The first house history that James Johnstone researched didn’t uncover a grandiose story of former celebrity residents or the scene of a gruesome murder. The home was one of four houses built by a Vancouver, B.C., builder between 1908 and 1910 and was home to a Vancouver police detective, whose picture still hangs in the city’s police museum.
Johnstone, a Vancouver resident, has taken his curiosity of house histories and turned it into a business, Home History Research Services. Home histories are a new twist on genealogy research and are catching on around the country with homeowners and real estate agents alike. Researchers such as Johnstone trace a house’s past by learning about such things as its original architect, past owners and any notable events that took place there.
Known as home history researchers, house genealogists or even home detectives, the sleuths dig through public records, newspaper clippings and old photographs for clues. They piece together a house’s history, sometimes writing a chronological narrative of the property and its former residents.
Such information often can give homeowners a real sense of connection to their house’s past and can offer real estate agents other features to market. In Pasadena, Calif., most of Tim Gregory’s clients are agents interested in finding out more about houses they’re selling. A noted architect or an interesting history can potentially add to a house’s asking price, said Gregory, who calls himself the “building biographer.”
Johnstone has put together some home histories for real estate agents to give to clients as unique housewarming gifts. People sometimes buy the histories as gifts for friends and family, and some homeowners will seek out histories on their own because they’ve heard stories about their house or a particular feature has made them curious.
One homeowner sought out Paul Williams, owner of Washington, D.C.-based Kelsey & Associates, after finding about 50 pairs of crutches in the house’s attic. Williams learned that a doctor had lived in the house around 1900, though he never practiced in the house. But, Williams determined, the doctor had likely ordered a bunch of crutches and had to store them somewhere when he closed his office.
In many cases, what homeowners learn from their home’s history isn’t at all what they thought they’d learn. Williams researched a house in Georgetown that people thought was built in 1855 because of a plaque that was on the side of the house. But Williams uncovered evidence that the house actually had been built in the 1930s from salvaged materials from an old house across the street.
“I’m sure that the homeowner probably burned the history,” Williams said. “In Georgetown, the older the better.”
Another house Williams researched turned out to be much older than originally thought. The owners believed it had been built in the 1930s, but a newspaper article Williams uncovered showed the house had been modified that year. It was actually an 1850s farmhouse.
Gregory once researched a house that had a basement with what appeared to be bunch of phone lines going into it. He determined that the basement was once home to a bookie operation, and other fully finished basements he’s come across served as speakeasies during Prohibition.
In one home history search, Johnstone found that a double murder had taken place in the house’s master bedroom where the homeowner and his wife slept each night. The homeowner who’d contacted Johnstone to perform the history ended up not telling his wife about the research because he feared the news would bother her.
“He just doesn’t want his wife to be freaked out by the house they’re living in and the bedroom they’re sleeping in,” Johnstone said.
Home historians say they don’t come across such gory events too often, but they do turn up deaths inside homes. Grace DuMelle of Chicago-based Heartland Historical Research Service said she often learns about people who died of natural causes at home since it wasn’t as common to go to a hospital. In fact, funeral services were often held inside homes.
“That’s where things were done,” DuMelle said. “To me, it’s not being morbid, it’s just that was the custom back then.”
One home she researched had actually been a funeral home that was rumored to have handled more than 100 bodies from the 1915 disaster that killed 800 people when the Eastland ship capsized. DuMelle combed death certificates and eventually found out that the funeral home handled only three bodies from the disaster. The historical details didn’t bother the homeowners, DuMelle said.
The homeowners are “really invested in their homes, they love old things, they love history and they want to find out for sure, they want to know the exact story,” DuMelle said.
For some, that means wanting to know whether anyone wealthy or famous designed or lived in the house.
In Southern California, Gregory finds that his clients frequently want to know if any celebrities have lived in the house.
“I can’t tell you the number of houses Cary Grant supposedly lived in,” Gregory said.
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In his research, Gregory has uncovered homes to such celebrities as Buster Keaton and Ella Fitzgerald.
The scope, cost and final product of a home history varies among researchers. Gregory charges about $400 for basic historical information about a house and about $650 for a fact sheet and a more detailed narrative. Basic fact sheets can take a week to 10 days while a narrative can take up to a month.
Johnston puts together booklets for his clients that include a history of their house, nearby houses and the entire neighborhood. He charges anywhere from $500 to more than $2,000 (Canadian) depending on how old the house is and how much detail is requested.
DuMelle’s research can take up to nine months and usually results in a 50- to 60-page history, complete with photographs and documents. She charges $75 an hour for the work.
Williams creates a coffee table book that has anywhere from 20 to 75 pages and often includes pictures of the house. His fees range from $835 to about $1,500.
The detectives’ backgrounds are just as diverse as their fees and products. Gregory previously worked as a librarian. Johnstone worked in the tourism industry. DuMelle was an advertising copywriter and Williams went to school for historic preservation. Like other house historians, many of them entered the field after researching their own homes.
Above all, they have a passion for bringing to life the stories of different homes. As Gregory puts it, “Even modest homes have a story to tell.”
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