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If you’re willing to do some sleuthing, you can piece together your house’s past. By Maddy Berner
Rowhouses in Georgetown. Photograph via Shutterstock.

Researching your house’s history is like solving a mystery. It involves collecting clues, retracing steps, and possibly unearthing a trove of fascinating stories.

“This city has always been so transient,” says Paul Williams, who runs the House History Man blog as well as Kelsey & Associates, which researches building histories in DC. “You can get a lot of famous people in American history who have cycled through a little humble house.”

But where should a homeowner start? Every jurisdiction has its own resources, such as historical societies, libraries, and city or county agencies that keep records. The Chevy Chase Historical Society, for instance, publishes material online about how to research your home’s past, while the Historical Society of Washington, DC, hosts workshops. Some people hire professional services such as Williams’s company to do the work, but you can go it alone if you’re willing to put in some time.


1. Uncover the Basics

Start with your home’s “birth certificate”—its building permit. In DC, you’ll likely find it at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. In Maryland, you’ll have to check the state archives in Annapolis. In Virginia, you can visit Arlington’s Center for Local History or Fairfax’s Department of Public Works and Environmental Services.

There is one important caveat. Different areas began requiring building permits at different times. In the District, they became a requirement in 1877; in Arlington, they’ve been the norm since 1935.

If your house is too old to have a permit, you can try other avenues. You may be able to find it on one of the Boschke maps kept in the DC Public Library’s Washingtoniana Collection—an excellent resource that contains materials about local neighborhoods dating to the 1800s. The maps, published in 1857 and 1861, were the first to display residential structures in DC. Mortgage records are another resource. The Arlington County courthouse keeps ones starting in the mid-19th century. Many counties, such as Montgomery, have land deeds going as far back as the 1700s.

One-Stop Shop

Area historians consider the Washingtoniana Collection at DC’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library an indispensable research tool. It was founded in 1905 as a special-collections library after then-library director George F. Bowerman started compiling books and articles about the community. It has since amassed some 25,000 books, 8,000 maps, and hundreds of directories, census records, postcards, and newspaper articles dating as far back as the late 18th century.

“We consider ourselves a one-stop shopping place for those who want to research their DC houses,” says Jerry McCoy, special-collections librarian.

Everything is free to access online with a DC library card, which Virginia and Maryland residents who live in the area can acquire, too. If you’d rather visit in person, you don’t need a card, and staff is available to help with research.

901 G St., NW; 202-727-0321.

If you can track down your building permit, though, it will give you basic information, including to whom the permit was issued, who built the home, what materials were used, and how much it cost. Also check for alteration permits, which can reveal changes or additions made later on.

Once you’ve found a name associated with your house, such as its builder or original owner, your next move is to tackle a city directory—the equivalent of a phone book before most people had phones. The Washingtoniana Collection keeps a full set of these, and you can find them at historic societies and in state archives, too.


2. Dive Into the Details

City directories can reveal the occupation, marital status, race, and other details about those who lived in or were otherwise associated with your home. Anne McDonough, collections manager for the Historical Society of Washington, DC, also suggests using them to explore who else lived nearby to get a sense of what your neighborhood was like all those years ago.

If you have a city or county library card, you have online access to federal census records, which local historians cite as invaluable. Using the names connected to your house, you can pick a year as far back as 1790 to ferret out facts such as where people were born, where else they lived, and whom they were related to.

Sanborn Fire Insurance maps are helpful. The insurance company created detailed maps of neighborhoods across the country. Today you can compare them to see how areas evolved, including changes to street names and to the footprints of buildings and neighborhoods. The Library of Congress keeps a comprehensive collection.


3. Find the Stories

Now for what may become the most fascinating part of your search: digging up historic news articles and photographs.

DC’s historical society has a collection of photos taken by John P. Wymer, who from 1948 to 1952 spent his weekends photographing neighborhood blocks. Some homeowners have found old photos of their houses through his collection. Historical societies and the Library of Congress keep historic photos as well.

Archives of the Washington Post and the old Washington Star (previously the Washington Star-News and the Evening Star) can be found at area libraries. The Post began publishing in 1877, the Star in 1852. There’s no telling what you might find in them—maybe even a suicide or murder that occurred on your property.

