The Washingtoniana Division Knows All About Your House

by Shilpi Paul

Plat map from the Washingtoniana room

Curious about your home and in the mood to partake in some amateur detective work? The Washingtoniana division at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library has real estate maps, building permits and resident lists going back more than a century for most residential properties in the District. In a couple hours, one can find out when their home was built, see its first appearance on a plat map, identify former owners and residents, look up their occupations, and see if any additions were ever built and when. Last night, Jason Moore, collections librarian for the Washingtoniana division, walked UrbanTurf through the research process.

Plat maps for the city (large maps drawn to scale that show divisions of land) are kept in enormous binders that fill a wall of shelves in the Washingtoniana room. Other records, like permits, can be found on microfiche, and computers provide access to various city databases. The oldest plat map is from 1887 and at that time, the block where my house currently stands was apparently owned by George Glorius, a German immigrant who passed away in 1906. My old apartment on 17th and U Street NW hadn’t been built, but the land had already been sectioned off for row houses. The maps start again in 1903 and end in 1967, with new ones, that provide the dimensions and materials used for residences, coming out roughly every decade.

Using the city’s building permit database, I found out that turn-of-the-century real estate developer Harry Wardman was the original builder and owner of my house, which was constructed in late 1902. A look at a plat map from just after 1902 revealed a new little red rectangle where the house stands. By looking at original building permits on microfilm, one can peruse and find out exactly what type of home was built and explore additions.

For those who really want to dig deep into their home’s history, the assessment directory will help find all the occupants and residents for a property, and city directories or HeritageQuest can be used to find out about their families and occupations. The Washington Board of Realtors also donated real estate transaction sheets from 1920 until the late 80’s to the library, which list every instance a property changed hands.

Moore told UrbanTurf that people come through the room all the time, and because of DC’s relationship with the federal government, documents that are long lost in other counties are preserved here as federal records. The library conducts a workshop on the topic every few months, and held one last night at the Takoma Park DC branch.

See other articles related to: mlk library, house history, dclofts

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/the_washingtoniana_division_knows_all_about_your_house/4670


  1. xmal said at 1:12 pm on Wednesday November 30, 2011:

    Great foray into history, Shilpi!

    Any explanation for how the decisions were made to subdivide lots into different sizes block-by block (e.g., as shown in the map above)? Was this a matter of policy or zoning changing in time as different blocks were developed, or was it developers pursuing different audiences with each development?

  1. Mike said at 3:49 pm on Wednesday November 30, 2011:

    I’m going to research my place right away.  I think it was built in 1907, but not 100% sure.  I’d love to know previous owners.  We have a very unique fireplace that I’d like to speculate where it came from. thanks for the info.

  1. victorianinbloom said at 4:13 pm on Wednesday November 30, 2011:

    Last year, I attended the DC Humanities Council-sponsored symposium at Washingtoniana on researching house and neighborhood histories. I highly recommend - so much to learn; we found out that our house was built in 1897 rather than 1907 as DC property records show. By lucky coincidence, the permit-to-build was granted exactly 113 years to the day that I attended the symposium. pretty neat! see here: http://www.victorianinbloom.com/post/727525437/happy-birthday-vib and here: http://www.victorianinbloom.com/post/734496036/house-comes-alive

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