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.
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.
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.
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.
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.