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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 ()
And we get the scoop on how to recreate them. By Jordan Muto

With spring finally here, it’s time to add a pop of color into your home. But you don’t necessarily have splurge on a new piece of furniture or commit to a coat of fresh paint to give your home that seasonal refresh—try a colorful floral centerpiece to brighten up your home. Go bold with something big and colorful, or more understated with a low arrangement that mixes flowers and greenery. Or why not one of each? To get your creative juices going, we checked in with five of our favorite local florists to get their takes on springtime’s best centerpieces. For those who want to put their green thumb to use, we’ve included the details of each arrangement so you can recreate your favorites. Scroll through to find your floral inspiration.

Photograph by Jodi and Kurt Miller, courtesy of Holly Heider Chapple Flowers.

The florist: Holly Heider Chapple Flowers

The flowers: Pink peonies, maria teresa garden roses, peach juliet cabbage roses, peach stock, nandina berry, queen annes lace, yellow yarrow, hydrangea, blue delphinium, bupleurum, white ohara garden roses, dusty miller, and viburnum. 

Why it works for spring: “The design features an abundance of springtime blooming peonies, nandina berry, and the first cuts of hydrangea. When hydrangea is gathered in the late spring it is bright green and is just beginning to allude to the color it will be. The nandina berry is only white in the spring, by fall it will show a bright red vibrant berry.”

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Posted at 12:27 PM/ET, 05/09/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
When the US suspends a foreign government’s operations in Washington, what happens to its embassy? By Luke Jerod Kummer

After years of condemning the bloodbath in Syria, the State Department ordered President Bashar al-Assad’s government to close up shop in Washington. What happens to its embassy? When the US suspends an embassy’s operations under the protocols of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the objective is to render the property “frozen in time,” with the assumption it will reopen one day. “Sometimes,” says Cliff Seagroves, director of State’s office of diplomatic property, “they’re just frozen longer than anyone expects.” Here are a few rogue redoubts to consider.

Photograph by epa/Alamy.

Syria

2215 Wyoming Ave., NW

Our diplomatic ties with al-Assad’s government are still alive, if not well. But after the State Department sent home all high-level embassy personnel in March, this Colonial Revival building in the cloistered Sheridan-Kalorama historic district was shuttered, presumably until relations improve. The Syrians left behind a small contingent of administrative staff to tie up affairs and preserve archives, but following Libya’s precedent, the Syrians have appointed a private trustee to keep up the sprawling estate, including the portrait of President Taft that hangs there—he lived in the house while chief justice of the United States and died there in 1930.

Photograph by Everett/Alamy.

Libya

2600 Virginia Ave., NW, Suite 300

A few days after clashes began between Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime and protesters in early 2011, Ambassador Ali Aujali left the embassy in the Watergate to become the opposition National Transitional Council’s Washington representative. The law firm Patton Boggs, according to partner David Tafuri, provided the group with office space on M Street while it worked to unlock Qaddafi funds that were frozen by US sanctions. The Watergate office, which had been tended by a State Department-approved trustee, reopened in August 2011, after Secretary Hillary Clinton officially acknowledged the NTC as Libya’s rightful government—with Aujali as ambassador. Before settling back in, he reportedly deep-sixed thousands of Qaddafi’s “green book” manifestos that had been collecting dust.

Photograph by Lisa Nipp/Alamy.

Cuba

2630 16th St., NW

The Louis XV-style villa on Meridian Hill—built as the Cuban legation during World War I and soon upgraded to embassy status—was vacated after the US cut ties with Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government in 1961. But a year later, a photo appeared in the Washington Post showing evidence that the property’s Czech caretakers had taken up residence: laundry flapping from the naked flagpole on the roof. Cuban representatives were invited to return in 1977 when the building reopened as an interests section, without ambassadors but providing limited consular services. Today Cubans run it—as the US does its interests section overlooking Havana Bay. Officially, Switzerland is the building’s custodian.

Photograph via Wikimedia Commons.

