The Curious House Historian

Paul Williams helps owners discover pasts of D.C. homes

By Ann Geracimos
July 31, 2002

Paul Williams hunts houses, but he isn't hoping to buy any. He looks for facts about the history of homes on behalf of owners curious about the past of their dwellings. That makes him a genealogist of sorts - a new kind of house detective whose skills are working with archives and address directories in search of those elusive details that form the human profile of a building, however commonplace it may seem to the untutored eye.

Working under the business name of Kelsey & Associates - Kelsey is his mother's maiden name; his "associates" are imaginary except for some part-time researchers - he sleuths through archives for clues the way ordinary detectives research a crime scene. The only "crimes" he uncovers involve the lives - or deaths - of former inhabitants and often are discovered accidentally. The worst crime, of course, might be finding out that one's house has little, if any, interesting background.

That seldom happens, Mr. Williams says. Usually, through diligent pursuit of all extant records - and, increasingly, biographical information available on the Web - he can find material to bring a house alive.

Many customers come to him through a Web search, as well. (His address is He calls himself a house historian and has the credentials to prove it, having obtained a bachelor of arts degree in historic preservation and architecture and having done graduate work on the same subject.

In truth, he says, anyone can set himself up in the business, but he claims to be the only independent researcher of his kind in the Washington area to delve deeply into the prior life of residential buildings.

(He also does corporate work - for a higher fee - and has been sought out by lawyers checking titles in a dispute over land or building ownership.)
He concludes about 100 searches a year, sometimes working on as many as 35 projects at a time, and has successfully done 500 histories since going into business 11 years ago.

The Christmas season is a boom time, when he may juggle as many as 100 commissions. Fortunately, knowledge in the field builds on itself. He keeps extensive files in his loft in an 1898 landmark building at Seventh and Q streets NW that he says was one of the first "respectable" apartment buildings to go up in the District.

A long list of clients on his Web site includes the U.S. Department of Energy, the Air Force, CBS News, Republic Gardens restaurant and the Cardozo-Shaw Neighborhood Association - as much variety as exists in Greater Washington itself.

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"I just love my home now that I know the history. It brought me together with my community," says Petworth resident Hunter Moss, who discovered that he was just the third owner of a cream-colored 1923 row house at 4510 New Hampshire Ave. NW that he bought 1½ years ago.

A history buff and an employee of the Federal National Mortgage Association on Wisconsin Avenue NW, Mr. Moss saw Mr. Williams' notice in a neighborhood newspaper, the Uptown Current, and contacted him. The timing was right, he notes, because he plans to throw a housewarming party in September and will have his home blessed at the time by the priest at his church, St. Thomas Episcopal in Dupont Circle.

The handsome booklet containing all pertinent information and copies of essential documents that Mr. Williams presents to each client at the conclusion of a search will be "on the dining room table," he says.

In addition to learning that the architect of his home was the same one who designed many of houses he admires along Connecticut Avenue, Mr. Moss also discovered, through Mr. Williams, the origin of the name Petworth. It is the name of a small town in West Sussex, England, that early developers adopted when they were building houses in the area bordering the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home and North Capitol Street.

Tyrone Goodwyn lucked out, as well, when he discovered from a search Mr. Williams did for him two months ago that the most likely creator of the ornate plasterwork and ceiling murals in his three-story home at 41 U St. NW was a previous tenant who worked for a local theater company and lived there between 1902 and 1927. In 1910, he listed his occupation as "scenic designer."

"Three ceilings, and especially the living room, look more commercial and domestic in origin," Mr. Goodwyn says. "The cornices come down 18 inches, with an oval piece in the middle that has cherubs dancing around a chandelier. Everyone on the block knows my house. It looks like the Smithsonian."

He also found out that for most of its life, the building had been a rental. "I think the house feels good that an owner lives here now," he says. Partly to emphasize its dramatic interior, Mr. Goodwyn has given a dramatic name to the house, where he has lived for 10 years, using words of several ethnic origins: Gojo (Amharic, meaning "humble home") Mattan ("gift" in Hebrew) De Jah ("of God" in the Rastafarian religion).

Ronald Mueller, new owner of a million-dollar home at 1916 16th St. NW, hired Mr. Williams soon after he bought the property, which he has yet to inhabit. A friend at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. recommended him, Mr. Mueller says.

The search will be useful to him in several ways, he says. Knowing the name of the original designer of the building will help establish precedent when he does any renovations to prove similar work was done on other houses around town by the same man. Having concrete evidence that homes in a historic-preservation area like his own were changed or improved upon will help him obtain the approval necessary to do such work on his own house. According to Mr. Williams, repair work can be undertaken without a review, but replacement or renovation requires that a member of the District's Historic Preservation Review Board give consent for any exterior work.

Describing the building as "a grand old house of four stories with a central staircase, six fireplaces and magnificent inlaid floors," he says he learned it has "been through so many lives." Built by a Baltimore & Ohio Railroad executive for a daughter, it also was a group boardinghouse in the 1960s and later the residence of the Brazilian military attache.

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Mr. Williams' sleuthing approach is very methodical. He has been doing the routine long enough to be able, in most cases, to tell a building's age within 10 years simply by looking at the facade. Occasionally, he also tours the interior before beginning the tedious work of looking up old records.

The work takes an average of four to six months to complete. The first phase is what he calls "on-site inspection and documentation," during which the building's physical structure is examined for preservation needs. Next comes the discovery of its origins and past inhabitants. Finally, he prepares a report, which includes suggestions for maintaining the site in good condition.

"When I run into a difficult house, it can take up to one year," he says. That can happen when he discovers that house numbers have been changed. "You can get thrown off and start researching the wrong house. You have to go on an intensive map search to be sure," he says.

He is a familiar figure at the Office of the D.C. Recorder of Deeds, the D.C. Archives, the National Archives and the Library of Congress. The latter institution has old photographs of District buildings and property.

"Building permits are a good key," Mr. Williams notes. "The District started issuing them in November 1877, and anything built after that should have a permit. I can pull the original, which is at the National Archives, and that will tell me the names of the architect, the builder and the original owner."

Other useful tools, in addition to the World Wide Web, are old phone books, old Who's Who directories and the resources of the Washingtoniana Room at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Little known, he says, is the fact that all wills in the District are filed in probate court after the signer's death.

"I can get stuck for a year, but if you keep revisiting material or turn it over to another set of eyes, you eventually find some clue that will open up a whole set of records: a name or initial, a tax record or a repair bill."

Among his favorite finds was the discovery that an 1870s Capitol Hill house belonged to the first black congressman from South Carolina - only the fourth black member of Congress - who bought the house after the Civil War.

"I found his picture, and once I found that, I tied into South Carolina's history online at the Charleston Historical Society. The present owner of the house now wants me to find out more about early landowners of Capitol Hill."
Record retention was so meticulous in olden times, Mr. Williams finds, "that today, ironically, it's easier to find out about people 100 years ago than those from 25 years past. There is a period in District history when permits were not kept well, if they ever were issued. Massive renovations went on in the 1970s and '80s without a mark."

He hasn't found any murders, but he often has uncovered some unusual, even eccentric, habits of past owners. "A guy found 50 pairs of crutches in his attic, and it bothered him for years," he says. It turned up in a search that a doctor had owned the house.