Paul Williams’ blog is full of stories about events that took place in local homes. The building that houses the Ann Taylor Loft store north of Dupont Circle, for example, was once a mansion belonging to the widow of a man who made his fortune gold-mining out West. Abraham Lincoln reportedly attended a séance at a property on N Street in Georgetown, and an “anarchist” accidentally blew himself up in front of the R Street residence of the US Attorney General in 1919.

In addition to public records, Williams uses genealogy websites such as Ancestry.com. He has found living relatives of past homeowners through such portals: “They’re the ones that are really going to have the information and historic photographs that aren’t in the public archives yet.”

Your hunt may also give you something beyond answers to the mystery of your home. Says McDonough: “Having a sense of what has come before you can really help you understand where the city is now—and how the changes are going to impact future generations.”

Posted at 09:00 AM/ET, 07/24/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
This elegant mansion has 9,000 square feet of luxury living space. By Michelle Thomas

This elegant mansion—on tony California Street in Kalorama—has been carefully restored to incorporate its original 1916 details, such as high ceilings and ornately manteled fireplaces, with new luxe features: heated floors and a large, contemporary kitchen). It’s a spacious property, with six bedrooms and eight baths spread over nearly 9,000 square feet of living space on four floors, and includes parking for ten cars. Outside, there’s a party-ready limestone terrace with a built-in grill and serene pool with water features. The home is listed at $4.99 million. Take a look below, then head to TTR Sotheby’s for the full details.

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Posted at 11:04 AM/ET, 07/23/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Upperville, Virginia, property is more than 2,000 acres and includes a jet landing strip. By Carol Ross Joynt
Rokeby Stables on the Mellon estate. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons.

The 2,000-plus-acre Upperville, Virginia, estate of philanthropists and art collectors Paul and Bunny Mellon will be listed for sale in the next several days at an asking price of $70 million, according to their executor, Alexander Forger. He also confirms that Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington NFL franchise, has made “an expression of interest” in the prized property, known as Oak Spring. “But a lot of folks are interested,” he says. “Who wouldn’t be? It’s gorgeous territory.”

Forger says, “Our preference would be to sell it as one parcel to a single owner.” What the buyer would get, he says, is “a landing strip, the red brick main house, 20 tenant houses, a pool house, stables and barns, maintenance buildings, greenhouses and guest houses, and virtually every other structure that comes to mind.” The exception is 100 acres that surround the Mellons’ personal residence, an elegant whitewashed farmhouse that is home to Bunny Mellon’s acclaimed Oak Spring Garden Library and the foundation she set up, named after her father, to administer the library, staff, and related educational programs.

Paul Mellon, whose family founded the National Gallery of Art, died in 1999 at age 91. Bunny Mellon died last March at age 103. Her funeral at Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville was attended by dozens of family and friends. Mellon herself scripted the service in which she was eulogized by actor Frank Langella, and singer and actress Bette Midler sang “The Rose.”

Forger also says a date has been set for the auction of more than 2,000 items from the Mellon estate—treasures valued at more than $100 million—at Sotheby’s in New York. “The single owner auction will be Monday, November 10, of major art,” he says, “followed by additional sales at Sotheby’s of jewelry and decorative arts.”

The property in Upperville was the Mellons’ principal residence. Already sold were homes in Washington, DC, and New York City. Still on the market is a home at the Mill Reef Club on Antigua, listed for $11 million (plus an additional 27 island acres for $8 million) and a 95-acre oceanfront property on Nantucket that Forger hopes “will be appraised and listed soon.” All proceeds from the Sotheby’s auction and the real estate sales will go to the Gerald B. Lambert Foundation. Lambert, Bunny Mellon’s father, was the president of the Gillette razor company and a founder of Warner-Lambert, which initially marketed Listerine. The Foundation and Library have a separate entrance from Oak Spring farm. According to Forger, “it is carved out” of the overall estate.

Forger says that while certain pieces of the Mellon art collection already have been bequeathed to family and art museums, there is still some furniture at Oak Spring but it does not convey with the property sale. He says there also are still more than 100 employees working and living on the farm, as well as a fleet of farm vehicles. “If a single owner wants to run it as the Mellons did, they will need the employees and equipment.”

We asked whether he expected Oak Spring to sell quickly. “I don’t have any real basis to measure from a comparable property point of view. There’s a lot of farms around, but this one is unique.”

When we asked Dan Snyder’s spokesman, Tony Wyllie, about the team owner’s reported interest in Oak Spring, he said, “I don’t know what you are talking about,” but he also said he was not familiar with the property or Upperville. (We promised to send him the link as soon as the story posted.)

