Washington DC is a city known for its rich history. Even if you’re not going to get your house designated as ‘officially’ historic, it might be fun to know about its history. Maybe your home had a speakeasy in the basement during prohibition, was part of the Underground Railroad, or was the site of an infamous brothel. Aren’t you curious about who has lived there?
Ready to dive in? Here are some resources, many available online, that will help your search:
Online Mapping Tools & Databases
Go beyond Google Maps with something more specifically focused on the DC area. This is as easy as opening a new tab on your browser (go ahead, we’ll wait).
- Enter your address into Property Quest, which was designed to “show a wide range of site-related information easily…" about the city's structures and sites. It will also give you the current assessed value of your property, which can’t hurt to know.
- Or check out old building permits and learn how your house has physically changed (if it has at all).
Local Libraries, Special Collections & Historic Census Data
The public library, in general, is a treasure trove of research resources.
- Start with a visit to your local library branch and ask the reference librarian if they have any books to recommend about local history.
- Browse the DC Historical Image Collection, which has 15,000 images starting from the year 1800 (the bulk of the collection’s images are from 1880-1960).
- Also visit the Washingtonia Collection, which is housed in the Special Collections Division at the Martin Luther King Jr. branch of the public library.
- Census data that can tell you the names of previous residents of your home also found at the Washingtonia Collection.
The online catalog of the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress may return valuable information, or at least some neat historic photos. Try typing in your address or street name and see what comes up.
Old tax records can show you who previously owned the home, as they had to pay property taxes on it.
- Records from before 1877 can be found at the National Archives. Records from after 1877 will be at the Historical Society of Washington or the MLK branch of the public library.
- In the same vein, the Washington DC Recorder of Deeds at the Office of Tax and Revenue’s online search options can also show you who owned your property.
Social Media & Being Social
Even amateur historians may have something to offer, so talk to your neighbors and see what they have to share. Get to know them and find out who's lived there the longest, or if anyone them has already has undertaken an investigation into their own home's history. Think of it as looking for ‘historic gossip.’ Get in touch with your local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and see if they have any information the development – physical, social, and/or economic - of your immediate neighborhood.
Local history social media groups exist that are devoted to sharing historical photos of a city, neighborhood, or location. Look for groups with titles like “Old photos of Georgetown” or “You know you’re from Petworth if…” on Facebook and Flickr. Try searching for something like “historic Columbia Heights” on Pinterest and see what it has to show you.
Local History & Preservation Organizations
These are good sources of information too since it's sort of their job to be. Here are three to get you started:
There are many smaller or more localized historical societies and related groups that you might want to get in touch with, especially if you have a little bit of information about the ethnic groups that may have lived in your neighborhood, like the Afro American Historical Society and Greater Washington Jewish Historical Societies. A more comprehensive list of them can be found here.
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