House history in the most unlikely places

Okay the disclaimers:
Disclaimer #1- There are people out there who do house history for a living, I’m not one of them. If you’re doing research on your house, I’m not the best resource, so please don’t expect much if you ask a question.

Disclaimer #2- There are some reflections I make regarding archival theory that I just have zero interest in explaining to the layperson. In the end this is a personal blog, so if you find some things disturbing, express it elsewhere.

/end disclaimers

Doing random search for my house and my neighbors’ houses, just to get a sense of the neighborhood, see if anyone else is blogging or what have you, I came across something quite interesting. It seems that a notable person, not exactly in your middle school history book notable, but notable enough to have a place accept her papers, owned my house. Quickly, I need to state that Dr. Euphemia Lofton Haynes, the 1st Black woman to receive a Phd in Mathematics never ever lived in my house. Never. Ever. She might have looked at it from time to time. My house, as well as several other Shaw, Bloomingdale, and general DC houses were in her investment portfolio, which are included in her personal papers, which wound up at Catholic University, which decided at some point to put up the finding aid on the web, which made it possible for me to stumble upon.
Now as someone who has processed personal papers for a university, I wondered if this would be the kind of stuff I’d keep. Because the items that I was looking at fall outside of the topic that makes Dr. Lofton-Haynes’s papers valuable to the institution holding them, makes the accessioning archivist in me wonder. However, areas of income, income production and other aspects that allow the subject to engage in activities because of the freedom that extra money can bring, thus making these off topic files valuable. Yet, this would be the last place I’d even think of looking to find out about my house and neighborhood.
Just glancing over her real estate holdings, and almost all the files about particular houses have sales contracts showing the price she bought and later sold the property for, she did pretty well. Some files have correspondence and bills/invoices about repairs and improvement, which may not reflect all the money she poured into a place, but if those were the big major repairs, she made a decent buck on the sale. She bought a cluster of four houses Truxton Circle for $22,000 in 1945, and sold three of them individually for $8,000 in 1949; $9,500 and $12,000 in 1950. The sales contract also mention how much the houses are to be or were renting for, and the 1940s rents hovered between $40 and $45 dollars a month.
Besides sales contracts, there are title insurance papers, bills, loan receipts, correspondence about repairs, and very mundane things. Of course one property did have a notice from the DC Board of Condemnation of Insanitary Buildings informing Dr. Haynes-Lofton that her property had saggy floors, defective plumbing and electrical, broken door parts and ill fitting windows. Was the good Professor a slum lord? Don’t know, some of the houses she sold the buyers had intended to live in them, so she couldn’t have been that bad. She did upgrade some of the houses, installing gas in the kitchens, replacing roofs, and making repairs.
What I found most interesting was a non-Shaw property that involved her in a legal case with the federal government. One file labeled “Rental property, 1523 M st., lawsuit, speak easy, legal document, 1931” has letters and legal docs about a place she leased/rented that the Feds busted as a speak easy. She, through her lawyer, stated that she knew nothing about the activities of what was going on there. Considering the number of holdings she had all over the city and her professional activities in DC education, it is completely possible she did not know that she had a gin joint in her investment portfolio.

2 thoughts on “House history in the most unlikely places”

  1. That is fascinating. A partial connection to someone very notable — is it easier to trace the owner than her tenants?

    I will admit that I was very exhilerated when I found my little 1920’s student report card hiding in my house, and sprang for the whole “house history” package from the group in Baltimore. I think it should be arriving some time this month, and I’ll let you know how useful it is.

  2. is it easier to trace the owner than her tenants?

    Yes, maybe. Ownership is traced by the agency dealing with deeds and land records. These are considered permanent records by most government agencies, as heirs of former title holders can make a nuisance of themselves challenging the current title. Renters, their information is captured by city directories, phone listings and the odd census every 10 years. Since they hold no claim to the property the city government has no need to track them.
    Tracking occupants is my interest in looking at my house and neighborhood history. Who owned the property, is secondary. The one good thing about tracking down one of the landowners, who kept some record of the place, was I got to see it from her POV as an investment and income producing property. She kept receipts for major repairs so I know that in 1930something that thing was installed.

Comments are closed.