If Snyder were to purchase Oak Spring, he would be the second Washington team owner to have a connection to Mellon. Jack Kent Cooke, when he first moved to Washington, lived practically next door to the Mellons. He reportedly tried to form a friendship that never developed. He is, however, buried at Trinity Church, just across the lawn from the Mellon family plot.

Find Carol Ross Joynt on Twitter at @carojoynt

Posted at 03:20 PM/ET, 07/21/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
This large four-bedroom is on the market for just under $750,000. By Michelle Thomas

In a neighborhood that’s seen more than its fair share of rowhouse renovations—Petworth ranked number one in the nation for home flips last year, according to Redfin—this New Hampshire home stands out, thanks to a careful restoration that includes such stylish design choices as real hardwood floors, exposed brick walls, crown molding, and a crisp, contemporary all-white kitchen with double cabinets, a marble waterfall island counter, and a wine refrigerator. A staircase with custom metal rails lead upstairs to the master bedroom, which boasts 15-foot ceilings, more exposed brick, and skylights. Out back, a flagstone patio offers outdoor entertaining space. It’s a large setup, with four bedrooms and four baths spread out over more than 2,200 square feet; plus there’s a finished English basement with a wet bar. And—this is key in Petwork real-estate designations—it’s just a few blocks to the Metro. 

It's listed at $749,999. Take a look below, then go to Long & Foster for the complete details.

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Posted at 04:15 PM/ET, 07/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Raji Radhakrishnan’s Northern Virginia home is a study in perfectly paired contrasts. By Michelle Thomas
Inside interior designer Raji Radhakrishnan's home in Brambleton. Photography by Rikki Snyder.

Perhaps it’s obvious that interior designers would have jaw-dropping personal spaces—they’re pros, after all. But designer Raji Radhakrishnan is no exception. Last year, the designer remodeled her 5,000-square-foot Georgian manor-style home in Loudoun County’s Brambleton to transform the original open layout into enclosed rooms, and incorporate classical architectural elements into the interior’s design, creating four-foot-wide enfilade-style aligned entryways and adding moldings and wall paneling. She adorned several of her room’s walls with large-scale wallpaper murals from her own line, set to contrast a carefully curated selection of French-modern furniture, sculptural finds, and contemporary artwork from the likes of Henri Matisse and Lucienne Olivieri.

A mixture of textures, styles, and periods collide in Radhakrishnan’s rooms—such as the vintage Willy Rizzo burlwood coffee table positioned next to Marc Newson’s modern polished white fiberglass “Felt” chair and, across the room, a custom console table formed from an antique 18th-century French balcony. In the office, dramatic black walls and bookcases play against a chic ’30s Art Deco desk and Roy Lichtensein pop lithograph.  Even the children’s playroom is thoughtfully designed.

Head to the slideshow to get a glimpse inside the designer’s space! 

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Posted at 01:43 PM/ET, 07/17/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
This Alexandria mansion was built in 1750. By Michelle Thomas

This grand brick Colonial—also known as the Holland House, and situated on Wolfe Street in the heart of Alexandria’s Old Town—dates back to 1750 and boasts a seal from the Historic Alexandria Foundation and the official written history to prove it. Additions were completed in 1820 and 1930, and in 2010 the home went through an extensive renovation to incorporate modern amenities such as radiant heated floors, automated lights, an intercom, concealed entertainment systems, and an expanded kitchen. That’s in addition to the original and decorative detailing­­—which includes 11 fireplaces, elaborate crown, chair, and ceiling moldings, a wood-paneled library, and gold leafing on the dining-room ceiling. The four-bedroom, seven-bath home is spread across more than 6,200 square feet and sits on more than a quarter acre of land, a large lot for a tightly built area like Old Town. It’s listed at $5.8 million­­—or $6.1 million fully furnished, which includes the carefully curated period antiques, artwork, a signed Steinway piano, and a bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson in the garden. Take a look below, then go to TTR Sotheby’s for the complete tour.

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Posted at 02:30 PM/ET, 07/16/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
This $1.25 million triangular home’s exacting design was dreamed up by one of DC’s best-known urban planners. By Michelle Thomas

As one of DC’s more unusual and striking homes, this modern triangular structure makes a sharp statement at the corner of Tenth Street and Florida Avenue in Northwest. Built by and for Jeff Speck—an urban planner whose résumé includes such titles as former design director of the National Endowment for the Arts and author of Walkable City—the glass-and-brick flatiron wedge design was once featured in both the Washington Post and Home and Design magazine.

