Who died in your house? Here’s how to find out


Caroline Levington poses for a portrait in her 1912 row house in the Petworth neighborhood. Caroline and her husband recently participated in a workshop on how to research the history of homes through maps, photos and other archives. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist October 21, 2013

At least five people have died in my house. Three of them were children.

One of them was a Union soldier who had lost the hearing in his right ear to a musket ball he took in the head during the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, years after a career as a Capitol Hill police officer and Navy Yard clerk.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Was his Irish wake in our living room? Or in the dining room? Did he die in the master bedroom? Or the room that’s now our home office?

These are the joys and sorrows of an old house. And in the nation’s capital, where various degrees of stupid and scandalous always bookend the inspiring and historic, lots of people wish their old walls could talk.

Real estate history is a hot pursuit here, whether it means trawling Google for the names of the people everyone in your condo complained about two years ago or whirring through the microfiche archives to see your 1920 building permit.


Caroline Levington poses for a portrait in her 1912 row house in the Petworth neighborhood. Caroline and her husband recently participated in a workshop on how to research the history of homes through maps, photos and other archives. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The epicenter of this hobby? The D.C. Humanities Council’s annual house historyworkshop.

The sessions filled up right away with people clamoring for guidance in prowling the photo archives or the building permit database at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown, in its Washingtoniacollection.

There were D.C. residents young and old, including Jeff Leon, 26, an accountant who recently moved here and rents a home in Bloomingdale. He is one of those guys who appreciates the city’s history at every corner, marveling at the brickwork and facades everywhere.

“I’m from south Florida,” he explained. “Nothing is more than 50 years old. So here? I’m surrounded by history.”

The unsentimental field guide in this pursuit is Brian Kraft, a fast-talking database guy who can help you find the permits on any building in the District.

“It’s the birth certificate of the building,” he said.

To demonstrate, he punched in a random address and a database popped up on his overhead screen.

“It’s a three-story rowhouse, it has a porch,” he said, drawing an image from the various entries and codes in a permit. “That’s pretty upper-middle class. These owners were probably people well-placed in the government.”

He can tell you who built the house, how much it cost to construct and how you can cross-reference the entire D.C. portfolio of that builder.

Caroline Levington, 31, listened carefully. She recently bought a house in Petworth, which was named one of the “best old-house neighborhoods” in the country by This Old House, a home improvement magazine and television show.

“I’d like to know more about my neighborhood’s history,” said Levington, a trade and investment consultant who grew up in a 100-year-old home in Maine and has been in the Petworth home she bought with her husband for four years.

She checked in after the workshop to tell me what she learned.

It turns out that her home was built in 1912 for $3,000, and one of the original owners was a labor leader and manager of the Trade Unionist newspaper. His wife died in the home when she was 58.

Yes, death is a popular theme in home-history research.

USA Today did a storyjust this weekend on DiedInHouse.com, a Web site that compiles public records to help you decide whether those noises you’re hearing at night may actually be the guy who died in the basement.

“Yeah, that’s the kind of information we do find,” said the next very important person on the home-history research tour, Bruce Yarnall, operations and grants manager for the city’s Historic Preservation Office. “Doing historical research is like lifting up a rock.”

He remembered guiding one owner “who was horrified” when the paper trail led to a death in the home. “And we had another patron who was absolutely thrilled to learn that there were suicides in the basement and the attic of the house.”

Yarnall is better than a Ouija board for finding out whether that creak you hear in the hallway at night is a restless spirit.

As for our house, I don’t think any of our ghosts are hanging around. My kids have scared them all away.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak

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