Owners Eager for History Spur A Boom in 'House Genealogy'

Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL May 17, 2002.

After Alane Repa bought a condo in a converted 1891 brick building in Chicago, she heard all kinds of rumors about the place: It had once been a house of ill-repute, or drug dealers had used it as a hangout.

So she tried to sweep all the innuendo under the rug and look forward, right? Wrong. The 50-year-old lawyer hired a "house genealogist" to find out as much about the place as she could. "It's great reading," she says. "This will be in my Christmas letter."

Here's the latest twist in genealogy: commissioning a history of your house. Across the country, dogged homeowners are paying professionals top dollar to track down old details on their homes. Sometimes, the news isn't all that glamorous -- imagine finding out that the most interesting former occupants of your home were low-level government workers. Yet once in a while, owners get a little surprise: One homeowner discovered his home had been gambled away during the 1898 Gold Rush; a Virginia couple learned their home had served as a hospital for both Confederate and Union soldiers during the Civil War.

Charlene Vickery was certainly surprised to learn that the room where she keeps her stereo was once used to display dead bodies. After commissioning a genealogy of her LaGrange, Ill., Victorian, she was told the original owners used the ground-floor space as a "mourning room." "There must be quite a few souls lying around," she says. Other findings: One owner wanted to burn the house down, it was once rented by nuns, and a recent owner believed it was haunted after hearing noises in the house. Mrs. Vickery hasn't noticed anything unusual, outside of an occasional odd flickering of the lights.

Anything but Boring

Other news may be even more terrifying: Many owners discover that their homes are just plain boring. Or worse, information they thought they could believe -- that the house is of a certain age, or was lodging for some minor historical figure -- often turns out to be wrong. "You can show people document after document but they won't accept it as fact," says Robert Cangelosi, an architectural historian in New Orleans. "It's like telling a young child there's no Santa Claus."

With renovations of older homes booming, homeowners are increasingly interested in what used to go on under their roof. Some are inspired by television shows such as the BBC's "The House Detectives" or a recent flurry of interest in building history. Others are hoping to find a pedigree that will increase resale value.

The trend is boosting the cottage industry of house genealogists, long a small part of the historical-preservation movement. Though it doesn't compare with the $200 million generated by families looking for their Uncle Sid (or a connection to the Mayflower), firms such as Kelsey & Associates in Washington, D.C., are doing more than 100 house histories a year, double the number in 1999. Judy Bethea, a house genealogist in New Orleans, is handling an average of 55 projects a year, up 25% from 1999. "People love to find out their house was a brothel," she says. "They rarely were." The second most popular request: dig up ghost stories.

Hiring a house historian (anyone can call themselves that) costs anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. What do they do? Much of the work involves plodding through old courthouse records, newspapers or Census data. They look at everything from deeds (to find out how many times a house changed hands) to fire-insurance maps, which track renovations and additions. Some also head into the field to interview former owners or track down their descendants to get oral histories.

A Telltale Player Piano

Sometimes guesswork is involved, too. Carol Greve was told that her New Orleans home probably was a former bordello. How did the house genealogist determine this? From the fact that in the 1890s, the home had no kitchen -- but had several bedrooms on the first floor and a player piano. "We had no clue," says Ms. Greve. Still, she quickly adjusted to the idea: Her genealogy came complete with an inventory of the original owner's furniture and jewelry, which Ms. Greve now proudly displays for house tours.

Digging the Dirt

With more people around the country looking into their house's past, here are what some 'house genealogists' provide:

Service/Cost What You Get Comments
Heartland Historical Research Service
$1,900 and up
Six to nine months of research, with a final illustrated report The No. 1 question: If a house is by Frank Lloyd Wright or a disciple. "It's the one name people know," says the firm's head.
Judy Bethea
New Orleans
$35 to $1,700
From a single historical fact to a full "biography," with former owners' obituaries, even wills Homeowners in the French Quarter always think their homes were once bordellos -- they're usually wrong.
Kelsey & Associates
Washington, D.C.
$735 and up
A bound history with photos and old maps Found one home to be 100 years younger than claimed. "I'm sure the homeowner burned the history," says owner Paul Williams.
Tim Kelley
San Francisco
$300 to $350
A 10- to 20-page spiral-bound history; no photos A Victorian cottage Mr. Kelley researched had been won in an 1890s newspaper contest sponsored by William Randolph Hearst.
Jim Sazevich, The House Detective
St. Paul, Minn.
$500 to $5,000
Report of up to 100 pages, with photos and other documents Most shocking find: An 1887 murder in what's now the dining room of a local B&B (the owners tell diners after they've eaten).
Tim Gregory, The Building Biographer
Pasadena, Calif.
up to $500
A 10-page report, plus documents like building permits, news clippings and obituaries Has done more than 800 house histories; houses out West tend to be younger and easier to research, keeping prices low.

While house histories were once done just on century-old homes or fanciful Victorians, these days people in much more modest homes are getting interested, too. Robert Brookshire, for instance, has been on a five-year campaign to prove that his house came out of a box: He thinks it originally came in a kit from Sears in 30,000 pieces -- and he wants to put a plaque out front saying so.

Mr. Brookshire has seen a picture in an old catalog that looks "nearly identical" to his Bloomington, Ind., house, but searches for the company's trademark stamp on windowpanes and stud walls have been a bust. Next, he plans to send out pictures of his lighting fixtures to an expert on Sears homes (thousands were sold from 1908 to 1940). If his leads don't pan out, "I'm just going to say it's a Sears house and if anyone wants to argue with me, they can prove it otherwise."

Historical Marketing Tools

Some real-estate agents use house genealogies as a marketing tool. Deborah James Dendtler, a Richmond, Va., agent, says that in her area, a pre-1925 house can sell for upwards of $140 a square foot, depending on the historical significance and condition -- double the amount of newer homes. One point she's using for a home she's currently trying to sell: During the Revolutionary War, a cannonball was shot into the house -- it's now in the library and comes with the property. "Those are the things people love," she says.

Homeowners often come away with a new appreciation for their old home after learning about the hardships its previous owners endured. Robert O'Connor, a congressional staffer and history buff, had a genealogy done on his two-bedroom townhouse in Washington. Not only did he learn that his part of the block was considered the smelliest part of the neighborhood (it's where the horses rested), but also that groups of seven or eight low-level government employees used to share his house. "Now I can't complain" about it just having one bathroom, he says.