Conventionally, “historic houses” are seen as those considered worth preserving because of a notable inhabitant, a key event that took place there, or an architectural style emblematic of a given period. But many owners of more average but long-standing dwellings are naturally curious as to their home’s provenance. And there are many homes in Arlington that are eligible for a preservation tax credit (see details below), if not for an historical marker or house plaque, which can benefit both the owner and the surrounding community by enriching local appreciation for our heritage. (Click here to see the list of Arlington’s existing local historic districts and National Register properties.)
Knowing your property’s history may prompt you to protect it from radical re-development by filing a deed restriction or applying for eligibility for designation as a local historic district. The latter adds further protection via a zoning overlay with oversight by the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board on exterior alterations, new construction, and demolition. Importantly for social awareness, you may also learn of a deed covenant from the 1920s or 1950s that, sadly to us moderns, prevented sale to Blacks or Jewish buyers.
For most of us, however, learning our home’s story can be just plain fun. Knowing the basics would include learning:
- When it was built
- For whom was it built
- If construction was done in stages with later additions
- What previously was on the site
- What is the architectural style (even if it was one commonly used by builders elsewhere);
- What was the name of the architect, builder, or contractor
- Who were the owners over time
- If Civil War soldiers might have encamped there.
What follows are some tips and research sources you can visit and use for gathering your own home’s story, for publication or for circulation to your friends, neighbors, and future buyers. (You may not need them all, depending on your property.)
They were compiled by the Arlington Historical Society from our county’s Historic Preservation Program, its counterparts in Alexandria and Fairfax, the Arlington Public Library’s Center for Local History, the nonprofit Preservation Arlington, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Much of your exploration can be done remotely online, but some may require in-person visits. Happy hunting!
Begin Online with County Records
Begin online by visiting the county’s website devoted to current (and many past) real estate assessments used to calculate property taxes. Arlington Property Search (arlingtonva.us)
- Read and agree to terms for users by clicking the box.
- Continue to the template to search for your own address. When you arrive at the recent annual assessments for your own property, you get tax status going back about 10 years.
- Click on “View” and then lower-left on “Archives Property Card,” which brings you to a digitized version of the historic land records associated with your house. It will show you the previous owners, transaction dates, and prices paid. Not all go back as far as you might like, and, except in the cases of prominent old homes, there is primarily information going back to the mid-20th century.
To find real estate information that is not digitized, you can arrange to visit the real estate assessment staff in person at Courthouse Plaza (2100 Clarendon Boulevard, Room 611. (For contact information go to the bottom of this webpage Department of Real Estate Assessments – Official Website of Arlington County Virginia Government (arlingtonva.us)).
You can find current area plat maps for all subdivisions, some from as far back as the 18th century. Similarly, the Land Record Plat maps are available through the Environmental Services Department (Suite 900) and are accessed by the current legal descriptions found on the property tax assessment record. Many maps are now digital and/or available through GIS, which allows for interesting filtering and overlays. To look at building footprints and old addresses and street names, try the Franklin Survey Company Real Estate Atlases of Arlington County, 1930-1942, 1942-1948, and 1952-1965.
Arlington Central Library, Center for Local History
Based at the Arlington Central Library, the Center for Local History, a public resource, can help you with historic maps, telephone and business directories, old newspapers (online and on microfilm), oral histories, photographs (including aerial shots of Arlington), historic building permits (on microfilm and microfiche), and books and ephemera on local history.
Old newspapers are especially good for searching the dedication of subdivisions, either in articles or accompanying real estate advertisements. The research staff has digital access to past local newspapers, such stalwarts as the Northern Virginia Sun, newly available at Virginia Chronicle: Digital Newspaper Archive, along with the two-century-old Alexandria Gazette. Digital searching allows you to hunt for specific words. The Washington Post website gives paid subscribers access to all past issues on its website (under “Print Archives”), and the old Evening Star is available on the D.C. Public Library website. You can also search these and other top newspapers at the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America.
Ancestral research can be done for free at FamilySearch • Free Family Trees and Genealogy Archives, though researchers venturing further afield can pay for access to searchable nationwide newspapers at Ancestry.com (available through the Center for Local History) and Geneaologybank.com.
Old-time telephone directories and neighborhood directories usually include additional personal information such as the head of household’s occupation and spouse’s name. Some combine residential listings with business listings, along with street directories that record building occupants by street name and address. (This was most common in dense urban areas.) Don’t forget that Arlington’s original street names and street numbers changed in 1935—the Center for Local History has a conversion table. More vintage city directories, by such companies as Nelson’s, Hill’s and Polk’s and Haines, are available downtown at the D.C. Public Library’s Washingtoniana Collection in the system’s “People’s Archives.”
You can also find older US Census data at the D.C. library, and online (individual names of census respondents are not released for 72 years). More recent Arlington-focused census records are helpful in learning demographics of Arlington neighborhoods. Using your county library card, census information is also searchable online. Visit: https://library.arlingtonva.libguides.com/aboutheritagequest
In addition, for current demographic statistics, check out the county’s new Race and Ethnicity Dashboard: https://www.arlingtonva.us/Government/Projects/Data-Research/Demographics/Race-Ethnicity-Dashboard/Arlingtons-Race-and-Ethnicity-Dashboard.
The Center for Local History also has a map collection that includes:
- Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Maps of Arlington County, 1907-1959; maps of Arlington County compiled in the Engineer’s Office, August 1925
- Map of Alexandria County, Virginia (to which Arlington was attached until 1920), for the Virginia Title Company, 1900, prepared by Howell & Taylor
- Map of Alexandria County from G.M. Hopkins’ Atlas of Fifteen Miles around Washington, D.C., 1878
- Early-20th century topographic maps with building locations indicated.
