Everyone Loves a Story: Learn Your House’s History (and See Old Pictures of Mine)

We all love stories. And a lot of people love old houses, including me. That must be why I was intrigued by an article last week in the Washington Post: History in the house: How to discover your home’s past. Even if your house isn’t in a historic district (mine is not), your place may still have a fascinating story.

Suardi house as pictured in House Beautiful in 1998

Our house was featured in House Beautiful in 1998. Former owner, Robert Lautman, was an architectural photographer who took pictures for magazines like this one.

Stories Add Wealth Without Clutter

What’s in a house story? Knowing that a father built your house for his daughter or that your neighborhood was once the largest working farm in the county can add richness to your abode, without spending money on even one antique.

A history could make you fall more in love with your house (helping you appreciate the sagging floorboards or the porch that needs repair). A history could even increase the value of your home, “although it’s hard to put a price tag on knowing that a renowned artist once painted in the master bedroom or that a president was a guest,” according to the Post article.

Robert C. Lautman, architectural photographer

Robert C. Lautman, the architectural photographer who lived in our house for the past 45 years.

Architecturally there is nothing remarkable about our house. Folk is probably the most flattering way to describe its style. But I loved how it seemed out of place and time — a farmhouse in the middle of the city.

For me, knowing that a respected architectural photographer, Robert Lautman, and his wife lived in the house from 1967 until he died in 2009 added to its charm.  It also helped explain all the skylights, and — after reading Lautman’s obituary which the selling agent sent us when we were looking at the house — the industrial-style chef’s kitchen (he loved to cook and entertain) and the contemporary additions (his love was post-modern architecture.)

Because I knew I wouldn’t meet his family at the closing (the estate had been handed over to a conservator), I wrote a letter, telling them how thrilled we were and that their loved house would be in good hands. I still think it’s so cool to see small evidences of the photographer’s mark: the darkroom in the basement, the scribbled phone numbers on the walls, the landscaping inspired by his travels.

Writing that letter helped me get in touch with his niece, who owns an antique store nearby, and who has been a valuable resource and an emotional connection to the house. Given that she had Sunday dinner here every week for decades, she knows everything about the structure (even coordinating the latest kitchen renovation while her uncle was in Paris).  To help with our renovations, she has recommended trusted people who were here way before we were.

How to Begin Searching Your House’s History

“Like discovering your family’s roots,” the Post article explains, “researching your house’s past can give you a sense of connection to history.” You might learn that part of your house burned down during the Civil Rights protests of the ’60s, or that your street used to be on the trolley line that took people to the summer fair.

If you’d like to tackle the project yourself, one way is to start with the previous owner and work backward, just as you would if you were researching your family’s genealogy. Or you could look for the house’s original building permit. Check with your public library on where to start — sometimes libraries even hold workshops on researching house histories. Then there are historical societies — and neighbors. People who have lived in the neighborhood for a while might know about street name changes or may have discovered telling documents in their attics.

Sears Roebuck Kit House

My neighbor, for example, found the plans to his house rolled up in his basement, which explained the fact that he lived in a row of 1912 Sears Roebuck kit houses. (Kit houses were often assembled in groups near railway stations, because they were shipped in boxcars: the old Tenallytown train station was located just up the street from us.)

If you find all this as interesting as I do (I spent way too much time this afternoon trying to find the exact model of the Sears houses on my side street), you might want to check out more research tips and resources at The New England House Historian.

Hiring a Professional Architectural Historian

Wouldn’t a house history be a wonderful anniversary or milestone birthday gift (or a way to spend your tax refund)? To find a professional in your area, do a Web search for house historian or architectural historian. You might get some leads from your city’s historical society.

To see what a house history might look like, check out some beautifully thorough histories at Kelsey & Associates, a Washington, D.C. firm specializing in researching homes and businesses.

I’m thinking that if I ever get mine done, it might cost less than the $500 to $800 that this firm typically charges for histories, considering it’s already half done. Since our house was built in 1911 (and we know who was there since 1967), we don’t have that much more to dig up. But then that’s part of the fun: maybe there is a lot more to discover.

As you can see from these photos, the previous owners of our house had personality to sell. As we slowly make changes to the house to fit the way we live, I hope we can honor their spirit as well as add a healthy dollop of our own.

The living room, which unfortunately no longer has that wonderful wood-burning stove.

The living room, which unfortunately no longer has that wonderful wood-burning stove.


Love the warmth and quirkiness of their style.


This sunroom was the latest addition and our favorite room in the house.

This sunroom was the latest addition and our favorite room in the house.


Yup, this is our kitchen: industrial meets country.

Yup, this is our kitchen: industrial meets country.


Pegboard over windows helped create more wall space for displaying their collections.

Pegboard over windows helped create more wall space for displaying their collections.

These photos came from the April 1998 issue of House Beautiful. Thank you to Barbara Lautman for these clues to the history and collective personality of the place we now call home.

Home is so important to me, and so are people. To that list, I might add history.

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  • Paul Williams May 14, 2012, 11:17 am

    Amy! We’ve discovered you house was actually built in 1916! Lots more to come!

    • Amy May 14, 2012, 1:11 pm

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for reporting in on my upcoming birthday present (a history of our house). I can’t believe the built-date was wrong — I can hardly wait to find out the rest!


