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Marc Fisher

These Walls Do Talk -- to The Right Person

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; Page B01

Move into a house that's been around for a while and you discover mysteries -- shadows of a former wall, remnants of a forgotten foundation, doorways that no longer lead to anything.

Which led me to Paul Williams, who can solve a century of house mysteries in a matter of hours.

Marc Fisher can be reached by e-mail at marcfisher@washpost.com or by phone at (202) 334-7563.

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Williams is a master of house forensics, a preservationist destined for this line of work: When young Paul's parents bought an 1891 townhouse in Skaneateles, N.Y., and the boy learned that its first owner had gone down with the Lusitania, he got curious enough to hit the books and find out more.

Decades later, he's still researching. Williams took me on a six-hour blitz through the archives he uses to flesh out the past of houses in the District. (He also works on houses in Baltimore, the Maryland suburbs, Arlington and Alexandria; other Northern Virginia records are kept in Richmond, which pushes the cost of research sky-high.)

We start at one of Washington's most sadly neglected treasures, the Recorder of Deeds building on D Street NW, where glorious World War II-era murals tell the story of black America. Upstairs in old steel cabinets, index cards record every transaction on each house in the city. The cards are a jumble -- open to the elements, out of order, zero security -- yet irreplaceable.

We find cards showing the Chevy Chase Land Co. selling three plots to the developer who built my house in 1923. More cards: The original mortgage, first deed, covenants banning blacks or Jews from owning the house.

Williams studied preservation, then worked for the Air Force until curiosity about his own house in Shaw led him to devote a year to the story of one of its early residents, Anna Julia Cooper, a former slave who became the third black person in this country to earn a PhD. Williams was hooked.

On to the National Archives, which, for byzantine reasons, keeps District building permits. This is researcher heaven -- well-ordered records in a secure, accessible facility. The permits are a window onto a time when D.C. inspectors visited each building site twice weekly, reporting on the progress of construction, even the temperature.

Then we're off to the city's main library -- another neglected treasure, the Washingtoniana Room -- to comb through old directories, census records and fabulous house-by-house maps made by fire insurance companies. The directories spell out each occupant of my house -- the teacher who sold it to an aeronautics regulator, who sold it to a bank manager, who sold it to a bureaucrat in the U.S. Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, who sold it to a probation supervisor at Superior Court.

"Every house is a mine full of stories," says Williams, who is 39 and started his business (washingtonhistory.com) a decade ago. "It gets really graphic. I find wills that tell us who hated whom, the family dirt, the family worth."

Williams finds photos at the Library of Congress and D.C. Historical Society and architectural plans at the D.C. Archives in Shaw. At home, he uses census and newspaper archives to flesh out stories. In my case, he learns that the first owner's grandfather was brought from Italy to America at age 12 to play in the Marine Band. That boy's son joined the Army but got in trouble and had to appeal to President Lincoln for permission to serve in the Civil War. Lincoln's letter requesting the young man's reinstatement survives and is for sale for $22,900.

Sometimes, Williams discovers details his clients might rather not know; especially in Georgetown, he often must inform owners that their house is not nearly as old as they've been told. "One woman had a plaque on her house that said it was built in 1838," he recalls. "The archives showed clear as day that it was a vacant lot until 1938. I'm sure she burned the report."

Neighbors hire Williams to figure out who really owns abandoned properties that mar their blocks. Developers hire him to determine if dry cleaners ever operated where they're considering building -- paying Williams now is cheaper than chemical cleanups later.

One client hired Williams to learn about a man and woman who, according to century-old love letters she found in a wall of her house, had been forbidden to marry because he was 30 and she was 16. Williams traced the identity of the aunt who forbade the nuptials and uncovered records showing that the couple waited 20 years for the aunt to pass on, and then wed. Mystery solved.

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