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.