Researching your District of Columbia Home
During the three-year modernization of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the majority of Washingtoniana house history materials are available by appointment at Special Collections' interim location at the Historical Society of Washington, DC. For more information, visit the Special Collections Interim Access & Services page.
Identify Square and Lot
Property in D.C. is identified by its square (city block) and lot (parcel of land). To find the current square and lot, search the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue's Real Property Tax Database by address. Additional information in this database includes current owner, assessed value, and physical description. An alternative is to search the D.C. Atlas from the Office of Planning: search by address, check "Property and Land" overlay, and click on map to zoom in.
Conduct Plat Map Research
Historic real estate atlases, or "plat" maps, show the footprints of each building extant in the city at the time the atlas was published. The Washingtoniana Map Collection includes atlases published by Hopkins (1877-1890s) and Baist (1903-67). Some early Baist atlases (1903-1919) have been digitized by the Library of Congress and are available online. Atlases are arranged by volume for different parts of the city.
Plat maps convey basic information about a property such as lot dimensions, building dimensions and material. These maps also can help you note old lot numbers, old street names, and old subdivision names. Studying maps over time gives a sense of the gradual development of the neighborhood surrounding your home, and shows what existed before your home was built. You can also look for changes to the shape of the footprint to investigate alterations made to the home.
Find Original Permit to Build
Washingtoniana has microfilm of building permits from the National Archives collection, all permits issued from 1877-1949. The most important permit to find is the "Permit to Build," and the best way to find that permit is to search the Building Permits Database (now available online at HistoryQuest DC). The database includes most of the information from the original permit, including date of construction, architect, builder, owner, materials, dimensions, cost and use of the building. Permits issued after 1949 are available at the D.C. Archives.
You may also choose to look at the permit as it was originally issued, by consulting the building permits on microfilm. The original permit may include additional information not found in the database, such as plat drawings or inspector reports. If the permit has the note "plans on file," the plans for the property are available at National Archives in College Park.
Find other Permits
There may be other permits associated with a property in addition to the Permit to Build, such as permits to renovate, to build an addition or a garage, to add additional stories or a new facade, etc. These permits must be accessed using the microfilm indexes:
- By Square Number 1877-1928
- By Subdivision 1877-1908 (for property in Washington County -- above Boundary St./Florida Ave. -- east of Anacostia River; consult plat maps for subdivision names)
- By Street Address 1928-1958
The Recorder of Deeds has a database that traces transfers in ownership of a property from 1921 to the present. [Site requires you to create a free account or login and accept terms as a guest.] Other resources for researching ownership are the Washington Board of Realtors Transaction Fiche (1920s - 1980s) and the Assessment Directories (1886-present). All of the above are organized by square and lot.
Research Residency: City Directories
The owner of a property is not always the same as the resident. Starting in 1914, city directories include a street directory. Using this "reverse" directory, you can discover who lived at a particular address. Then, if you look up the individual in the name directory, you can often find their occupation and place of employment (through 1973).
Research Families in the Census
Searching for the individuals associated with a property such as owners and occupants in the Census can yield a great deal of detail about the family such as other family members, race, place of birth and occupation. Start with the Heritage Quest database, through which the following census years may be searched by name: 1790-1820; 1860-1880; 1900-1930. All census years between 1790 and 1930 may be browsed (except the 1890 census that burned).
There is no way to search a specific address in the census, but searching by general location is possible for the following years: 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, using enumeration district maps.
Conduct Newspaper Research
Additional information about a property and the people associated with it can be found by doing newspaper research. A great place to start is the library's collection of full-text local newspapers, including The Washington Post (1877 to present) and The Evening Star (1852-1981). TIP: Search names and addresses in parentheses to narrow results.
Library of Congress has many other digitized local newspapers searchable online through their Chronicling America - Historic American Newspapers project.
Visit Other Local Institutions for Further Research
D.C. Historic Preservation Office
D.C. Recorder of Deeds
Historical Society of Washington
Library of Congress
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