In addition to the unexpected geometry, the four-level home boasts green construction (including solar-powered hot water and radiant heat in the bamboo floors) and some unique interior design features—in particular, that sculptural, one-piece steel spiral staircase. Other architectural standouts? Dramatic glass walls, floating balconies, and a modern wood-burning fireplace tucked into the pointed corner of the living room.

The four-bedroom home is listed at $1.25 million. Check it out below, then go to TTR Sotheby’s for more.

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Posted at 02:39 PM/ET, 07/14/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
This $3.495-million home boasts some beautiful architectural bones. By Michelle Thomas

We may love a sleek, modern design as much as the next person—but there's something almost magical about a home like this Victorian on 30th Street in Georgetown. Built in 1868—back when Georgetown was still a part of Maryland—a more recent complete renovation added Brazilian hardwood floors and a contemporary glossy-white kitchen to the existing old-world architecture of this six-bedroom home. But our favorite part is the elegant double parlor room on the first floor, with its soaring ceilings, two fireplaces, and bevy of beautifully intricate architectural detail—including a graceful arched doorway, ornate moldings, and full-length paned windows. The property was listed on the market less than a month ago at $3.495 million, but recently went under contract. Get a glimpse of the home below, then go to Washington Fine Properties to see the complete tour.

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Posted at 01:45 PM/ET, 07/11/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
PN Hoffman is increasing its already-huge footprint on the Southwest Waterfront. By Benjamin Freed
Rendering courtesy Interface Media.

PN Hoffman’s cranes have been hacking away at DC’s Southwest Waterfront for the development firm’s massive Wharf complex since March. While work continues on the $2 billion mixed-use behemoth, the company has announced its next project for the neighborhood—and it’s right next door to the Wharf.

PN Hoffman plans to build a 105,000-square-foot, 108-condominium unit at 600 M Street, Southwest, slated to open in early 2016. The new condo building, which will be re-addressed as 600 Water Street, will take the place of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, a 53-year-old congregation that once counted Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall among its members. As part of the project, PN Hoffman is also building a new, two-story church for St. Augustine’s on an adjacent lot facing Water Street.

The Wharf—a multi-phase project scheduled to open its doors with more than 1,000 residential units and hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail, commercial, and entertainment space—has already transformed the area by clearing out many of the decades-old establishments from the waterfront. And PN Hoffman is the dominant player in Southwest DC, much like JBG is in the U Street corridor, where it has numerous projects.

People who buy at 600 Water—sales start next spring, PN Hoffman says—won’t have to depend on their neighbors at the Wharf for all their amenities, though. A press release for the forthcoming building promises a clubby atmosphere with a residents’ lounge, a courtyard with plenty of water features, and access to a new park.

Posted at 04:51 PM/ET, 07/09/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Four levels—and lots of glass. By Michelle Thomas

At 4,500 square feet, with four levels, five bedrooms, and four and a half baths, this penthouse-level condo in the Ventana building at Penn Quarter’s Ninth and F streets, Northwest, easily dwarfs most of the city’s slender rowhouses. But sheer size isn’t the only draw. It’s also a high-style place, with a playful approach to contemporary design that’s surprising and striking, if perhaps unconcerned with privacy—the corner unit boasts walls of glass in most of its rooms, including the master bathroom. The condo’s cool glass perimeter and custom steel fireplace contrast with the touches of organic warmth from cerused-white-oak floors and cabinetry, a wood-paneled entryway wall, and a raw-edge oak dining table.

Other highlights include Caesarstone counters, high-end Miele appliances, and a built-in entertainment center on the first floor; on upper levels (accessed by the floating stairway with laser-cut decorative rails—or by the elevator), there’s a custom built-in floating desk in the office, a children’s playroom with a full-wall mural and retractable partition, an entertaining area with a wine bar and full-size wine refrigerator, a “green lounge,” and an outdoor terrace on the rooftop. The master suite’s crown jewel is the insanely spacious bathroom, with a spa-like feel and an enormous Calcutta marble soaking tub, plus dual vanities pushed up against the glass. 

The condo is listed at $4.5 million. Take a peek below, then go to Central Properties for the complete tour.

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Posted at 03:30 PM/ET, 07/09/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()