The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s the history of your house? Tracking down details can be rewarding.

Curious about the history of your home? Records and pros can help reveal its story line.
Curious about the history of your home? Records and pros can help reveal its story line. (Peter and Maria Hoey/for The Washington Post)

When her niece moved to an older home in Cleveland Park, Elizabeth Ratigan gave her an unusual housewarming gift. Instead of a plant, she presented her with the history of her home.

“You know it makes your house kind of come alive,” Ratigan said. “It becomes more of a person than just a house.”

Ratigan put together a bound book of photographs, documents and newspaper clippings with everything she found about the home and the neighborhood. In her research, she learned that her niece’s semidetached house was built in the 1920s by a family of builders from Anacostia.

“My niece’s house was owned by a woman who was a teacher in D.C. schools and who was very instrumental in campaigning for pensions for teachers. In fact, there is a school named after her today,” Ratigan said.

The house’s first owner was Anne Beers, the namesake of Beers Elementary School in Southeast Washington.

“Cleveland Park and other suburbs going north were becoming more popular because you didn’t have to have horses and buggy and all of that for transportation,” Ratigan said of the house’s location.

Ratigan’s research started by finding the building permit, commonly referred to by historians as the house’s birth certificate. Uncovering that one-page document is like winning the lottery, said Jerry McCoy, a 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.

This document describes how the house was built, its dimensions, the builder and, more importantly, the first owner. McCoy said that, to this day, it pains him that he has not found the original building permit to his 1921 bungalow in Montgomery County’s records. Building permits can be found at either the county or state archives.

Anne McDonough, the library and collections director at the Historical Society of Washington, uses the library’s database to find building permits in the District. Even without a permit, there are various ways to track down information about a house.

“Tax assessments records is another great resource. Those are going to be tracing the owners of the house,” McDonough said. “Once you have found evidence of somebody who lived in your house, you can easily look them up and trace them through time.”

Looking through back issues of The Washington Post and Washington Star, Ratigan found advertisements the family placed to rent rooms in the house. That suggested to her the Beers family may have had financial troubles and may have made changes to the home to accommodate tenants. At this point in her research, she realized she was spending more time researching the family than the house. When she learned the builder was a fireman, she was curious whether he fought any interesting fires. At one point she went to a graveyard to see whether any of the Beers family was buried there.

“I think any kind of historic research takes you down various paths,” she said. “And there comes a point at which you have to say, okay look, this is just a house history. This is not the history of the entire Beers family.”

When researching a house becomes overwhelming or you get stuck, a professional can help. History Associates in Rockville provides clients with historical consulting, exhibit planning and archive collection management. Although not inexpensive — fees can run at least $2,500 — the associates’ expertise can uncover information you might not find otherwise.

Carlyn Swaim, vice president of exhibits and interpretive planning at History Associates, says her company helped a client restore family letters she found in her home in Washington that dated to the Civil War.

“Ultimately, it’s often not the house with the compelling story, but the former residents inhabiting it. We are experts at uncovering the photographs, documents, deeds, maps, and stories of past occupants to keep the memory of bygone Washingtonians alive,” Swaim wrote in an email.

Michelle Carroll and Nina Tristani started N&M House Detectives in the District about five years ago after researching the history of their own homes. They have uncovered the histories of about 30 houses and recently branched out to businesses.

“We get very wrapped up in these houses,” Carroll said. “Sometimes we get more excited than the homeowners.”

They discovered that an owner of a house was the doorman at Ford’s Theatre the night President Abraham Lincoln was shot. Another house they researched was listed in the Green Book, a book used by African Americans when traveling in the Jim Crow South.

Carroll and Tristani, who spend about six weeks on each house, have uncovered the histories of more recent houses as well.

“Even if the house was built in the 1980s, it still has a history to it, a history to the land,” Tristani said.

Copies of whatever documents they find related to a house are given to the homeowner. Some of those documents — such as the original deed — and photos are included in the hardback, glossy-page coffee table book they present to their clients. Their $750 fee includes one copy of the book.

The Historical Society of Washington offers workshops in house history research with tips on how to find photographs, look through real estate atlases and track down an architect of a certain neighborhood.

“There is not one repository that has all the information you need; each one of the local history repositories will have a key, but to get the full set you’re going need to go everywhere — here at the Washington Historical Society, to the Washingtonia division of the D.C. Public Library, the National Archives or the Collector of Deeds,” McDonough said.

She recommends researchers decide beforehand how much they want to know. Ratigan’s gift to her niece took her about a year on and off to compile. It was a side project she enjoyed coming back to — so much so that it made her hungry for more house history hunting. Today she volunteers at the Washington Historical Society providing research resources for Washington residents.

“I don’t think [the history of her house] was something that [her niece] ever really thought about,” Ratigan said. “It’s not a gift that one usually receives, but I think it is very interesting to learn about.”