Constructing a Chronicle of the City's Structures With Facts, Figures and Fortitude

Brian Kraft spends his days in the Washingtoniana Room of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, where he's in the process of collating every D.C. building permit.
Brian Kraft spends his days in the Washingtoniana Room of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, where he's in the process of collating every D.C. building permit. (By John Kelly -- The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Iam not well-suited to repetitive, detail-heavy work. For example, putting the Christmas lights back in their little plastic holder -- snapping the bulbs in, looping the wire back and forth, getting it all neat enough to slide back into the cardboard box -- is the sort of task that drives me mad. After a few minutes, I want to scream and throw things.

But the world needs the detail-oriented and the persnickety. The world needs Brian Kraft.

Slim, shaven-headed, soberly dressed, Brian looks like he would have been at home in a medieval monastery copying snippets of scripture, and in a sense that's what he did. Brian catalogued every building permit issued in the District of Columbia over a 72-year period. Working to the warm hum of a microfilm machine and the click of his laptop, Brian transferred details of the more than 60,000 D.C. building permits issued between 1877 and 1949 to a database he created.

It took him seven years.

"It was a long, hard slog," Brian said. "It's not a job I would wish on other people."

The building permit is the starting point of any structure's history. Like a birth certificate, it includes all sorts of information historians might want decades later: who built the building, who designed it, what it was for, how much it cost, what its roof was made of.

Brian, 46, had been a computer science major at Penn State. He was also interested in history. After graduating, he moved to Washington, where he became obsessed with the city's neighborhoods: Who built them? When? He consulted the microfilm stored in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library's third-floor Washingtoniana Room.

"I was scrolling through the microfilm, and I'm thinking 'This is data,' in a way people in history or preservation wouldn't."

The pool of data had been dipped into here and there before. Brian proposed to drain it.

Coincidentally, David Maloney, the state historic preservation officer, had been thinking along the same lines. Brian was hired as a contractor. Said David: "It is truly amazing that we found somebody who was willing and capable of doing that, of just grinding it out."

And grinding it out is what Brian did. "People said, 'Oh, you just plugged that thing in and downloaded the data?' No, it doesn't quite work like that."

How does it work? "Just eyes and fingers."


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