Researching Your Home’s History

That’s one of the most frequent questions we get here at CPHS. Here’s how to get started researching your home’s history:

1. CPHS has acquired a copy of D.C.’s database of building permits, 1877-1949. If you email us, we can check the date the construction permit for your home was issued and who the owner and builder and, in some cases, the architect were. (Read more about the database here.)

2. To investigate the ownership history of your home further, and see its context on early maps, head to the Washingtoniana Division at the MLK Library downtown (Gallery Place Metro). The Washingtoniana staff are experts at house history research and will guide you through the use of their resources. You can use city directories and census records to track who lived in your house over time. Click here for Washingtoniana’s guide to house history research.

3. The D.C. Humanities Council produced a short video that follows a researcher as he visits Washingtoniana and the Historical Society of Washington to research his house’s history.

4. The Historical Society of Washington is currently regrouping after some financial troubles, but they expect to have a librarian and reopen their library to researchers later in the summer. In the meantime, their library catalog provides access to a wealth of digitized materials, including parts of their historic photograph collections. Go to this page to search their collections by street address and neighborhood; if a digitized image is available online, you’ll see in the search results a link that looks like this:

5. In addition to finding building, ownership, and occupancy records for your house, you can sometimes find ads or news stories that mention your house or its residents by searching the archives of local newspapers. The D.C. Public Library provides free online access to local newspaper archives to anyone with a library card; just enter your barcode when prompted.