Finally, the Center for Local History maintains a collection of oral histories of Arlington notables along with their vertical files and a photograph collection. Check to see if one is relevant to your neighborhood.
You can search for many Arlingtonians as well as some development history in the online back issues of the Arlington Historical Magazine published since 1957. The Society also maintains a collection of photographs and artifacts. AHS has many photographs online on this website. To find out if AHS has more photos of your neighborhood, please email email@example.com.
Arlington Circuit Court
The Arlington Circuit Court Land Records (Deeds) Office is located in Suite 6200, 1425 N. Courthouse Road. It is open to walk-in customers Monday through Friday from 8:00 am-4:00 pm. Customers are encouraged to use e-Recording and remote access, whenever possible, for fastest access to documents and recordation services.
The Land Records document search kiosks, ScanPro/microfilm, photocopier, and printer are self-serve only. Customers who need assistance locating their documents may request copies at the Deeds or Judgments counter. There is a small fee for copies.
Land Records documents dating back through 1869 can be accessed remotely using Arlington’s ROAM system. Indexing (basic) information about each document can be viewed for free on the ROAM website Arlington ROAM (arlingtonva.us). But to view images remotely, you need a subscription to the ROAM service, which costs $50 per month. However, all land records can be viewed from the public kiosks in the Land Records Office for free, and copies can be made for $.50 per page. For older deeds, you may have to visit the City of Alexandria Land Records and its Library Special Collections.
As our colleagues at Preservation Arlington explain:
“Deeds, mortgages and wills are maintained by the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Arlington County and record the transfer of land, buildings, or personal property from one party to another and can be used to determine the line of ownership of a property.
“A bargain and sale deed contains the names of the parties involved (with the buyers called grantees and the sellers called grantors), their places of residence, the purchase price, a description of the property, and often a reference to the previous transfer of the property. Only rarely do land records mention buildings. There are exceptions, though. In some early-20th century transfers in Arlington, the seller (often a developer) would require that the buyer purchase insurance to cover the “improvements” on the property. This may mean that a house or other building was located on the property when it sold.
“Generic legal language describing what is being transferred may include language such as “all houses, outbuildings, improvements… on the property,” whether they actually exist or not. Deeds of trust, or mortgage documents, often can be found immediately following deeds of sale in the deed books or on microfilm. These documents are especially helpful in determining when and if buildings were located on a particular property. The best way to use deeds and mortgages is to start with the most recent transfer of the property and work backwards.
“The deed reference that consists of a deed book number and a page number appears on the current tax assessment data for your property. Look up the first deed and note the previous and new owners’ names, dates, places of residence, purchase price, legal property description, and any reference to a previous transfer. If the reference gives you a former deed book and page number, proceed to that record and continue until you have traced ownership of the land back to when you believe the house was built. If the deed does not give a reference to the previous record of transfer, then you will have to check the grantor and grantee indexes to deeds to find when the previous owner acquired the property.
“Sometimes property is transferred through inheritance, so if you cannot find a deed transfer, you may want to check the will indexes for the name of the previous owner. For wills, start with the will index book to look up the name of the deceased. This will lead you to will books for persons who died and had their will recorded in Arlington County.”
Old Building Permits
To research construction of your home, visit the County’s digital House Cards collection online (https://arlisys.arlingtonva.us/index.html#/collection/CPHD%20-%20House%20Cards). Arlington County has used several systems over the years to collect and retain building permit information. House cards were created from 1935-1988 whenever a building or alteration permit was issued. Properties can be searched by street name and block number. Depending on the date of the card, here also you may find information such as previous owners and occupants; the builder; house number and street; lot, section, and block; subdivision; building permit number and/or dates and permit numbers for remodelings and alterations. To search for the associated permits (and in some limited cases construction drawings and plans) referenced on the House Cards, you will need to visit the Center for Local History for assistance.
The Historic Preservation Program, located in the Neighborhood Services Division of the Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development (Bozman Government Center, 2100 Clarendon Boulevard, Suite 700), maintains Neighborhood Conservation plans, building files with photographs and survey forms from the Countywide Historic Resources Survey, and designation forms for our local historic districts and the National Register of Historic Places. Advance notice is required to view these records, so call ahead.
Library of Virginia, Richmond
If you’re really ambitious, are uncovering an historical scoop, or are simply stuck on a mystery, consider online sources or personal visits to view statewide Vital Statistics Records at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. The state did not begin keeping births, marriages, and deaths until 1853, as noted by the Fairfax County history staff. Before then, birth and death records were maintained (if at all) by churches. Marriage bonds, and in many cases records of marriages, were kept by county and city governments before 1853. Birth and death records were not kept by the state between 1897 and 1911. The Library of Virginia has microfilm copies of the state’s records of births (1853-1896), marriages (1853-1935), and deaths (1853-1896). It also has indexes to the birth and marriage records.
Your Own Interviewing
To add a personal touch, consider interviewing neighbors who are longtime residents (even those who’ve moved elsewhere). First check your civic association neighborhood history and Neighborhood Conservation Plans to gain the big picture.
Ask neighbors (particularly if you are a newcomer) for their recollections of the previous inhabitants and the evolution of your neighborhood, and recent demolitions. Perhaps your home was a site of community activism, or the home of a federal official or politician. One tip common among investigative journalists: the harder the digging is, the more satisfaction later if you succeed.