One on One: DC’s House History Man

by Shilpi Paul

For this week’s One of One, we sat down with Paul Williams, a historian who has been producing detailed histories of homes in the area for almost two decades. Besides delving into directories and ancestry.com, Williams spends his days deciphering scribbled handwriting on old Census forms and scanning vintage photographs for evidence of a home or resident. Here’s some insight into how he finds out everything about your home.

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Paul Williams

Can you tell us what a house history provides?

I like to describe it as a genealogy of a house. It provides who built it, who designed it, who has lived there and what activities have ever taken place there throughout time.

How much detail can you provide about the history of a home, and how to do you get that information?

We usually start by investigating city directories, which are like old telephone books that list what people did for an occupation and where they worked. Then we look at Census information. Unlike today’s Census, they were particularly detailed back in, say, the 1880 and ’90s. They listed everybody in the household and where they were born, even servants. In some cases, they may include even small details, like if a person owned a radio.

What else do you have access to that the average person might not?

I’ve learned to become a genealogist. You really need to navigate around places like ancestry.com, which are subscription based and not cheap. You can find things like passport applications, which usually have pictures, and World War II draft cards, which describe physical features. We find a lot of death certificates and wedding documents. Part of the fun is going to the DC archives and looking at everyone’s last will and testament, which becomes public record after you die. That reveals who you loved and who you hated and who pissed you off. It can be really personal.

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Early Census records

What other sources do you use?

We do a search through The Washington Post. We can find mundane items, like a girl who may have lost her purse on the way to the store and the parents put a classified ad in for it, to a description of a tea that was given at the house, describing what the house looked like on an afternoon in 1875. The last thing we do is a search for vintage photographs of the house, the block and anybody who lived in the house.

How many histories are you working on at one time, and how many hours does it take to do one?

It varies, but we might spend six to eight hours researching and another couple hours writing it up. We usually have about 10 or 12 house histories going at a time, and I tell people it will take us four to five weeks to finish.

What are some of the more interesting stories you’ve found?

We started researching a Georgetown house that had a plaque on it that said it was built in 1830, but I couldn’t find any history on it for 100 years after that. It turned out that the house was built in 1930 using salvaged materials. That era was all about Colonial Williamsburg and older houses, so the builders assembled old fireplaces, mantles, moldings, windows, but they built the house in 1930. I kind of shocked the homeowner. I did the opposite for a house in Forest Hills. The owners thought their house was built in 1939, and we found out that it was actually remodeled that year, but was an 1854 farmhouse. So we found a picture of the farmhouse and you could see how the house evolved over time.

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An early photograph of a DC home.

What is your background, and how did you get into this?

I went to school for historic preservation. I worked in some office jobs, but really got interested in home histories when I bought an old house in the U Street area in 1992. My neighbor said it had a fascinating history. He knew all about it, but he gave me some keywords and made me research it by myself. It was kind of fun to unravel the history one document at a time. That’s when it hit me that this might be a service for other homeowners in DC.

What does the finished product look like?

We write it up in a chronological fashion, like a storyline, and drop in all the illustrations: handwritten Census records, WWII cards, and newspaper clippings, for example. We provide a bound booklet, like a coffee table book, and a CD with copies of all the scans. Most house histories cost $500; if it’s older, we charge more. We have almost completed 2,000.

Say there’s a resident who doesn’t have a lot of money but is interested in the history of their home. Where do you recommend they start?

You can glean a lot of info by talking to a librarian at DC’s Washingtoniana division.

To get in touch with Paul, click here.

See other articles related to: washingtoniana, history

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/one_on_one_dcs_house_history_man/5514

1 Comment

  1. John said at 11:30 am on Wednesday May 9, 2012:

    I’m doing this myself in my spare time, but it is time-consuming, so the $500 charge and bound booklet sounds like a good deal.

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