Researching your District of Columbia Home
Select materials from the Washingtoniana Collection are available at our interim location during the renovation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. See more details on available materials.
Washingtoniana staff regularly offer house history workshops - registration is required. The following guide will help orient you to the resources available on site and online for researching your house history.
Historic atlases, or "plat" maps, show the footprints of individual buildings in the city at the time the atlas was published.
Boschke 1857-1865 available online via Library of Congress
Hopkins 1887-1896 available online via DigDC
Baist 1903-1919 available online via Library of Congress; 1903-1968 available in print in Washingtoniana
Sanborn 1888-1916 available online via Library of Congress
DC Atlas current map available online via DCGIS
Information found on plat maps:
- Building footprint, building material
- Square and lot; old street names or subdivisions
- Lot dimensions
- Neighborhood development
Washingtoniana has microfilm of DC building permits issued from 1877-1949 via the National Archives. Permits issued after 1949 are housed at D.C. Archives.
Permit to Build
The "Permit to Build" is the first permit issued for the original construction of a building, and can usually be found using HistoryQuest DC. Clicking on the building on this digital map will often* show information from the original permit application, including date of construction, architect, builder, owner, materials, dimensions, cost and use of the building. Map only shows extant buildings, for others consult the Building Permits Database.
Consulting the permit to build on microfilm might yield 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.
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. Other resources in Special Collections 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 Residents in Directories
City Directories 1822-1973
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 find 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.
Haines Directories (criss-cross) 1974-present
Haines publishes a reverse directory that only gives the name of the occupant of a property.
Research Residents 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.
The Washington Post (1877 to present)
The Evening Star (1852-1981)
Chronicling America Library of Congress’s collection of digitized local newspapers
Search addresses and people's names in parentheses to narrow results.
Visit Other Local Institutions
Post-1950 building permits and plans
D.C. Recorder of Deeds
Visit to conduct pre-1921 deed research.
Historical Society of Washington
Excellent resource for photographs; consult the Wymer Collection in particular for photos of houses. Catalog is searchable by location.
Library of Congress
Plat map and city directories largely duplicated by DCPL holdings and many resources are online such as maps and newspapers.
Downtown location has a set of the DC Building Permits microfilm; College Park location has building plans (as indicated by “Plans on File” note on permit).