How to research your home's past

History: More and more homeowners are researching
the history of their homes. Some pay to have it done.

By Patricia Rivera
Special To The Sun
Originally published July 20, 2003

Two neighbors told David Baldwin that they had dreams of an ailing little girl lying in a bed on the enclosed porch of their Windsor Hills apartment house.

It seemed as if she were fighting for her life, but none of the tenants could offer further explanations, said Baldwin, the director of the Baltimore County Historical Society's library.

"I started to wonder if the little girl had died in the home," said Baldwin, who has rented an apartment in the house since 1999.

So Baldwin did what he had been telling dozens of people over the years to do: He began studying the home's past. A friend searched property titles to help Baldwin trace the home's history. He learned about the home's former owners and the prices they paid for the house, which was built in 1910. But he didn't have much luck finding out about the little girl of his neighbors' dreams.

Baldwin isn't the only one who has been sifting through records and researching his home's history. An increasing number of people have developed an interest in historic home research during recent years. That appetite has been sparked in part by cable television programs, preservation groups and even government agencies.

Experts said curious homeowners can find clues within their homes and attics or by visiting tax offices and searching the Internet for nuggets about their house and neighborhood.

In many cases, it costs nothing more than patience and perseverance. And those who get stumped can call a growing number of professionals who charge $100 to thousands of dollars to offer a peek into a home's past.

"Like with the rest of the national mindset, people want to get a sense of their history so they're looking at their homes and their families," said architect Paul K. Williams, who runs a home history business in Washington and recently opened a Baltimore office. "They want to know where their families lived and who may have lived in their homes."

And experts said homes built in the early 1900s aren't the only ones that are getting looks. As the housing boom has grown, homeowners with younger homes in the suburbs also have looked for pieces of history. Baltimore County Land Records Office workers said traffic has been heavier during recent years.

"There's a much greater interest in real estate, and more people come in here looking for information on homes and deeds," said Pat Mannion, a supervisor at the county's Land Records Office.

Home research clearly dovetails on the widespread practice of family research. And as popular interest in historic preservation continues to rise, so does the need to learn more about one's home, said architect Richard D. Wagner, also a Goucher College professor of historic preservation.

Financial incentives to restore older homes to their original state are helping fuel the trend. "Much of the interest is generated by tax credits which are available to people who take the time to outline the history of their homes," he said.

IRS-sanctioned income tax credits for rehabilitation projects are available for anyone whose home lies in a historic district, or is on the National Register of Historic Places. Maryland residents also can benefit from a 25 percent credit. The state's tax credit program - considered one of the best in the nation - has been threatened by budget cuts.

Williams, owner of Kelsey & Associates, fields many calls from people curious about their houses. His keen eye for details leads him to some interesting discoveries.

He found out that one Georgetown property he was asked to research had served as a temporary home for Jacqueline Kennedy and her children after the assassination of her husband. The clues: Pictures of both Kennedy walking her dog and throngs of onlookers gathered on the block and held back by police appeared in The Washington Star newspaper, along with reports and accounts from the 1960s.

In another case, he discovered that under the neatly kept front lawn of a home in the Washington neighborhood of Palisades sat a cannonball from the Civil War. The owners hit something suspicious while gardening, prompting the request for the home research.

Then there was the Chevy Chase home that he learned had been built from a Sears Roebuck catalog kit.

"This was very simple; it matched a home found in a Sears mail-order catalog," Williams said. "These are widely reprinted now for Sears home enthusiasts and easy to spot for the trained eye."

Some homeowners find there are practical reasons for pursuing research.
Doug Harbit, co-owner of the historic Davis Warner Inn in Takoma Park, can vouch for that. Harbit needed more data for an application to have the inn considered for the National Register of Historic Places. He hired Williams to conduct research.

The first records found suggested that the Stick Style home, an architectural style from the late 1800s that features extensive and purely decorative exterior wood framing, was built around 1855. But as they uncovered more facts, Harbit discovered that after the original builders sold the property in the 1880s, the house took on a decidedly unusual character.

Early tax records revealed that at various times, the house served as a veterans hospital, a brothel, a speakeasy, a gambling hall, a private school and, once again, a family residence.

"We ended up giving it the name Davis Warner to remember the original builders and two other owners," said Harbit, who was successful in placing the home on various historical designation lists.

Investigating the history of an older home is crucial before a rehabilitation project, said Baltimore architect David H. Gleason.

Homeowners learn about the various ways the home may have been altered over the years from its original state. Gleason searched for clues when he remodeled his early 20th-century Victorian Italianate style home in Fells Point. Around the 1920s, someone had converted most of the ground floor into a garage.

"It stood out from the other homes in the neighborhood," Gleason said. "I restored it to a single-family home with bedrooms downstairs."

For others, research takes them beyond curiosity and financial incentives. Like the Windsor Hill residents, they want to know if someone died in their home.

They don't, however, always want all the details.

"People are a little nervous about finding out too much," Williams said. "They'll say, 'If you find out that there was a murder in the house, don't tell me.' "

As part of his service, Williams gives clients a "house story," complete with a narrative of past homeowners, their occupations and business addresses. It also includes census research; copies of the original building permit and subsequent work permits; a discussion of the home's social history and builders and architects; photocopies of any historic photographs; and maps showing changes that have been made to the building over time.

"People are really proud of their home's history," Williams said. "They leave these books out during parties."

Kelsey & Associates, one of the few businesses solely dedicated to home research, charges from $735 to $2,500 to dig into the history of a piece of property. Williams generally charges $735 to $900. For $100, homeowners can purchase a basic history package that includes a copy of the building permit, the construction date and information on the architect and the first owner of the property.

Architectural firms also conduct research before renovating houses that might be historic. That cost generally is built into the firm's project fee.

Homeowners who don't want to hire a professional house researcher can do much of the research themselves. The Internet is full of sites that help outline the process.
Wagner, of Goucher College, said the first step a homeowner should take is to find out when the home was built. The house is full of clues, he said. The materials used for the foundation, siding, windows, architectural details, floors and fixtures often indicate its period.

"In places like the attic rafters, carpenters used to leave their name and date," he said.

Once an owner has roughly determined the decade the home was built, a visit to a city or county building permit office can uncover the original permit. Normally, the next stop is the county land records office to trace the home's ownership.

House researchers also can visit local libraries and historical societies to gather information from census data, old atlases, genealogical records and city directories.
It's not difficult work, Baldwin said, but it does take patience and perseverance and can lead to a dead end.

Baldwin's research into the possible death of a little girl at his rental property, for example, was cut short by the lack of data relating to the previous tenants. Unlike owners, tenants tend to leave fewer historical footprints. Baldwin could only find information going back to the 1960s. He never found any evidence that the little girl lived there but he did come to a conclusion about her fate if she did.

"There was plenty of anecdotal information to suggest that the child might have died during the flu epidemic of that period," he said.

Not knowing for sure whether she lived or died isn't such a bad thing, Baldwin said. It lets tenants and the owners make up their own ending to the mystery.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun