Expert house historians advise novices to focus on one question at a time and to keep notes on exactly where information was found to trace a house's history.
The construction of Julian Sellers’ bungalow in St. Paul, Minn., was started in 1926 and finished in early 1927. The builder was a Swedish immigrant. The family who first lived there included a married couple, their 6-year-old daughter and the wife’s mother.
Sellers learned all this by sorting through building permits, tax records, city directories, maps, old newspapers on microfilm and more. A retired software engineer and a member of the Twin Cities Bungalow Club, he has chronicled the history of the structure, its environs and the people who lived in it. He even met that 6-year-old daughter when she was in her late 80s.
“It’s fun to know that other families have lived here — children have grown up and been nurtured in this house,” said Sellers. “Each family makes it their own and has their own life and experiences here. It’s fun to get that feeling of continuity.”
Many homeowners and apartment dwellers across the country are doing the painstaking work of researching the history of their home and neighborhood.
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Some delve into the past for practical reasons — perhaps they want to change the exterior of an old house and need to document how it once looked, or they want to create (or protest) a historic designation.
Others are simply fascinated by the testament of time.
This research “feeds into the notion of pride of place,” said Kingston Heath, professor and director of the graduate Historic Preservation Program at the University of Oregon. The history of a house and its people can also cast light on larger historical changes.
“A house is like an artifact,” Heath said. “It represents these collective human values, and cultural and technological change.”
In the Seattle area, the Puget Sound Regional Archives holds records from the King County Assessor’s office (Property Record Cards and folios) which cover homes from 1937 to about 2000.
The records generally include tax assessments, approximate construction date, a small sketch, some ownership information and other details. They usually also include a photo of buildings on the property.
To purchase a reprint of a photo, or for other information, contact Puget Sound Regional Archives by mail, 3000 Landerholm Circle S.E., MS N-100, Bellevue, WA 98007; phone, 425-564-3940; or email, PSBranchArchives@sos.wa.gov. (Call for an appointment to visit the archive in person. The archives are open to the public Wednesday through Friday, but the staff can be contacted Monday through Friday.)
You’ll need to provide the researchers with a 10-digit parcel number (the records are by legal description, not by address).
The parcel number can be found on a property tax statement (first 10 digits of the tax account number) or by looking it up on the parcel viewer at www5.kingcounty.gov/parcelviewer/viewer/kingcounty/viewer.asp (or search for “King County parcel viewer”).
Another resource for information about neighborhoods and early residents is HistoryLink.org, an online encyclopedia of Washington state history.
Expert house historians advise novices to focus on one question at a time and to keep notes on exactly where information was found.
To begin, figure out what you know from documents you already have. And talk to neighbors who have lived on your block for a long time to collect their stories.
Be aware, however, that community stories and legends often aren’t accurate, cautions Ellen Baumler of the Montana Historical Society.
“That’s the greatest pitfall — perpetuating information that is not correct,” said Baumler. “Sometimes those stories and legends are really hard to squash.”
Find out whether your street name is the original one, said Mary Louise Days, a historian and board member of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation in California. In her city, for instance, Olive Street was once Canal Street. A change like that can throw researchers off the scent, she said.
House historians often want original blueprints and photographs, but those may be lost. Be open to what is available, urges Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, in Illinois. For instance, a homeowner may find a photo from the 1950s that shows the house before its porch was removed or aluminum siding installed.
“You have to put aside the holy grail of the original photographs and original blueprints,” said Lipo.
Local government offices, public libraries and historical societies are good places to find documents that detail property ownership, as well as fire insurance maps, property-tax records, Census records, city directories (precursors to phone books), old newspapers and historic photographs. Some of these documents are available online or in databases. But Days, of Santa Barbara, resists the quick, digital fix.
“For something that’s really as crucial as an early building permit or an early map, I happen to just love the original documents,” said Days, noting that there can be crucial details on them such as color codes and notes.
The original building permit, if it still exists, can be found at municipal government offices.
Information such as construction dates, square footage, building materials, type of roof and the architect’s name may be on it.
Another way to date your home is to track ownership of the property back to when it was first built. This practice is called a “chain of title” search and often can be done at a county records’ office.
For more information, try the National Trust for Historic Preservation: www.preservationnation.org/resources/faq/information-sheets/historic-home-full.html
Seattle Times desk editor Bill Kossen contributed to this report.