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Cover story: Old houses tell their stories in unexpected ways
“All the ghosting remained from the window hoods,” said Mr. Wentworth, whose design-and-build firm, Wentworth Studio, has been involved in major renovation projects throughout the Washington area. “The ghost of the trim was all there; we took measurements and were able to replicate all of the millwork.”
To do so, Mr. Wentworth made use of “Victorian Architectural Details,” published by Dover, a reprint of old catalogs that once were the mainstay of the Victorian-era contractor.
And there are plenty of ghosts inside as well.
“You see a lot of chestnut trim on Capitol Hill,” Mr. Wentworth said. “Of course, that means the house was built before the chestnut blight.”
It is fairly common to find names or initials — a record from those who put up that wall or laid down those boards.
“Older people tended to mark things,” said Ms. Holt, who has encountered the initials of carpenter Asa Donaldson in many an Arlington home. One Arlington home even bears the paw prints of a long-ago kitty that stepped in paint and then tracked it along the floor.
“Things like that give you a feel for what was going on,” Ms. Holt said.
During a bathroom renovation of an old house, Mr. Wentworth removed a medicine cabinet and found a letter from one of the home’s former occupants to her daughter in Rehoboth.
Even the windows of old homes can bear witness to the past. Back in the Victorian era, many a pair of lovers would scratch their initials in the corner of a window with the lady’s engagement ring, leaving those of us who follow to wonder how they fared in the years to come.
Peeling back layers of wallpaper also can reveal a story, from patterns that once were popular to messages written on the back of the paper.
Paint, too, can tell a tale. A technique called cratering, which involves slicing away a patch of paint and then lightly sanding around it, reveals the earliest coats, which can contain a clue to the history of the room. Curators at the William Paca House in Annapolis once discovered a room that had been painted black, a testament to the grief a family felt at the death of a child.
Hidden places, such as behind the molding, or in attic and basement crawl spaces, are natural resting places for pieces of the past. Many a child’s toy has been found behind a built-in bookcase, or a now-valuable penny found pinned for decades underneath a strip of molding. Marbles frequently rolled away, out of sight and out of mind until being retrieved years later. Newspapers stuffed in walls as insulation or left behind as mementos by carpenters and other workers offer glimpses of a time gone by.
Among the most poignant traces: Those markings, often on the kitchen door frame, with the dates and heights of children long grown.
With all these clues, it’s just a quick trip to your local library or county courthouse to find out even more. City directories, census records, tax rolls and other records can reveal even more about the family who once owned your home. Sanborn maps, useful for homes built after 1866, give descriptions of size, layouts and outbuildings for homes in the District. (Sanborn, a fire insurance company, is still in business.)
Tax records, available at your courthouse or town hall, indicate the value of the property and its previous owners. Sudden increases in value can indicate new construction; these can be useful in narrowing a date.
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