History in the house: How to discover your home’s past

April 13, 2012

Every time a new clue turned up during renovations — a child’s lace-up shoe, a bottle, a candle-holder — Abigail Wiebenson would wonder: Just who had lived in her S Street NW house?

“We’d find these things and I’d say, ‘There’ve gotta be good stories to be told here,’ ” Wiebenson says.

For Wiebenson’s birthday last year, a close friend had the history of the three-bedroom rowhouse, built in 1871, professionally researched. Wiebenson learned, for example, that a coachman, his wife and son, and three boarders once lived in her house. Reflecting on the fact that they all lived there long before additions expanded the house, she laughs and says, “I constantly wonder, ‘Where did they all sleep?’ ”

In the history-rich Washington area, many houses come with a rich past. Did a senator or athlete or actress once live in your humble colonial? Did something infamous happen there? Even if its past doesn’t merit official designation on the National Register of Historic Places or by a state historical trust, your house may have a fascinating story. Maybe it was built by a father as a gift to his daughter on her wedding day. You could be the first African American woman to own it, or your family could be the 20th.

“Everyone would like to say, ‘Washington slept here,’ ” says William J. Nordman, a broker who co-owns Historic Properties of Virginia, although few people can confirm such claims.

But there are more than bragging rights at stake. Some appraisers and agents say that a house’s history can significantly add value, 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.

In the end, your property’s past may provide answers to more minor — albeit vexing — questions, such as: Why aren’t there any closets in the third bedroom? Is there a reason for the odd angle of the back porch? You could also discover a juicy tidbit to regale guests with at your next dinner party.

The research on Wiebenson’s house didn’t uncover any scandals. But it did reveal details about various tenants and owners and about how the neighborhood evolved. She learned, for example, that until the 1870s, the land surrounding Dupont Circle included woods and fields frequented by sportsmen. In 1871, real estate speculators (including a senator) began buying land, and a few years later, they began building palatial residences, according to the research.

She also has gems from talking with longtime neighbors, such as the time when cows walked to their pasture where the Islamic Center is now located.

“It’s one story after another,” says Wiebenson, a former school administrator whose late husband, John Wiebenson, was a well-known local architect and preservationist who made distinctive renovations at their S Street house.

Like discovering your family’s roots, researching your house’s past can give you a sense of connection to history. A particular Civil War battle may not be much of interest to you until you find out that soldiers marched through your back yard.

Andy Stevens knew some of his house’s history when he bought The Maples, a 60-acre, Civil War-era estate in Northern Virginia.

Local Civil War researchers shared an 1862 New York Times piece that described an evening when a Confederate major general was having dinner at the house as Union forces began attacking. The Confederate commander left his dinner on the table in the dining room and fled to round up his troops, says Stevens, reading the newspaper account. When the Union regiment arrived, soldiers ate the meal that had been left behind.

When Stevens and his wife bought the property, a musket ball hole from that attack had been patched over with tin, but the couple uncovered it as a reminder of the era.

During renovations, Stevens, a real estate agent who is now selling the property, found letters and school papers in closets and behind pictures. Because a single family had owned the manor house since it was built in 1853, documents were passed from one generation to the next. They shared the original deed, the contract with the builder and the owner’s journal. Stevens says he was delighted to see what the owner paid to the contractors.

“Even back then, there was a $90 cost overrun,” says Stevens, laughing.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to find historical documents in their home.

“People just often don’t know where to start. . . . It can be daunting,” says Mary E. Rowse, founder of Historic Washington Architecture Inc. and the Historic Washington e-mail forum for those interested in D.C. history and preservation. “But there’s great interest in it.”

Frances Pollard, the chief librarian at the Virginia Historical Society, recommends starting with the last owners. “Just as you would with your genealogy, you start with yourself and move backward,” Pollard says.

Jerry A. McCoy, special collections librarian in the Washingtoniana Division of the D.C. Public Library’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Branch and the Peabody Room at the Georgetown branch, first looks for the original building permit. “It’s the birth certificate of the house,” says McCoy. (A copy of it is great for framing, he adds.)

Then there are hundreds of maps, files, directories, photos and books to sift through. “There could be that one little nugget,” McCoy says.

The library generally offers classes one to two times a year on researching a house history. But staff members are available to help patrons anytime, McCoy says. Matthew Gilmore, editor of the H-DC e-mail discussion group and former D.C. librarian, also offers periodic workshops, including one tentatively planned for this summer.

It helps to consult with local history experts who are familiar with street name changes and street number discrepancies, says Francis O’Neill, reference librarian at the Maryland Historical Society. “There are many peculiarities,” he says.

Research isn’t easy, says Lucinda P. Janke, collections manager at the D.C. Historical Society, which is working to reopen its library to the public. “You stumble. You dig,” says Janke. “There’s a reason there’s a program called ‘History Detectives.’ ”

But, she adds, documents are more accessible than ever. Many historical societies and organizations are beginning to digitize their collections, scanning photographs and maps and other records. If they haven’t yet put the material online, they may have an online index.

“That’s a real boon to people,” Pollard says.

Paul K. Williams, founder of Kelsey & Associates, a D.C.-based firm that specializes in researching house histories, points out that there are hazards, too. “There’s so much information,” he says. “You can easily find out that John Smith owned your house. But you have to make sure you’re following the right John Smith.”

Many of Williams’s clients are homeowners who started the research themselves but got overwhelmed. People also call Williams, who charges $500 to $800 for a house history, after they find artifacts such as calling cards or silverware.

Once he worked on the history of a house on Capitol Hill, piecing together clues from early 20th-century love letters found in a wall during a renovation.

With in-depth research, you can’t be sure what you’ll find. Williams warns clients about the possibility that someone may have once died in their house: “Anything is possible, I tell them.”

In general, the more respectable the past, the better it is for current market value, experts say.

“The history adds value if it’s good history,” says Washington Fine Properties agent Mark McFadden, who was the selling agent for Evermay, the historic Georgetown estate that recently sold for a record $22 million. He was the selling and listing agent for Halcyon, which has gardens designed by Pierre L’Enfant, and was the selling and listing agent for the sale of the Marwood estate, the mansion in Potomac once used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a summer White House.

“Certain names have a lot of cachet,” he says.

There also are potential tax credits at stake — as much as 45 percent in some cases for substantial rehabilitation projects on buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But the rewards of researching the history extend beyond the financial aspect, says Rowse: “I believe people can appreciate their homes and neighborhoods more if they understand where they began.”

Laura Barnhardt Cech is a freelance writer.

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