Iran

3005 Massachusetts Ave., NW

We hold the keys to Iran’s embassy in Woodley Park, just as the Iranian government controls our possessions in Tehran, an informal arrangement Seagroves calls “reciprocal insurance.” In the shah era, the embassy’s distinctive dome was a beacon for dignitaries and politicos, as the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, Henry Kissinger, and Spiro Agnew mingled at swank soirees thrown by Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi, the shah’s erstwhile son-in-law. State’s Office of Foreign Missions worked out of the former Iranian chancery in the late 1980s, and Seagroves’s office makes sure the lawn is trimmed and fixes broken pipes. But the building—with its elaborate mosaics, including a dazzling, kaleidoscopic design of 116,000 tiny mirrors in the vaulted Persian Room—is a shell of what it was.

This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

Posted at 10:08 AM/ET, 05/05/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The DC hotel has a modern design but pays homage to the past. By Carol Ross Joynt
The Marriott Marquis Hotel sits just down the street from the Walter Washington Convention Center. It is mostly a new building, except for the restored Plumbing and Pipefitters headquarters building at the corner. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

When the new Marriott Marquis Hotel officially opens on Thursday morning at 901 Massachusetts Avenue, Northwest, it will be the largest Washington hotel for the brand that got its start here as a hot dog and root beer stand in 1927. That root beer stand led to creation of the Hot Shoppes restaurant chain, which paved the way for the first Marriott hotel, the Twin Bridges in Arlington; the rest is global hospitality industry history. That history gets an homage at one of the Marquis’s three restaurants: Anthem will serve the Hot Shoppes’ beloved Mighty Mo hamburger, a triple-decker masterpiece of its era with special sauce, shredded lettuce, and a sesame seed bun.

Another throwback is the restoration of the brick building that anchors the hotel’s corner, the former headquarters of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States, Canada, and Australia. It’s now the gym and a bar.

The opening of this supersize hotel across from the Washington Convention Center will certainly up the ante on room competition, but it could also lead to ballroom wars. The Marquis already has landed the annual Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner on June 12, which last year was at the National Building Museum—and don’t be surprised if Marriott tries to woo another media “prom,” the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, away from its longtime home at the Washington Hilton, where it is happening this very weekend. Both hotels have massive ballrooms that seat upward of 2,200 people.

After tourism, the bread and butter of Washington hotels is business travelers and conventions, and the Marquis seems put together with the business traveler first in mind. Overall, there’s 105,000 square feet of convention and meeting space. An interesting detail is the elimination of the minibars in the rooms. Apparently it’s not an essential element anymore, because business travelers have shown they would rather pick up a snack in the lobby, Marriott marketing and public relations executives William Wallace and Mark Indre told us during a private tour Tuesday morning. Also, there’s no pool, because business travelers would rather have a gym workout.

As we went up and down elevators, in and out of rooms, down to the basement, and up to the roof, workers were still unpacking boxes, drilling, laying carpet, sorting mattresses, testing the alarm system and lights, and serving food at a soft opening in one of the restaurants. Wallace expected Wednesday night would be an all-nighter as they prepared for the first guests on Thursday morning.

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Posted at 07:00 AM/ET, 05/01/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The where and when of spring’s best tours. By Michelle Thomas
This midcentury home will be one of ten on the Hollin Hills House & Garden Tour. Photographs by David Rivera.

Ah, spring. Though it’s not exactly delightful out today, sunnier times are ahead—and also tours. Lots of tours. The yearly deluge of neighborhood home and garden tours is about to hit full stride. Here’s a rundown of some of the area’s best bets. 

Old Town Historic Garden Week 

Part of the Garden Club of Virginia’s Historic Garden Week, which opens more than 250 gardens and homes statewide, the Old Town-based walking tour visits five homes from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The ticket price also includes admission to three other historic properties in the area: the Carlyle House Historic Park, the Lee-Fendall House Museum and Garden, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. April 26, 10 to 4. $35 in advance, $40 day of. Alexandria Visitors Center, 221 King St., Alexandria.

