Tracking house's history has its dramatic moments


September 12, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

Sometimes the past gives up its secrets reluctantly -- that's what we discovered recently when we tried to track the history of the house we're working on to find out exactly how old it is.

We've thought, based on architectural detail and neighborhood history, that the house must date to somewhere in the 1870s. And we still think that. But getting even that far was something of a battle.

To help in our search, we enlisted Mike Gisriel, vice president of Fountainhead Title Group of Baltimore. He was able to explain how to get started: Use the real estate tax assessments book in the property office or the land records office to look up the block and lot number of your property. Once you have that, you can request a property I.D. card, which lists successive owners of that block and lot. The records may vary in how far back they go; just use the earliest deed reference on the card as a starting point in the land records.

The deed reference will tell you which volume ("liber") and page ("folio") to look at for the deed. The deed should have a clause that begins "BEING the same property described as . . ." and ending in another deed reference: the previous sale.

By tracking back through the BEING clauses to earlier and earlier deeds, you may be able to find out fairly quickly when your lot first became a house.

It isn't always that easy, however. And that's where the block and lot numbers become essential.

We ran into a problem almost immediately, because a deed for Feb. 2, 1933 did not have a BEING clause. ("Humph," Mr. Gisriel said, "probably not drawn up by a real estate lawyer.")

Instead, it had a trustee, one Charles A. Simpson, a complainant, one Ada E. Stoll, formerly Ada E. Simpson, and a defendant, one Harry Zerden, and the reference "Docket 73 C folio 24."

A call to the state archives in Annapolis elicited the information that the reference was probably to a case in equity court, and that all such records were kept in the archives office. For a fee of $15, an hourlong search would be made to locate the case file; it could then be copied (fee depending on how long the file is) and sent. But it would take four to six weeks. And it might take more than a one-hour search to locate the case file, which means another fee.

So we gave up on the court case and returned to the block books, which are compiled by years. We found the volume that included 1933, found the reference to the court case, and then began going backward through the years in the property description column until we found another reference to our property. (By this time we had the description memorized, so it was easy to spot, if tedious to look for.)

Bingo. On Sept. 30, 1927, we found a mortgage reference that gave us a deed reference for 1925, with a liber and folio. Then it was back to the stacks to trace the deeds. (This would never do, of course, in a legal title search, but for purposes of historic research it bridged a gap. We're going to check grantor-grantee records to see if we can fill in the gap; and we're certainly going to go to Annapolis and check out the court file.)

Our search was especially complicated because at various times the property was sometimes separate, sometimes combined with the lot next door, and in 1953 the back part of both properties was sold separately. It was also complicated by Baltimore's ground-rent system, in which land is often held separately from the structures on it. Ground rents change hands just like houses, and sometimes more often.

We learned to appreciate the arcane knowledge of a lawyer, when Mr. Gisriel looked at something that made no sense to us and quickly explained what was going on. We also learned to appreciate the value of a fine hand. As the records got older, the handwriting varied wildly in readability. Plus there were a lot of mistakes; sometimes the liber or folio numbers were missing or unreadable from the deed. Then it was back to the block books, but at least we had the date. The whole process did get easier as we worked into it.

After several hours over a number of days, the earliest reference we have found is a lease dated Dec. 14, 1865. We don't know for sure, because we haven't finished our search, but we think that is only for the land. We think the first reference to the house itself is a ground rent listing dated April 24, 1874. The same family that paid the ground rent owned the property until 1902.

But some of the transactions of the early part of the 20th century still had us baffled. When we asked Mr. Gisriel to interpret some of the data we found, he suggested we may have gotten detoured at some point into the history of the ground rent, instead of the history of the house. A prime reason he suspected that was a name that turned up in 1919: On Sept. 17, one Morris A. Mechanic bought something from one Joseph Alperstein, then sold it again on Oct. 8, to one Annie Burnstein.

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