  • Dan Hiestand May 9, 2012, 10:46 am

    Awesome article. :) Paul (Kelsey & Associates) and Marian (New England House Historian) are great! In fact, my brother and I just had the pleasure of meeting Marian for the first time in person last week (there is a picture of us on the New England House Historian Web site). We met Paul in March for the first time. They have great jobs!

    Anyhow, you may want to look at this article written earlier this year as well on the value of knowing your home’s history. It may interest you. http://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/realestate/home/sc-cons-0202-house-history-20120203,0,2584510.story

    • Amy May 11, 2012, 2:25 pm

      Hi Dan,

      How cool that you know both Paul Williams (who is doing my house history as a birthday present) and Marian. I noticed that you are selling a cool house history book and archival box — wonderful idea! And thank you so much for referring me to the article a history adding value to a house at the Chicago Tribune — love this stuff.

      Take care,

      • Dan Hiestand May 12, 2012, 9:53 am

        Yes, it is a small world, isn’t it? Thank you for your kind words on our new Home History Book. We appreciate it!

        Keep up the great work on your blog, and please say “hi” to Paul for me the next time you see him. What a fun birthday present! Have a great weekend, and take care-


  • Jen @ Jen Spends April 28, 2012, 10:22 am

    It’s amazing that your house was covered in a magazine! I love a house with a good story. The previous owners decorated well, and I think you’re making it even better, inside and out.

    I know very little about our home, but apparently it was the first effort of a banker who decided he wanted to build houses himself as a hobby. It shows!

    • Amy May 1, 2012, 9:28 pm

      Hi Jen,

      It sounds like your house has an interesting story too, and you already have a nugget to go on. Our house is certainly no architectural masterpiece either, but then again, how many are there out there like that? I think knowing the history helps us forgive our houses for being weird or awkward. It all makes sense and becomes endearing.


  • Sarah April 23, 2012, 11:51 am

    Wow, loved the pictures from the magazine! They decorated so nicely and it really didn’t even look dated.
    Our house is from 1949 and completely lacking in charm. We bought it because it has a great view of the sea.

    • Amy April 23, 2012, 1:57 pm

      Hi Sarah,

      A view of the sea would add a heck of a lot of charm to any house! How rare and special. I always feel peaceful when gazing at the water. I’m glad you liked our house pictures. I wish they would have left some of their stuff! Their antique-store owner niece held an estate sale in the house, but it was months or even years before the house went on the market, so we had no idea it even existed yet.

      Take a good long gaze at the sea for me!

  • emily young April 21, 2012, 4:28 am

    Such a great post. I love the magazine pictures. It looks like there was a lot of love put into your house. We also have an older home. Ours was built in 1809. It has its original bee-hive hive oven, a smokehouse, and also a meat storage area in the barn. They said that it was once a stop on the underground railroad. I absolutely love old homes. Enjoy your home Amy. I know you guys would have made the previous owners proud!! Emily

    • Amy April 23, 2012, 11:01 am

      Hi Emily,

      I’m so glad you share my love of old houses. Your house sounds fascinating! 200 years old is amazing. I love that it still has so many of those beautiful old features like the smokehouse and beehive oven. And what great karma too, that previous owners helped slaves escape.

      Take care and thank you for writing, Emily,

  • Jackie Leyba April 20, 2012, 9:34 pm

    We don’t own the house that we are living in. We rent it from my mother-in-law. We live in the house that she grew up in. Her, her parents, her 2 other sisters, & 3 brothers. Her parents built this house themselves. This house has a lot of love and history in it. For the first time for me, this feels like home.

    • Amy April 23, 2012, 10:59 am

      Hi Jackie,

      I loved hearing the story of your house. You are so lucky to know the people who built it, and even better, to have them be your family. You will always have someone to turn to for stories about your house, and questions about it’s idiosyncrasies. I’m so glad you have finally found a place that feels like home. That is so important.

      Take care and thank you for writing, Jackie,

  • Leslie H April 20, 2012, 1:33 pm

    It’s quite unusual to see a house plan that has no bathrooms in it! Otherwise I quite like the Sears floor plan.

    We built our home, and after reading your article, I feel a responsibility to make sure that we live a life here that makes history for the next generations.

    I enjoyed your post.

    • Amy April 20, 2012, 7:31 pm

      Hi Leslie,

      You are so right! I never noticed that that house had no bathrooms. I don’t think it was created before modern plumbing, so I’m confounded. The whole Sears kit house story is fascinating in general.

      I love your idea of imbuing your house with personality. You ARE the history!

      Thank you for writing in,

    • Lara April 22, 2012, 12:11 pm

      Sears later called that model the Silverdale. They put a single bathroom where the storage room is on the plan above. By 1923 everyone was willing to pay for indoor plumbing, but a bathroom was considered an upgrade to the standard plan in 1916.

      • Amy April 23, 2012, 11:02 am

        Hi Lara,

        Thank you for solving this mystery for us! I’m so glad to meet an expert on Sears kit houses. I find the whole idea fascinating, and I have a feeling there are lots and lots of them in my neighborhood. In fact, our house could be one too.

        I’m off to check out your blog now. Thanks for writing in!