Prince George’s House & Garden Pilgrimage

This year’s tour through Prince George’s County—as part of the annual Maryland House & Garden Pilgrimage, which includes close to 50 private homes, gardens, farms, and historic sites in five counties—follows the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail and Byway, with a focus on the War of 1812. The stops conclude with a visit to Darnell’s Chance, an 18th-century complex listed on the National Register of Historic Places. April 26, 10 to 5. $30 in advance, $35 day of. Patuxent Riverkeeper Center, 17412 Nottingham Rd., Upper Marlboro. 

Georgetown House Tour 

See inside nine Georgetown homes during this annual tour, now in its 83rd year. Tickets include an afternoon tea at Blake Hall at St. John’s Episcopal Church, which the tour proceeds benefit. April 26, 11 to 5. $50 in advance, $55 day of. St. John’s Episcopal Church, 3240 O St., NW. 

Fairfax County: Historic Vienna 

Hosted by the Garden Club of Fairfax, this partial walking tour includes four homes and gardens in Vienna’s oldest neighborhood, Ayr Hill, and Meadowlark Botanical Gardens. April 29, 10 to 4. $25 in advance, $30 day of. Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, 9750 Meadowlark Gardens Ct., Vienna. 

Hollin Hills House & Garden Tour

Check out the midcentury-modern homes of this award-winning Fairfax County neighborhood in a self-guided walking tour, which visits ten Charles Goodman-designed properties and three gardens. The tour kicks off with a morning lecture on modern architecture and Goodman’s other work. May 3, noon to 6. $25 in advance, $30 day of. Hollin Meadows Elementary School, 2310 Nordok Pl., Alexandria. 

Takoma Park House and Garden Tour

Dubbed the Spirit of Holly Avenue, this three-block tour takes visitors through the evolution of the neighborhood from the 1880s through post-World War II. May 4, 1 to 5. $18 in advance, $20 day of. 7064 Eastern Ave., NW. 

Georgetown Garden Tour

For the 86th year, this tour visits nine of Georgetown’s best gardens, from high-tech modern affairs to woodsy fairy-tale versions. The tour includes an afternoon tea at Christ Church’s Keith Hall. May 10, 10 to 5. Christ Church, 31st and O sts., NW.

Del Ray House and Garden Tour 

A biennial project presented by the Del Ray Citizens Association, this year’s tour includes homes ranging from a 1940s rowhouse to a green design that incorporates one of the neighborhood’s only in-ground pools. May 10, 11 to 5. $20 in advance, $25 after May 1. Del Ray Farmers Market, Mount Vernon and Oxford aves., Alexandria. 

Capitol Hill Restoration Society House & Garden Tour 

This is Capitol Hill’s largest and oldest fundraiser, now in its 57th year, and this year the tour highlights four Civil War-era frame houses—a departure from the neighborhood's more prevelant Victorian homes—and a garden that features a fully stocked koi pond.  May 10, 4 to 7, and May 11, noon to 5. $25. Hill Center, 901 Pennsylvania Ave., SE.

Posted at 03:13 PM/ET, 04/15/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
It’s easy. By Michelle Thomas

Like the idea of winning a grand to spend on Room & Board’s modern-meets-classic furniture line? Then you’d do well to swing by the 14th Street showroom this weekend: Not only is the store’s latest collection now on display, but shoppers who visit this weekend also get the chance at a $1,000 gift card. This year’s collection features plenty of timeless-yet-current interior trends (including such Open House faves as marble, velvet, and Scandinavian-inspired white and wood pairings, plus texture blending and lots of animal hides) spread out on four full floors of showroom space.

How to win: Head to Room & Board Saturday 11 to 7 or Sunday 11 to 6 to register for the prize.

Room & Board. 1840 14th St., NW; 202-729-8300.

