Monday, June 23, 2008

The Census and Privacy

Many people concerned about their privacy with public records today have no idea just how much a historian can uncover about people walking the planet not that long ago. The federal census is one tool we house historians use to reveal interesting tidbits about those owners, and even the renters or lodgers in your house long ago. The last available in detail for researchers in the 1930 census. (The 1940 census won't be released in detail until 2012, 72 years or an average life span after it was recorded)

The 1930 census includes the more detailed information than any other prior census. It was taken live by enumerators traveling door to door, as seen at left. It listed all the people in the household at that time; the head of household was listed first, followed by everyone in the house as they related to him or her: wife, husband, children, son-in-laws, etc. It listed everyone's age, where they were born, and even where both of their parents were born. If they were foreign born, it indicates when they arrived in the US, became a citizen, or were naturalized.

It also listed anyone unrelated in the house that lived there as lodgers (typically renting without meals) or as boarders, who took meals with the family. The census also listed occupation, along with employer or type of job: janitor, for example, within the public schools. For couples, it listed how many children had been born, and how many were alive in 1930.

Another interesting aspect of the 1930 census was the fact that unlike prior census, it recorded what the home owner thought their house was worth (a year after the stock market crash), or what they were paying in rent. Washington, DC homeowners might be shocked how little their house was worth that year, or that you could rent a nice townhouse in DC for about $35 a month that year.

Census enumerators also recorded race, although they frequently made errors because it was a guess by observation, rather than a question of the subject. Census enumerators that year were instructed: “to be particularly careful in reporting the class mulatto. The word is generic, and includes quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood.” Importantly, it was up the census taker to observe and determine race, not the subject being interviewed, often resulting in a multitude of errors. Anyone of the Asian race were classified as white, while those born in India might have been classified as mulatto.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

DC Real Property Database = An INCORRECT building date

I just got an inquiry from a potential client that conveyed to me the the building date of her house, gleaned from the DC real property assessment database (under view property features). She said her house was built in 1900. The problem is, about 80% of the "built in" dates on the DC real property tax assessment database are just educated guesses, done by an assessor about 50 years ago. That's why the vast majority of the dates provided are even numbers! 1900, 1905, 1910, etc. I've researched houses that have had the date off by 90 years or more.

Unfortunately, real estate agents use these "constructed in" date as fact. That can lead to trouble, and I was involved as a consultant in one case in Georgetown where the RE agent told the buyer that house was built in 1835. Turns out, the house was built in 1935. In Georgetown, where the oldest house wins, that spelled embarrassment and a lawsuit.

So, please don't believe the assessment database. I wish they would simply remove the dates altogether, as they are almost completely useless and mostly inaccurate. They only way to tell is to have your house history researched and carefully documented from the original building permits that began in February of 1877, or by using a combination of maps, tax, and deed research for properties before 1877.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cool Faux Copper ceiling Panel Installation

So, I'm writing today about a really cool faux product, and as a architectural historian, we take these kinds of products test whether or not they look and act like the real thing. I can say that after installing the fake copper panels in our living room awhile back, they are amazing! Our guests and historians alike really think we have expensive copper up there. That our room at left, in fact!

What reminded me to blog about these is that I'm selling the spare panels on eBay this week that I just found in the basement. I'm listing tons of stuff on eBay every week, as I and my partner have a goal of living aboard a sail boat within the next two years.

In any event, I had never heard of these panels until a producer from the HGTV show called "I Want That!" called and needed a house to serve as a location for reps from the manufacturer to install the panels. We said we're in, and in about two weeks, the product arrived and so did the film crew. They were a new product from ACP company, and we got to choose our pattern and color, at least. I had worked with a few of the crew beforehand, actually, as the freelancers had been to my old DC loft to film shows like Building Character for HGTV.

The fellows from the manufacturer were on hand to actually install the panels, and Greg and I were on hand to film short shots like we were actually doing the work. Ah, the magic of television. We also sat down for interviews that ended up being edited into embarrassing snippets that our friends sill make fun of: "Copper Fantasy!" being the most used. The manufacture choose that name, not us! You can find episode 207 on HGTV here.

The installation was flawed a fair amount, as the newbies from ACP had never installed their new product. It was designed to go on with liquid nails, but the pattern we choose had lots of embossing, and little to stick to the actual ceiling. So, we came up with a compromise, and we suggested use of a staple gun to secure most of the panels while the liquid nails set. The film crew was worried that we wouldn't finish, actually, but after two days, they did a great job. I placed a border of small crown molding around the ceiling to hide the walls that were not even, of course, in our 1906 house.

They sent over a photographer several weeks later to be used on a brochure, and we forgot about the whole episode until my sister recognized our living room (and her xmas gift candles) in her big box hardware store in Michigan, of all places! The brochure cover is our living room, which we refer to as our opium den, a look we were going after when designing the look of the room.

They are not cheap, but they are a lot less expensive than real copper, and the nice part is you can cut them with scissors. Nobody has been able to determine that these are not real panels!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Hurd v Hodge, DC Racial Covenants: 50th Anniversary

So, May of 2008 marked the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court case Hurd v. Hodge, originating right here in Washington, DC, which found the enforcement of racial and religious covenants were unconstitutional. I recently researched the actual location of the house in question, 116 Bryant Street, NW (left) for the current owners, who had bought the house history at a Bloomingdale Civic Association neighborhood fund raiser that we had donated it to.

What struck me was the arguments used to overturn racial and religious covenants and why they aren't used in gay civil rights cases today. It was important to note that the black lawyers and black homeowners of the day were fighting to overturn all restrictive real estate covenants, not just those targeted at preventing a sale to black homeowners.

Today, the Washington Blade ran a commentary piece I composed on the subject that you can read here.

I'll post the unedited version below for your reading pleasure.


The similarity between historic black civil rights and contemporary gay civil rights being fought in today’s courts cannot be overlooked. One old but significant civil rights argument is missing from legal cases being filed on behalf of gay rights today, however. Fifty years ago, in May of 1948, an argument was used by local lawyers to win the eventual Supreme Court case Hurd v. Hodge that found that the enforcement of racially restrictive covenants on real estate deeds was unconstitutional. The unusual argument used that year was the United States membership pledge to uphold the Charter of the newly formed United Nations.
By joining the UN, the United States had pledged on June 26, 1945 to “Universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinctions as to race, sex, language or religion.” Used successfully fifty years ago to ensure the equal rights of black property owners, this precedent seems to have all but been forgotten in today’s gay rights legal cases. Combined with additional arguments used in the 1948 case, the resulting Supreme Court opinion, and with a few word substitutions, one might begin to imagine that they are reading about the results of today’s gay marriage cases.
Most importantly, perhaps, is that the black leadership behind the successful Hurd v. Hodge case resulted in the lifting of all racial and religious deed covenants in place at the time, not just those targeting African-Americans.