykjavik, Iceland, Williams's typically unusual retreat when he is on a project. "I have to get out of this room," he says, eyes wandering to the dimensions of his vast and winding loft at Shaw's 7th and Q Streets N.W. "It's the quiet - no phones, no visitors."

Lest such eccentricities as the fried egg and the winter visit to Iceland indicate a certain degree of imbalance, be assured Williams is an extremely sensible and financially alert entrepreneur. While most writers with his degree of skill may be thinking of a great novel based on a tormented childhood, Williams just wants to tell you about your basement and your building permit. Thinking small and down to earth has had its rewards.

His day job is house research. He'll do a handsomely printed and illustrated history of your row house for between $900 and $2,500, depending on its age and the complexity of the research. His website,, tells that whole businesslike story.

Williams has already completed books on the whole city (Washington Then & Now); Cleveland Park; Woodley Park; Georgetown University; Greater U Street; Logan, Scott and Thomas circles; and Dupont Circle. Coming are Capitol Hill, Forest Hills and Washington in World War II.

Born in Midland, Mich., he grew up in a "big old Victorian home," which sparked his interest in the secrets of old dwellings. He did graduate work at Cornell and was asked by Arcadia Publishing, an unusual Charleston, S.C., publishing house, to do his first book in 1996 - Washington Then & Now.

Arcadia had discovered small-town publishing. It launched a series of books, plain histories of small and medium-size towns, and found that it worked financially. The publisher forgot about best sellers and concentrated on sure sellers. "Everyone in the town wanted one," Williams says, laughing.

It was just a small jump to the neighborhoods idea. "Capitol Hill is a fascinating place," he says. "It is so varied. There is history here from all eras." He shared authorship on the Hill volume with Gregory John Alexander and credits local history tour guide Kathy Smith of Cultural Tourism D.C. for her assistance.