Researching Your House
Recently, I have become interested in researching a little bit about the history of my house. I have been told that the house – located in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC – was built in the early 1940s, but I do not know much more than that. I found this claim rather unusual because the Depression and World War II resulted in a decade-plus-long dearth in new construction across the United States. However, I suspect that this is another circumstance in which the Washington-area represents a special case. The expanding federal workforce and those working in service industries supporting them needed housing. There are a variety of sources that you can use to do research on historic properties.
The first place I looked for information on the history of our house is deed records. In many places these are available online, which saves you a trip to the local courthouse or recorder of deeds. Deeds are generally recorded by the county or incorporated city in which the property is located, so initiate a search for online access using terms such as “Suffolk County deeds” or “Alexandria land records”. To trace deeds, start with the most recent deed and work backwards in time, hopefully using references to older deeds or the grantor (i.e. seller) to track the house through history. For example, a deed for my house includes this information in the description of the property, “Being the same property described in Liber 8090, folio 267, among the said Land Records.” When you look up the earlier deed in book 8090, page 267, you have jumped back in time forty-six years to the original owner!
In many localities the property tax assessor also has public information about property ownership available online. Assessor’s records often will provide the name and mailing address of the current owner along with the assessed value of the property. They may also give you the names of prior owners, building uses, an approximate date of construction, square footage, or a shorthand version of the legal description for the property in the form of a certain lot located within a certain block or subdivision. Some of that information can be useful in providing an entry point into deed records.
If you find the names of prior owners and are interested in exploring their lives and times, a number of different resources are available to you.
US Census records can give you basic information such as age at the time of the census, occupation, family relationships and living arrangements, gender, and race. Some census years include annual income. The Census Bureau maintains an Index of Questions on its website, which shows the information collected by each census. Copies of early census schedules (1790-1930) are available on microfilm at the National Archives in Washington and at thirteen regional archives. Some libraries and historical societies also hold copies of census records. Records from the 1940 census are available online at http://1940census.archives.gov/. Earlier census schedules have been scanned from microfilm and are available free of charge online at: http://archive.org/details/us_census.
Census records are required to be kept confidential for 72 years, so the 1950 census schedules will not be released until 2022.
Another good source of information about prior occupants of your home is city directories. Older city directories are often cross indexed by address, allowing you to look up the occupants by address. Once you have identified the names of occupants, you cross-reference them in the alphabetical name index to gather additional information. Often the occupation and spouse of the head of household are listed; sometimes a widow designation is used. Cross indices also allow you to better understand the socio-economic character of a block, street, or neighborhood. City directories are generally found in local libraries and historical societies. You may also find some scanned on Google Books.
Another amazing resource you can use to research the development of your house and neighborhood is Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. Sanborn maps were used to assess the fire risk associated with a certain property. As such, they show a building’s materials, the location and number of doors and windows, footprint and number of stories, property lines, and more. Using consecutive editions Sanborn maps, it is possible to trace building additions and demolitions over time. The earliest Sanborn maps date to the mid-nineteenth century. Like city directories, Sanborn maps are most often available in local libraries and historical societies, whether in the form of full-size, hard-bound atlases or on microfilm. Online access to Sanborn maps is generally limited to those with a subscription, although the Library of Congress has digitized some of the Sanborn maps in its collection. http://www.loc.gov/rr/geogmap/sanborn/index.php
To provide an example of the way in which Sanborns may be used, the Sanborn map for 1888 shows the site of our office occupied by a since-demolished, 2-story, flat-front frame dwelling with a shingle roof. A 1-story ell (a kitchen perhaps) jutted out to the rear. Adjacent to the alley, a 1-story outbuilding occupied the back of the lot. That same structure reappears on the 1903 Sanborn map. A comparison of the modern assessor’s map and Sanborn maps seems to indicate that the redevelopment of this block of R Street was accompanied by a renumbering of the lots, as the historical Sanborn maps show 1906 R as the second lot to the west of 19th Street while the assessor’s map confirms the current 1906 R Street is the third lot to the west.
The 1888 Sanborn map shows that larger Queen Anne brick rowhouses already occupied the same block to the east, facing onto 19th Street. Public records indicate that the townhouse now home to our office was built ca. 1915; the existing 4-story, Beaux-Arts stone-faced townhouse is a far cry from the humbler dwelling that once occupied the site, likely indicative of changing socio-economic conditions in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. Research on the owner/occupants of both houses and the architect/builder of the townhouse would further illuminate the history.
Another set of maps the US government has made available online are the USGS topographic quadrangle maps, which have been produced since 1884. http://nationalmap.gov/historical/index.html The quad maps are not particularly useful in assessing the development of particular property or building over time, but they are very useful for showing large-scale development across landscapes over time. The addition of roads, rail lines, institutions, and place names for crossroads communities, towns and cities, as well as the “erasure” of natural features and increases in density can all be traced through the years using USGS maps.
Your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) or local preservation agency – such as the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission or the Boston Landmarks Commission – may already have documented a significant amount of your home’s history. The first place to check is usually with your local commission. They may not have resources available online, but the files are generally open to the public for research by appointment. The SHPO may provide online access to designation reports for historic districts or even survey forms for individual properties. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts makes its survey records available – and images of the records for some towns – online at http://mhc-macris.net/. New York provides basic survey data and National Register designation reports at http://nysparks.com/shpo/online-tools/.
Collections of historical photographs are maintained by many institutions, including local governments, museums, libraries, historical societies, and even individuals. Some collections have been digitized and are searchable using keywords. In New York, for example, the New York Public Library maintains a large collection that includes views of the city at http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/index.cfm. By narrowing down a particular address to a block using cross streets, images can be searched fairly easily to see if a particular property is included in the collection. Historic tax photographs of properties in New York City are maintained at the Municipal Archives, which are open to the public. Historical photographs can be an invaluable resource, particularly if you have evidence that the appearance of your property has been altered in some way.