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When walls in old house do talk
Jenne Scigo's curiosity about the original owner of her home began before she even took possession of the 100-year-old Victorian. While looking at the house with a real-estate agent, she noticed small carvings of lions and bears around the windows in its two parlors.
"What made them choose wild animals?" she wondered.
After Scigo and her husband, Rob Erickson, bought the house in Fremont, Neb., she used records from the deed office at the courthouse, building permits, newspaper archives and files from the historical society to research the house and its former occupants.
"I was kind of hoping my house had an interesting history to it," says Scigo, a 28-year-old software designer who always dreamed of restoring an old home. Learning about the previous owners makes her feel connected to the property.
Owners of older houses often develop a sentimental curiosity: It's common to wonder about who slept in the bedrooms, cooked in the kitchen or entertained in the living room.
Research has become easier as more records are posted online, and amateur historians trade information and strategies via the Internet.
Creating a list of former owners is a natural first step. Some of that information can be obtained from local deed offices, says Georgen Charnes, curator of library and archives at the Nantucket (Mass.) Historical Association. Deeds are a good starting point because you begin with the current owner and work backward.
Detailed maps created for the insurance industry also may contain rewards for house sleuths. The most popular, called Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, give block-by-block renderings of many cities. Created between 1867 and 1961, they were periodically updated. Some include information about construction materials and a building's primary use.
Consult as many sources as possible, advises Jana Armstead, manager of the Research and Building Permit Collection at Ramsey County Historical Society in St. Paul. Much depends on who wrote out the permits or forms. She loves finding paperwork from conscientious clerks who filled in all the blanks and added handwritten notes.
"We're completely at the mercy of the people that filed these documents," she says.
Robert Goodspeed, a graduate student who used to work for a research company, found the original, 1885 building permit for the brick row house he rents in Washington. He says he spent 15 to 20 hours researching the building.
Goodspeed undertook the project to feel connected to his new hometown.
"I'm a newcomer to Washington, D.C.," he says. "Many of the previous residents are similar to me -- younger people coming to the city looking for opportunities."
Census records, taken every 10 years beginning in 1790, may provide names, occupations, birthplaces and ages of a home's occupants.
City directories, the forerunner to today's phonebooks, often listed names, addresses, occupations, spouses and children, and whether occupants owned or rented.
Amy Handford found old upholstery tools in the restoration of her 1877 Gothic Stick and Italianate home in St. Paul. The city directory confirmed that the original owners, Michael and Rose Walter, ran a nearby upholstery shop, she says.
Handford believes the Walters were German immigrants because a German newspaper from 1877 was found attached to a stud in the kitchen. The neighborhood was predominantly German in the late 1800s.
"We were finding things all the time," she says. "We found a petrified banana peel with an electrician's card from the '20s in the ceiling. I was just fascinated."