Posted at 03:51 PM/ET, 02/07/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The organization relocates to L Street. By Carol Ross Joynt
The new National Restaurant Association offices feature a lounge with a fireplace. The television is one of several in the duplex office complex, meant mainly for broadcasting in-house food programs. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

In a reflection of the growth industry that restaurants have become in Washington and other US cities, the National Restaurant Association has moved to larger, cooler digs in downtown Washington. The association will celebrate the new duplex offices at 2055 L Street, Northwest, with a party Wednesday night featuring cocktails from Todd Thrasher (PX, Restaurant Eve) and food from Occasions Caterers.

We stopped by the space for a tour, which included the kitchens—there are five in all—and the large event space. It holds the largest kitchen, which is restaurant-grade and equipped with high-definition cameras to shoot food segments that can be broadcast inside, on several big-screen televisions, or used for TV programs (Top Chef, perhaps?). There is also an outdoor terrace, contributed by the Trinchero Family Estates winery in Napa, California.

The NRA, which says it represents half a million restaurants nationwide, moved from smaller offices at 17th and L Streets, Northwest. The local office holds 80 of the total 225 employees; the rest work out of the Chicago office. According to CEO Dawn Sweeney, the new offices show a 20 percent growth in the NRA staff over the last decade, which she says matches the growth rate of the industry.

The new space also includes the NRA’s Education Foundation, which is celebrating a new two-year program to bring culinary training to high school classrooms. The program, according to the NRA, is offered in 1,900 schools in 48 states, including the local area, serving 95,000 students overall.

1837 Some of the National Restaurant Association’s brain trust: Christin Fernandez, manager of media relations; Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO; Marion Austin, head of office services; Sue Hensley, senior vice president of communications; and Katie Laning Niebaum, communications director.

Posted at 01:32 PM/ET, 11/13/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
No cheesy skeletons here. By Sarah Title
Photographs via Women's Day; Jolly Mom; I Heart Naptime; Instructables; Martha Stewart.

With one of fall’s favorite holidays right around the corner, you may start to notice some over-the-top decorations taking over your neighbors’ homes—a fake graveyard spread across the entire front lawn, perhaps. But there are plenty of ways to festively dress your home while keeping it classy—and without dropping big bucks. We've found five great DIYs to try.

1) Try sweetening up your candles by adding candy corn to the holder, like these ones from Women's Day. Tip: Place the candles somewhere the kids can’t reach so they don’t burn their hand trying to steal a piece. Total cost: Under $20

2) Light up your walkway with this tin can luminary DIY tutorial from Jolly Mom. All you need is an old can, some black paint, a hammer, and a nail. Doesn’t get much easier than that. Total cost: $2.99

3) Switch out your usual flower pots for pumpkins with this easy craft from I Heart Nap Time. Try incorporating synthetic pumpkins so you can reuse them for next year’s festivities or swap in flowers anytime. Total cost: $16

4) Finish off the last of the olive oil or syrup that’s been sitting in your pantry forever, and use the bottle to add a spooky touch to any mantelpiece or entry table, as seen on Instructables. By spraying them black and adding an appropriate label, you’ll have witch potion bottles in no time. Total cost: $6

5) The patron saint of creativity, Martha Stewart, can help you wow Halloween party guests with this pumpkin cooler. Throw in some Oktoberfest beer and you’re good to go. Total cost: Market price of a pumpkin at your local patch

Posted at 09:45 AM/ET, 10/18/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
It’s slated to open in NoMa by the end of March. By Mary Clare Glover
Renderings of the new NPR headquarters courtesy of Hickok Cole Architects.

Hickok Cole Architects released these renderings today of the new NPR headquarters, which is under construction in NoMa and is scheduled to be finished by the end of March. Unlike the old NPR headquarters in Penn Quarter, this new building will be much more open to the public—a concept that is reflected in the glassy, open design. There will be tours of the 90,000-square-foot newsroom as well as an exhibit tracing the history of NPR. A big coup for NoMa, the building will breathe even more life into a neighborhood that’s undergoing tremendous change. And it looks pretty good, too.

Posted at 05:10 PM/ET, 02/01/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()