Monday, June 23, 2008

The Census and Privacy

Many people concerned about their privacy with public records today have no idea just how much a historian can uncover about people walking the planet not that long ago. The federal census is one tool we house historians use to reveal interesting tidbits about those owners, and even the renters or lodgers in your house long ago. The last available in detail for researchers in the 1930 census. (The 1940 census won't be released in detail until 2012, 72 years or an average life span after it was recorded)

The 1930 census includes the more detailed information than any other prior census. It was taken live by enumerators traveling door to door, as seen at left. It listed all the people in the household at that time; the head of household was listed first, followed by everyone in the house as they related to him or her: wife, husband, children, son-in-laws, etc. It listed everyone's age, where they were born, and even where both of their parents were born. If they were foreign born, it indicates when they arrived in the US, became a citizen, or were naturalized.

It also listed anyone unrelated in the house that lived there as lodgers (typically renting without meals) or as boarders, who took meals with the family. The census also listed occupation, along with employer or type of job: janitor, for example, within the public schools. For couples, it listed how many children had been born, and how many were alive in 1930.

Another interesting aspect of the 1930 census was the fact that unlike prior census, it recorded what the home owner thought their house was worth (a year after the stock market crash), or what they were paying in rent. Washington, DC homeowners might be shocked how little their house was worth that year, or that you could rent a nice townhouse in DC for about $35 a month that year.

Census enumerators also recorded race, although they frequently made errors because it was a guess by observation, rather than a question of the subject. Census enumerators that year were instructed: “to be particularly careful in reporting the class mulatto. The word is generic, and includes quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood.” Importantly, it was up the census taker to observe and determine race, not the subject being interviewed, often resulting in a multitude of errors. Anyone of the Asian race were classified as white, while those born in India might have been classified as mulatto.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

DC Real Property Database = An INCORRECT building date

I just got an inquiry from a potential client that conveyed to me the the building date of her house, gleaned from the DC real property assessment database (under view property features). She said her house was built in 1900. The problem is, about 80% of the "built in" dates on the DC real property tax assessment database are just educated guesses, done by an assessor about 50 years ago. That's why the vast majority of the dates provided are even numbers! 1900, 1905, 1910, etc. I've researched houses that have had the date off by 90 years or more.

Unfortunately, real estate agents use these "constructed in" date as fact. That can lead to trouble, and I was involved as a consultant in one case in Georgetown where the RE agent told the buyer that house was built in 1835. Turns out, the house was built in 1935. In Georgetown, where the oldest house wins, that spelled embarrassment and a lawsuit.

So, please don't believe the assessment database. I wish they would simply remove the dates altogether, as they are almost completely useless and mostly inaccurate. They only way to tell is to have your house history researched and carefully documented from the original building permits that began in February of 1877, or by using a combination of maps, tax, and deed research for properties before 1877.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cool Faux Copper ceiling Panel Installation

So, I'm writing today about a really cool faux product, and as a architectural historian, we take these kinds of products test whether or not they look and act like the real thing. I can say that after installing the fake copper panels in our living room awhile back, they are amazing! Our guests and historians alike really think we have expensive copper up there. That our room at left, in fact!

What reminded me to blog about these is that I'm selling the spare panels on eBay this week that I just found in the basement. I'm listing tons of stuff on eBay every week, as I and my partner have a goal of living aboard a sail boat within the next two years.

In any event, I had never heard of these panels until a producer from the HGTV show called "I Want That!" called and needed a house to serve as a location for reps from the manufacturer to install the panels. We said we're in, and in about two weeks, the product arrived and so did the film crew. They were a new product from ACP company, and we got to choose our pattern and color, at least. I had worked with a few of the crew beforehand, actually, as the freelancers had been to my old DC loft to film shows like Building Character for HGTV.

The fellows from the manufacturer were on hand to actually install the panels, and Greg and I were on hand to film short shots like we were actually doing the work. Ah, the magic of television. We also sat down for interviews that ended up being edited into embarrassing snippets that our friends sill make fun of: "Copper Fantasy!" being the most used. The manufacture choose that name, not us! You can find episode 207 on HGTV here.

The installation was flawed a fair amount, as the newbies from ACP had never installed their new product. It was designed to go on with liquid nails, but the pattern we choose had lots of embossing, and little to stick to the actual ceiling. So, we came up with a compromise, and we suggested use of a staple gun to secure most of the panels while the liquid nails set. The film crew was worried that we wouldn't finish, actually, but after two days, they did a great job. I placed a border of small crown molding around the ceiling to hide the walls that were not even, of course, in our 1906 house.

They sent over a photographer several weeks later to be used on a brochure, and we forgot about the whole episode until my sister recognized our living room (and her xmas gift candles) in her big box hardware store in Michigan, of all places! The brochure cover is our living room, which we refer to as our opium den, a look we were going after when designing the look of the room.

They are not cheap, but they are a lot less expensive than real copper, and the nice part is you can cut them with scissors. Nobody has been able to determine that these are not real panels!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Hurd v Hodge, DC Racial Covenants: 50th Anniversary

So, May of 2008 marked the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court case Hurd v. Hodge, originating right here in Washington, DC, which found the enforcement of racial and religious covenants were unconstitutional. I recently researched the actual location of the house in question, 116 Bryant Street, NW (left) for the current owners, who had bought the house history at a Bloomingdale Civic Association neighborhood fund raiser that we had donated it to.

What struck me was the arguments used to overturn racial and religious covenants and why they aren't used in gay civil rights cases today. It was important to note that the black lawyers and black homeowners of the day were fighting to overturn all restrictive real estate covenants, not just those targeted at preventing a sale to black homeowners.

Today, the Washington Blade ran a commentary piece I composed on the subject that you can read here.

