How to research your home's past

History: More and more homeowners are researching the history of their homes. Some pay to have it done.

July 20, 2003|By Patricia Rivera | Patricia Rivera,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Two neighbors told David Baldwin that they had dreams of an ailing little girl lying in a bed on the enclosed porch of their Windsor Hills apartment house.

It seemed as if she were fighting for her life, but none of the tenants could offer further explanations, said Baldwin, the director of the Baltimore County Historical Society's library.

"I started to wonder if the little girl had died in the home," said Baldwin, who has rented an apartment in the house since 1999.

So Baldwin did what he had been telling dozens of people over the years to do: He began studying the home's past. A friend searched property titles to help Baldwin trace the home's history. He learned about the home's former owners and the prices they paid for the house, which was built in 1910. But he didn't have much luck finding out about the little girl of his neighbors' dreams.

Baldwin isn't the only one who has been sifting through records and researching his home's history. An increasing number of people have developed an interest in historic home research during recent years. That appetite has been sparked in part by cable television programs, preservation groups and even government agencies.

Experts said curious homeowners can find clues within their homes and attics or by visiting tax offices and searching the Internet for nuggets about their house and neighborhood.

In many cases, it costs nothing more than patience and perseverance. And those who get stumped can call a growing number of professionals who charge $100 to thousands of dollars to offer a peek into a home's past.

"Like with the rest of the national mindset, people want to get a sense of their history so they're looking at their homes and their families," said architect Paul K. Williams, who runs a home history business in Washington and recently opened a Baltimore office. "They want to know where their families lived and who may have lived in their homes."

And experts said homes built in the early 1900s aren't the only ones that are getting looks. As the housing boom has grown, homeowners with younger homes in the suburbs also have looked for pieces of history. Baltimore County Land Records Office workers said traffic has been heavier during recent years.

"There's a much greater interest in real estate, and more people come in here looking for information on homes and deeds," said Pat Mannion, a supervisor at the county's Land Records Office.

Home research clearly dovetails on the widespread practice of family research. And as popular interest in historic preservation continues to rise, so does the need to learn more about one's home, said architect Richard D. Wagner, also a Goucher College professor of historic preservation.

Financial incentives to restore older homes to their original state are helping fuel the trend. "Much of the interest is generated by tax credits which are available to people who take the time to outline the history of their homes," he said.

IRS-sanctioned income tax credits for rehabilitation projects are available for anyone whose home lies in a historic district, or is on the National Register of Historic Places. Maryland residents also can benefit from a 25 percent credit. The state's tax credit program - considered one of the best in the nation - has been threatened by budget cuts.

Williams, owner of Kelsey & Associates, fields many calls from people curious about their houses. His keen eye for details leads him to some interesting discoveries.

He found out that one Georgetown property he was asked to research had served as a temporary home for Jacqueline Kennedy and her children after the assassination of her husband. The clues: Pictures of both Kennedy walking her dog and throngs of onlookers gathered on the block and held back by police appeared in The Washington Star newspaper, along with reports and accounts from the 1960s.

In another case, he discovered that under the neatly kept front lawn of a home in the Washington neighborhood of Palisades sat a cannonball from the Civil War. The owners hit something suspicious while gardening, prompting the request for the home research.

Then there was the Chevy Chase home that he learned had been built from a Sears Roebuck catalog kit.

"This was very simple; it matched a home found in a Sears mail-order catalog," Williams said. "These are widely reprinted now for Sears home enthusiasts and easy to spot for the trained eye."

Some homeowners find there are practical reasons for pursuing research.

Doug Harbit, co-owner of the historic Davis Warner Inn in Takoma Park, can vouch for that. Harbit needed more data for an application to have the inn considered for the National Register of Historic Places. He hired Williams to conduct research.

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