Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Who Lived Here? Researching the History of an Old Home in the District

When he went searching for a home to buy in 1992 in Washington DC, Paul Kelsey Williams was seduced by a building at 1800 Vermont Avenue. Never mind that the neighborhood had been crime ridden, he was attracted to the corner house shaped like a miniature castle. After move in, a neighbor illuminated its history, it turns out that Williams lives in what used to be the Frelinghuysen University, a co-op for black working class adults built by Diller Groff in 1879.

With a graduate degree in historic preservation, Williams has an inclination to find the history of a property. As blogger for WashingtonHistory.com and author of several books on local history from Arcadia Publishing, including Greater U Street, Cleveland Park, Capitol Hill and Woodley Park, he wanted a home with an eclectic past. As a result, he ended up looking at homes in Logan Circle region in particular.

It doesn't take a degree from Cornell (though Williams has one) to find out the history of a home. Williams says it's easy if you start with the Washingtoniana Room of the Martin Luther King Library.

The Washingtoniana Room houses residency records from 1822 that include occupation of each homeowner and place of employment; individuals and families associated with a property can also be researched from 1790 in the HeritageQuest database by Census year. The library also files information on permits to build homes and additions from 1877 through 1949 (permits to build after 1949 are at the D.C. Archives). If you're really interested in going as far back as before the home was built, there's information associated with the city block and parcel of land that can be found in the Assessment Directory kept at the reference desk.

Speaking on his own neighborhood, Williams noted the treasures of the past he has discovered. "What I think is fascinating is the transition of Logan Circle and U Street from white to black-owned." Williams searched census records to discover the transition of home ownership in the neighborhood started in 1900 and continued through the '20's, during which time rowhouses were snapped up by middle class African Americans when whites moved to Dupont Circle and along Massachusetts Avenue where new homes were being built.

"Who was the architect, the original owner, how thick the walls are, the original cost, what the foundation and roof is made of, it's all there," says Williams. "Aside from adding to the story of your home, this information can be valuable if you're considering renovations."

If you're looking for information on an old home on Capitol Hill, Georgetown, Logan or U Street, there's a good chance it was built between the 1870's through the 1890's, during the first wave of building in D.C. An expanding government after the Civil War brought an influx of laborers and and a development boom.

Many homes in the area had been designed by one of three architects: Diller Groff who had built Williams' home, and Thomas Franklin Schneider was also prolific, having designed nearly 2000 buildings in the area between 1880 and 1900, including The Cairo as well as the 1700 block of Q Street, NW. George Cooper is the third most noteworthy architect of the era, having designed the Bond Building at New York Ave. and much of 14th Street, among others.

And as for Georgetown? "The funny thing is, many people think that the houses in Georgetown were among the most coveted," says Williams. "But unless they were the big mansions, they housed the butchers and the bakers in the 1870's and 1880's."

Washington DC real estate news


Jerry A. McCoy on Feb 2, 2011, 12:08:00 PM said...

The DC Public Library's Peabody Room, a special collections of Georgetown neighborhood history, has information on many of the residential addresses in Georgetown. Located in the Georgetown Neighborhood Library, 3260 R Street (Wisconsin & R), the hours are Mondays and 2nd & 4th Saturdays 9:30-5:30 and Thursdays 1-9. Phone 202.727.0233.

snow bunny said...

I was intrigued to learn the history of my house and hired Williams to investigate.

However, I was concerned about his directly taking words from another site without proper attribution (scholars might call this plagiarism) and errors in grammar. I am glad to say that he did fix these errors when asked.

Anonymous said...

I have done some research on my house and found some really interesting stuff that illuminated the history of the house and the neighborhood.

I learned that the man who owned the property and developed it was a famous horse trainer. The house was a rental for most of it's life and that there were several people living there that worked at St. E's.

Since the house is on a corner I even have a photo of it from the late 1940's done by Wymer (the DC Historical Association has his photos) that verified some of my thoughts on what the house used to look like. And there was even a photo of what I think was one of the people who used to live there standing on the front steps.

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