I'll post the unedited version below for your reading pleasure.


The similarity between historic black civil rights and contemporary gay civil rights being fought in today’s courts cannot be overlooked. One old but significant civil rights argument is missing from legal cases being filed on behalf of gay rights today, however. Fifty years ago, in May of 1948, an argument was used by local lawyers to win the eventual Supreme Court case Hurd v. Hodge that found that the enforcement of racially restrictive covenants on real estate deeds was unconstitutional. The unusual argument used that year was the United States membership pledge to uphold the Charter of the newly formed United Nations.
By joining the UN, the United States had pledged on June 26, 1945 to “Universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinctions as to race, sex, language or religion.” Used successfully fifty years ago to ensure the equal rights of black property owners, this precedent seems to have all but been forgotten in today’s gay rights legal cases. Combined with additional arguments used in the 1948 case, the resulting Supreme Court opinion, and with a few word substitutions, one might begin to imagine that they are reading about the results of today’s gay marriage cases.
Most importantly, perhaps, is that the black leadership behind the successful Hurd v. Hodge case resulted in the lifting of all racial and religious deed covenants in place at the time, not just those targeting African-Americans.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Tip for Selling Your DC House Fast

If you are planning on selling your old Washington, DC house, or its already on the market, one tip that experienced Realtors and Real Estate agents successfully utilize is to commission a complete history of the house. In this buyers market, its the one aspect that might make your house stand out with an extra bit of cache. If a buyer knows about the history of your house, they may just fall in love with the past social aspects and important people that lived there in addition to falling in love with your new Viking range.

A complete history costs less than a single newspaper advertisement, and if done right, it will include information on your architect, builder, owners and renters, and any changes that have been made to the house over the years. You can see good examples of houses histories here.

Kelsey & Associates has been doing this in Washington, DC for over 15 years, and can usually complete a house history in less than 30 days, and combine a fascinating array of deeds, vintage pictures, biographies, building permits, census details, newspaper searchers, passport applications, ships registries, etc. Sometimes even locate a living relative of your home's first owners; they are the people that have those family scrap books that show life in and outside of your house 100 years ago or more. Those kinds of pictures never make it into public archives.

Copies of your house history can be printed out for open houses, or a pdf created for use on websites. You never know who or when someone famous once lived or even rented a room in your DC house, and Real Estate agents agree that every house has a history, large or small. If your listings include vague language like "circa 1900" or "elegant architecture," a house history can change that to "built in 1912 by noted architect George E. Cooper," or "once home to Ice Cream millionaire Jacob Fussell." Which house would peak your interest more?

Find out how much it would cost to research your house history today!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Raising the Slate Roof

So while at a party over the weekend after being introduced as a historic preservationist, a new acquaintance complained how expensive it was going to be to replace their slate roof. Their contractor estimated $20-$25,000.

I told them to get another contractor. Why? Slate is hung on the roof with a single large hole and a nail; working from the top down, its easily lifted off the nail and can be carried and assembled on the ground while the sub-roof is replaced and the gutters renewed. You will loose about 10% to breakage, and you should plan on buying about 10-15% new slate for the reassembly....these new slate should be placed on a section of the roof themselves, as they are likely no to match the old slate exactly; just have them put on dormers or a small pitch of the roof.

If the old slate is painted or has roofing tar on it (gasp) like it was on my old 1879 house in Washington, it can be flipped over when it is replaced on the roof. It your roofer wants you to replace the entire roof of slate, run. They want to get the profit from providing new slate, and avoid caring for the old slate during removal. Its easier to throw the pieces off the roof than carry them down, yes? There is also faux rubber slate on the market that you can't tell is not real slate, even up close.

So, there you go. I just saved a new friend-of-a-friend about $20,000 in about 5 minutes.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Wardman or not a Wardman? That is the Question.

And the answer is most likely: Not a Wardman. Of course, I'm talking about Harry Wardman (right), a builder in Washington, DC beginning about the turn of the twentieth century. Real estate agents often are to blame, advertising just about any house in DC with a front porch and hardwood floors as a Wardman.

Most houses by far are not, however, and I'm wondering why my clients that have been told that through real estate advertising and open houses don't sue the damn real estate agents that are making false claims and perpetuating the myth that the guy built nearly everything in Washington. I would.

Relatives of the builder and his chief architect are also behind perpetuating the myth, along with a few historians here and there. Wardman went broke more than once, and officers in his company were brought up on all sorts of financial charges, before the Great Depression when he went broke for good. You won't find those aspects highlighted by relatives.

Now that more documentation has emerged about builders in DC, its been proven that there are equally prevalent builders, many of whom built more houses in DC than Wardman. I'm looking forward to the day when real estate agents begin advertising "built by Warner, built by Blundon, built by Groff, and built by Middaugh & Shannon," for example.

Having completed about 1,500 individual house histories in Washington, DC to date, I always wondered why less than 10% of them happened to be built by Wardman. Now I know for sure.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

NW DC: House History Location Map

This Google map includes the location and basic information of the house histories we have completed to date in the NW section of Washington, DC. Each location has year built, architect, and builder. Enjoy!

View Larger Map

House History on Sale!

I'm rotating an offer to certain neighborhood groups in DC our NEW summer promotion for a complete "house history" report!
Hopefully, you are already familiar with our thoroughly researched house history reports that document all aspects of your old house; who built it, who designed it and when, and who has owned or rented it over time. We combine research on deeds, genealogy, building permits, biographies, city directories, census, the Washington Post archives, and other resources for a well rounded and cited booklet. Sometime, we can even locate living relatives of your first occupants that have those rare, historic pictures of you house when it was first completed. By focusing on several homes in one neighborhood, we can offer this for only $450 complete! Visit for samples and more information.