As genealogists, we possess an appreciation for the past that not everyone quite shares or understands. Old documents thrill us and stories of people long gone can keep us up at night. Most of us want to know not just that names of the individuals who preceded us, but what life was like for them. We find ourselves noticing and appreciating the things around us that are in any way historic, vintage or just plain old.
It is little wonder then that many genealogists find themselves using their research skills to learn more about historic buildings in their communities. In fact, some professional genealogists offer house history research alongside genealogy research as a business service.
Not long ago, our family moved to Salt Lake City. You can imagine how thrilled I was when, for the first time in my life, I was able to live in a historic home. Of course, the term “historic” is somewhat relative. By some standards, my house is not old at all. But for me, a 1944 bungalow is something special. I couldn’t help but think when I initially toured the house, that the first family who lived here likely celebrated VE Day and VJ Day within these walls. I thought it fitting to hang my framed copy of this famous photo on one of my walls.
I know little about the building trade other than what I’ve seen on This Old House, but even I can tell you — they don’t make houses the way they used to. This house, with its red brick exterior and plaster walls is solid. It seems like it was built to withstand the test of time.
Sure, by 21st century, first-world American standards, the house may not seem like much: It is far from energy efficient, with a minuscule kitchen, a master bedroom that won’t comfortably fit a queen bed and two nightstands, marred original wood floors, tiny closets and a host of other inconveniences. Nevertheless, I feel that the home more than makes up for any these things with that unmistakable quality people often refer to as charm. If nothing else, it reminds me that the average middle class American family got by with a lot less just a few generations ago.
I am not a house historian, but I would like to be one day. As I have had time, I have dabbled in the genre by trying to find out more about this house.
First, I searched for my home’s tax assessment cards by contacting the Salt Lake County Archives. The tax assessment cards describe the house in detail, give its value at various times, provide the names of the some of the owners and describe improvements on the house. Best, of all, the same archives which held the tax assessment cards also held this priceless 1944 photo of the home.
Second, combined with the names on the tax assessment cards along with research in city directories, I also learned the names and occupations of many of the home’s previous owners.
My next stop will be to visit the Recorder’s office to hopefully gain a fuller picture of the home’s owners over the years. Perhaps I will decide to follow some of these families to the present day to see if that might lead me to more information or photos.
As with any subject I want to learn more about, I have my eye on some books on the topic as well: Sally Light’s, House Histories: A Guide to Tracing the Genealogy of Your Home and Betsy J. Greene’s Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood. <sigh> I hope I will get to them before too long.
This Christmas will be bittersweet for us as we will be celebrating the Holidays for the last time in this home. I know it may seem strange, . . we’ve only been here a short time and as renters, the place doesn’t even belong to us. That’s the way it is when you move with the military. You leave little pieces of your heart around the world. This year I can’t help but think of all the Christmas trees that have likely been displayed in the bay window over the years. I’m glad ours will be among them.
Does House History interest you? The places and process to find information about the history of your home or a home in your community will likely differ from city to city. However, if this topic at all interests you, it is worth looking into. Here are some links I used to get me started. I hope they will help you as well: