How to Uncover Your House's History
By Rina Rapuano
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 7, 2007; Page N03
When my neighbor mentioned for the seventh time that our nearly identical Columbia Heights rowhouses were rumored to be Wardman houses, my curiosity got the better of me.
If you’ve never heard the name Harry Wardman, it's likely you've never tried to buy a house in Washington. Wardman was a turn-of-the-century builder famous for his sturdy rowhouses as well as such grander achievements as the Hay-Adams hotel. A home with the Wardman name can at best bring in a few extra dollars when you sell. At the very least, it allows for nerdy homeowner bragging rights.
Anyone can access public records to find out who built their house, but I was feeling daunted. I called on Matthew Gilmore, co-author of the recently published "Historic Photos of Washington, D.C." and a former reference librarian for the D.C. Public Library.
This is how he distills the research process for laypeople: "You're researching that building itself: the structure, when it was built, when it was changed, things like the permits. You're researching the change in ownership, who owned it over time. Then you're researching who those people were."
We met one afternoon at the Martin Luther King Jr. library in Penn Quarter to do just that. The branch is home to the library's Washingtoniana Division, the city's largest collection of local-history materials. Gilmore spent a few hours walking me through the labyrinth of maps and microfilm that would help me get to the bottom of my house's beginnings. (Although Gilmore no longer works there, Washingtoniana has several staff members eager to share their knowledge with curious homeowners.)
We started by taking a peek at an 1887 version of the Hopkins Real Estate Atlas. What about the small fact that my house wasn't built for another 23 years? Luckily, this atlas was released every four years until 1968, so we grabbed a later edition and dug in.
Turns out my street used to have a different name, which was interesting but didn't ultimately affect my research. The most important things to be gleaned from this map were the square and lot numbers (the square number refers to the city block; the lot number indicates where your house sits on that block). With these, you can fetch tax assessments to find out who has owned the house. I learned that the original owners sold my house in 1942 and that it was sold again in 1979. I could then take the owners' names and look for obituaries to get a better picture of who they were.
Next, we hit the city directory. You can look up an address and find out who lived there, and also look up a name and find the person's address and occupation. (Finally! A tiny shred of personal information was gleaned: The original owner of my house was a salesman.) This is also where you would look to find out whether someone famous lived in your house, although Gilmore says people generally know where the likes of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower lived when they weren't knocking about in the White House. But, as he points out, it all depends on how you define "famous."
"If you do Washington, D.C., famous, there is a directory," he says, referring to "The Elite List: A Compilation of Selected Names of Residents of Washington City, D.C., and Ladies' Shopping Guide." The Washingtoniana Division has editions from 1888 and 1918.
We then checked out the building permits to find my house's permit number; I later trekked a few blocks south to the National Archives and viewed the permits on microfilm. This was the highlight of the whole process; put simply, I learned everything I wanted to know about the origins of my house, including its architect, builder and official square footage. Not to mention that it was a thrill to see the original permit, bearing the fancy scrawled handwriting of a long-gone era.
It turned out that my house isn't a Wardman -- although I did learn that the architect, Nicholas Grimm, was one Wardman had used until 1905. Still, pedigreed or not, my house is home, sweet home.
Where to Start
Ready to research your house's history? The following resources can help, whether you take the DIY approach or enlist the aid of professionals.
D.C. Public Library. At the Martin Luther King Jr. branch, the Washingtoniana Division is staffed with folks who can assist curious homeowners. Available records include real estate atlases, census information and tax assessment records. If you live in the District, this is the best place to start.
901 G St. NW, 202-727-1213, http://www.dclibrary.org/washingtoniana/index.html.
Historical Society of Washington, D.C. The society's Gibson Reading Room houses books, pamphlets, photographs, maps, prints, archives and manuscripts. Before you head over, try searching the group's online catalogue to see whether it has what you're looking for. 801 K St. NW, 202-383-1850, http://www.historydc.org.
National Archives. This is the mother ship for text and microfilm records relating to genealogy and the District, among other things. There's also a collection of original building permits. 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-357-5000, http://www.archives.gov.
Maryland State Archives. Records date from 1634. Included in the holdings are executive, legislative and judicial branch records; county probate, land and court records; business records; publications and reports of state, county and municipal governments; and maps, photographs and newspapers. 350 Rowe Blvd., Annapolis, 800-235-4045, http://www.mdsa.net.
Montgomery County Historical Society. At the society's Jane C. Sween Library, you'll find real estate atlases from 1916 through 1959, insurance papers, census records and newspaper abstracts, among other things. The society recommends contacting it for advice on starting research. 42 Middle Lane, Rockville,
Alexandria Library's Local History/Special Collections. This facility houses the city's Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, deeds from 1783 to 1870, city directories, censuses that date from 1790, obituary indexes for the Alexandria Gazette and five shelves of Fairfax County genealogy books and journals. Also offered is a brochure titled "Alexandria House Histories: A Research Guide." 717 Queen St., Alexandria, 703-838-4577, Ext. 213, http://www.alexandria.lib.va.us.
Arlington County Central Library. This building's Virginia Room is a central site for Arlington's historical resources as well as published materials about the region and state. It offers a pamphlet on researching your house's history, along with Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, county directories and census records. 1015 N. Quincy St., Arlington, 703-228-5966, http://www.arlingtonva.us (click on "Libraries").
Fairfax City Regional Library. The Virginia Room houses an extensive collection of books, photographs and manuscripts related to Fairfax County history and genealogy. Researchers can find deeds, census information, obituaries, wills, neighborhood histories and much more. Indexes for local newspapers can be found online, but the actual articles are in the Virginia Room. 3915 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax, 703-293-6383, http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/library/branches/vr.
"Houses and Homes: Exploring Their History" (AltaMira Press, $22.95) was written by Barbara Howe, Dolores Fleming, Emory Kemp and Ruth Ann Overbeck as part of a series of books sponsored by the American Association for State and Local History. One of the few books written on this topic, it is best for traditional methods of research, because it was written in 1987. It aims to teach readers how to examine written records, oral testimonies and a house's surroundings.
Paul Kelsey Williams of Kelsey & Associates, which provides such services as researching homes and businesses in addition to consulting on historic preservation, will research your house's history for $700 to $2,500, depending on the home's size and age. He provides homeowners with several pages of historical information, as well as photographs, maps and permits. 1929 13th St. NW, 202-213-9796, http://www.washingtonhistory.com.