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Researching Building History

Selected resources available at the Kiplinger Research Library and elsewhere to research DC properties.

Building Permits


HistoryQuest ( is the online component of the building permits database for extant buildings only. This GIS map provides historical data on approximately 127,000 buildings in Washington, DC. The map offers several operational layers of information for the user including historic data on individual buildings, links to documentation on properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places, information on historic residential subdivisions, and the identification and boundaries of the L’Enfant Plan, and the city’s Squares, and Wards. The featured layer in the map—the Historical Data on DC Buildings—provides information from a variety of sources on original dates of construction, architects, owners and builders of the city’s historic buildings.  

Building Permits Access Database

If the property you wish to research was constructed between 1877 and 1949, it should have a recorded building permit (initial permit to build).  Architect, builder, year the permit was filed, amount paid, ownership, etc. can all be gleaned from the DC Historical Building Permits Database.  You’ll need to provide the address to a librarian on duty to receive a printout of this data. This database includes buildings that have been razed.

Repair, Renovation, Raze, Modification, etc. Permits

Available via microfilm at Washingtoniana Division in the People's Archive of the DC Public Library ( and National Archives (Series - District of Columbia Building Permits, 1877–1949, identifier: M1116.

Building Permits after 1949

Available through DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA)
DCRA holds the index and database necessary to request the material from the DC Archives for building permits from 1949 – 1995. To access these, contact DCRA with street address and / or square and lot. DCRA will search the index, then contact DC Archives on the patron’s behalf. DC Archives staff will contact the patron with the results of the search (i.e. to indicate that the material was or was not located and how to schedule an appointment to review it if it was).

Maps & Real Estate Atlases

Real Estate Atlases are structure-level maps which identify street address, square and lot numbers, and subdivision name (if applicable). Depending on the location of the property, any or all of these elements may have varied over time.

Reviewing real estate atlases chronologically can help determine the approximate date of building construction and trace neighborhood development.

Holdings at the DC History Center include Boschke maps (1857, 1861), Faehtz and Pratt atlas (1873-1874), Hopkins atlas (1878), Hopkins Real Estate atlas (1887-1896), Baist Real Estate Atlases (1903-1968), and Sanborn Insurance maps.


The DC Public Library has digitized plat maps/real estate atlases from 1874 to 1896; see the Maps: Real Estate Plat Books collection at Dig DC.  In addition, the Maps: City & Regional collection on Dig DC may show early maps of your neighborhood.


The Library of Congress online map collection also includes early Baist and Sanborn atlases. These are available for high resolution downloads:

Baist Atlases

1903 (Vol 1, Vol 2, Vol 3)

1907 (Vol 3, Vol 4)

1909 (Vol 1, Vol 2)

1911 (Vol 3)

1913 (Vol 1, Vol 4)

1915 (Vol 2)

1915 (Vol 3)

1919 (Vol 1, Vol 3)

1921 (Vol 2, Vol 4)

Sanborn Atlases

1888 (Washington City & Georgetown)

1903 (Vol 1)

1904 (Vol 2)

1916 (Vol 3)

Using Real Estate Atlases

Real estate atlases are collections of maps that trace the evolution of the built environment over time. Published by a few companies, the most common DC atlases were published by and known as Baist's. These atlases were published in four volumes and a volume was released every few years. Be careful: The four volumes do not track with the four quadrants of the District.

Step 1: The first step when using real estate atlases to explore the evolution of a particular neighborhood is to figure out which volume documents it. Luckily there's a four-volume diagram to help determine which volume you need!

In the diagram here, the pink area indicates Volume 1, which includes neighborhoods west and north of the Capitol, south of Boundary Street (now Florida Avenue), and east of Georgetown.

The yellow area indicates Volume 2, which includes NE DC south of Florida Avenue, SW DC west of the Anacostia,  and SE DC west of the Anacostia River. 

The light green area indicates Volume 3, which includes the area of NW DC that is north and west of Florida Avenue.

The beige area indicates Volume 4, which comprises NE north of Florida Avenue,  and the areas of SE and SW that are east and/or south of the Anacostia River. 

Step 2: Locate the earliest edition for the volume that includes the neighborhood you want to learn more about.

Open to the Index Map page. As seen in the diagram here, the Index Map will be divided into areas.

The red number on each area indicates the page you need to turn to to see building-level detail of that area. 

Step 3: Go to the page that documents the neighborhood you're researching. Using the key on these pages (like in the top left of the picture here), you can see that pink indicated the buildings made of brick, while yellow indicated they were made of frame, or wood.

You can see the names of developers and landowners, the square and lot numbers, whether a building had a shed behind it, and how the names of streets changed over time. If a street name is (in parentheses), that means it's the old street name; as the years passed, new editions of the atlases who phase out the old street names entirely.

Take note of the neighborhood features, the names you see, how developed, or undeveloped, the squares and lots are. 

Step 4: Having taken note of the neighborhood features, then you can go to the next edition of the same volume, repeat steps 2 and 3, and see how the neighborhood changed over time!


