My husband and I moved into an old Corbin Park house last month, and the sounds that surround me at night now are hard to get used to. While theyre new to me, those creaks, pings, and squeaks are part of the natural aging of a house built 95 years ago.
Buying an old home is like adopting a dog at the pound. At first, you dont know its quirks, its experiences. You dont know what it has seen. When we adopted our mutt, Cronkite, we wanted to know everything about her pastwhat she looked like as a puppy, who her first owners were, and how they could have abandoned such an irresistible little beast.
The same sense of curiosity has engulfed us again, this time about the history of our house. Did the women whove lived there like the layout of the kitchen? Did the children play in the big closets? Did the families before us have dogs that thought the bay window was their personal lookout point, as Cronkite does?
Enter Nancy Compau, librarian, historian, and reliable expert in Spokanes past. Compau works in the Northwest Room at Spokane Public Librarys downtown branch and for years has helped patrons research the history of their homes, among other things. She also is writing a book about the history of Spokane homes, which will include photographs taken by Gary Zagelow, a librarian at Mullan Road Elementary School.
I love helping people do this because they get so excited about it, Compau says. It brings up a lot of things that help them get a feeling for the house.
Every week, two or three patrons come to the Northwest Room with questions about house history, she says. Usually, theyre interested in preservation and want to learn how to restore their house back to its original appearance. They also are curious about former occupants and whether politicians, rich business owners, or other well-known figures lived there before them, she says. More often than youd think, the homeowners believe they have ghosts and want to know if someone died or was killed in their houses, Compau says.
Its a form of environmentalism, she says, explaining that researching house history connects people to the architecture of the city and makes them less interested in the newer homes that sprawl out toward Spokanes edges and into the county.
Compau recalls one family that bought a 1907 craftsman-style house near Liberty Park. The home had been neglected for years, but the new owners wanted to restore it to its original state. While researching the house at the library, they came across the original owners name: Henry Hart.
Have you heard of him? Compau recalls them asking her.
Have I heard of him? she replied emphatically. Of course I have!
Hart was the principal at Lewis and Clark High School who saw that school through its reconstruction after a fire destroyed the building in 1910.
The family was just tickled to death to learn that someone of significance had lived in their house, Compau says.
Other amateur house historians have learned that well-known military colonels, newspaper editors, and developers lived in their houses, she says. Sometimes, homeowners simply learn more about a structure, such as finding a fireplace thatd been covered with a wall.
One Brownes Addition family felt sure that their house once had a tower. They looked tirelessly through books, stacks of photographs, and old promotional materials, Compau says. Finally, they found an aerial photograph of Brownes Addition that held the answer.
I swear, their house in that picture was no bigger than Compau says, pinching her finger and thumb together to form the size of a pea. They blew up that photo and there it was, a tower, so they had one built. Now thats preservation!
Compau suggests the following steps for researching a homes history:
View your homes building-permit history. If your home is in the city of Spokane, visit the permit department on the third floor of City Hall. If your home is in an unincorporated area, go to Spokane Countys Public Works Building, at 811 N. Jefferson. Ask to see the microfiche on your address. The file should show water and sewer connections and permits for remodeling. Write down the names and dates on those permits.
Trace your homes ownership lineage by ordering whats called a chain-of-title report from a title insurance company. The title history provides the names of former homeowners and any transactions pertaining to your property. To do this, though, you will need the legal description of your home, which can be found in the upper left-hand corner of your property tax records. Cant find your tax records? The assessors office at the Spokane County Courthouse, 1116 W. Broadway, can provide you a copy.
Once you have the names of previous owners of your home, you can look them up in the R.L. Polk Spokane directories, which date back to 1883. The directories, located in the Northwest Room, will tell you the occupations of those who owned your home
Read old obituaries. If you can determine about when the former homeowners died, find their names in the Washington state Death Index, also available at the library, which can lead you to obituaries. Obituaries contain a wealth of informationhobbies, service to country, relationships, and more.
Using the librarys Sanborn Insurance Maps, made for fire-insurance purposes, locate your house on a map. This will help you confirm the original location of your house, when it was built, and its footprint. Compau says many house researchers learn during this stage that there once was a porch or other feature their home thats no longer there.
To learn more about the children and other people who lived in the house, head to the genealogy department on the librarys third floor. The U.S. Census records there should include the names, ages, occupations, birthplaces, and other information about the homes occupants.
Ruth Ryan, who works in that department, helped my husband and I find the occupations and ages of many of our homes past occupants by searching through Census records a few months ago. Ryan ended up finding more information on her own, but since we hadnt moved into the house yet, a letter she mailed to us about it was returned to her. The tenacious librarian delivered it in person (on her third try she found us at home), and gave us more insight as she toured our house.
I dont think the library wants to advertise that it makes house calls, but this example shows the excitement the staff there has for house-history work.
Once youve established a connection with your home, you might want to reproduce old photographs of it. The Northwest Room and the Joel E. Ferris Library at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, 2316 W. First, have hundreds of photos of old houses, and, for a price, patrons can order reprints of them. On Sundays, the newspapers often published pictures of new houses, so you could check the newspaper archives, which the library has on microfilm. Although the microfilm isnt linked to a searchable database, the dates of the water and electric connectionsfound on the city or county microfichewill provide you clues as to when a house might have been finished, and thus, when a picture might have been published.
So far, my husband and I have uncovered the basics of our homes historythe names, ages, and occupations of all the people who have lived there. We know that the first homeowner, Thomas Taylor, was a carpenter and likely built the house himself.
Mabel and George Farnsworth owned the house next, and she worked as principal at the old Bancroft School.
Then came the Slees, the Quimbys, and the Wymans, who lived there from the late 1960s to the late 1980s.
We think theres a second staircase hidden behind a wall that once led to the kitchen, an old laundry chute might be covered with a board, and I still havent mustered up the courage to open the three plastic trash bags we found in a crawl space.
I doubt well uncover any unsolved mysteries, though, and I dont really want to be proved wrong on that. Who knows, though? Our domicile detective work has only just begun.
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