City Directories (1822-1973)
The DC History Center holds Boyd’s City Directories for 1822, 1827, 1834, 1843, 1846, 1850, 1853, 1855, 1858, 1860-1943, 1948, 1954, 1956, 1960, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1969, 1970, and 1973. Directories list residents alphabetically, and include occupation, place of employment, home address, race (up to 1870), and names of spouses (1928 onwards).

From 1914-1973, directories include a separate street address index. Patrons may search for their homes by address to discover its historic occupant. Volumes also contained a business directory, organized by business category.

Data was collected via door-to-door canvas in December of the previous year. If your home was built and occupied within a calendar year, the residents may not appear in the directory at that address until the following year.    

Property Tax Assessment Directories

The DC History Center holds select 20th century tax assessment directories, primarily 1917-1940 and 1981-1999 available by appointment. An inventory can be provided in advance.

Directories Available at the People's Archive at the DC Public Library

These directories are available from 1874 – 2009 on microfilm. Information provided here will include property owner, assessed value of lot and “improvement” (the value of the house), and square footage. Property’s square and lot number will be needed to search.

Digitized City Directories - ONLINE RESOURCE

Online database HeritageQuest (; available with DCPL card) has some city directories. However, this database is setup for searching for individual people rather than browsing the entire digitized directory.

Select directories between 1860-1909 have been digitized and are available online; an index is available at:

Photograph Collections

The DC History Center's photography collections include thousands of street scenes and architectural images. The online catalog includes several different types of catalog records. There are collections where each and every image is cataloged, and has a thumbnail image attached. There are collections where each image is cataloged, but there are NO thumbnail images attached (such as a search for “St. John’s Lutheran Church” indicates, where the DC History Center icon is visible in place of a thumbnail image). There are collections where more than 1,000 images are described with a single catalog record, and an attached PDF offers an an address-by-address listing. Sometimes individual addresses are listed in the catalog record; sometimes you need to see an image itself to see if your building of interest included.

Photographs are the only type of resource in the catalog where you can consistently use the advanced search fields for square and block number, so if a search for “918 G Street NW” yields nothing - don’t give up, try searching 900 and G and NW. In addition, searching using nearby landmarks can often reveal an image that includes your building of interest, even if it’s not called out in the catalog record.

The below collections are examples of those that focus on street scenes and architectural images; several are city-wide surveys and the others focus on specific neighborhoods.

Census Materials

Research Families in the Census - ONLINE RESOURCE
Searching for the individuals associated with a property (e.g. owners and occupants) in the Census can yield a great deal of detail about the family such as other family members, race, place of birth and occupation. Start with the Heritage Quest database (; available with DCPL card), through which the following census years may be searched by name: 1790-1820; 1860-1880; 1900-1940. All census years between 1790 and 1940 may be browsed (except the 1890 census that burned). There is no way to search a specific address in the census but searching by general location is possible for the following years: 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, using enumeration district maps.


Conduct Newspaper Research - ONLINE RESOURCE
Additional information about a property and the people associated with it can be found by doing newspaper research. A great place to start is the DC Public Library's collection of full-text local newspapers (, including The Washington Post (1877 to present) and The Evening Star (1852-1981). TIP: Search names and addresses in quotation marks to narrow results. You will need a library card number to access these databases.

The Library of Congress has many other digitized local newspapers searchable online through their Chronicling America - Historic American Newspapers project:

Deeds and Land Records

Recorder of Deeds Online (1921 – Present) - ONLINE RESOURCE

For public deed and land record information (liens, bonds, easements, etc.) from 1921 – present, there is an online portal available here:

For public deed and land record information that falls outside of this time period, visit the Department of Tax and Revenue’s Office of Recorder of Deeds (202- 727-5374).

Mapping Segregation in Washington, D.C. - ONLINE RESOURCE

Mapping Segregation is a resource for historians, activists, educators, students, and journalists, and provides essential context for conversations around race and gentrification in DC. The project's maps unveil historical patterns that would otherwise remain invisible and largely unknown. The ongoing, lot-by-lot documentation of racial covenants is set in the context of DC's demographic transformation over the course of several decades. Primary documents, archival news clippings, photographs, and oral testimony also contribute to the stories these maps tell. (Note that the absence of a covenant on the maps does not necessarily mean there wasn’t one. If some lots in a square had covenants, chances are that most or all lots had them but the deeds containing them have yet to be found. In addition, a square that shows no covenants at all may be one of the many that remain to be surveyed.)

Published House History Research

Wouldn't it be great to be able to piggyback on the research done by others interested in your neighborhood, or even better, the specific address you're looking to know more about? The DC History Center's collections include manuscript collections incorporating property research, as well as published and otherwise compiled house histories. Check the links below for some examples.

Neighborhood Research

To conduct neighborhood histories, there are many, many different types of materials and sources
to consider. Each neighborhood will be unique in the information available; however, there are some
sources that provide basic overviews, including those listed below.