Thursday, February 12, 2009

Aids to Historic Preservation Research

This is a fabulous database and can be used through the MLK Library in the Washingtonian Section.

Constructing a Chronicle of the City's Structures With Facts, Figures and Fortitude
By John Kelly
Tuesday, February 10, 2009; B03


Iam not well-suited to repetitive, detail-heavy work. For example, putting the Christmas lights back in their little plastic holder -- snapping the bulbs in, looping the wire back and forth, getting it all neat enough to slide back into the cardboard box -- is the sort of task that drives me mad. After a few minutes, I want to scream and throw things.

But the world needs the detail-oriented and the persnickety. The world needs Brian Kraft.

Slim, shaven-headed, soberly dressed, Brian looks like he would have been at home in a medieval monastery copying snippets of scripture, and in a sense that's what he did. Brian catalogued every building permit issued in the District of Columbia over a 72-year period. Working to the warm hum of a microfilm machine and the click of his laptop, Brian transferred details of the more than 60,000 D.C. building permits issued between 1877 and 1949 to a database he created.

It took him seven years.

"It was a long, hard slog," Brian said. "It's not a job I would wish on other people."

The building permit is the starting point of any structure's history. Like a birth certificate, it includes all sorts of information historians might want decades later: who built the building, who designed it, what it was for, how much it cost, what its roof was made of.

Brian, 46, had been a computer science major at Penn State. He was also interested in history. After graduating, he moved to Washington, where he became obsessed with the city's neighborhoods: Who built them? When? He consulted the microfilm stored in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library's third-floor Washingtoniana Room.

"I was scrolling through the microfilm, and I'm thinking 'This is data,' in a way people in history or preservation wouldn't."

The pool of data had been dipped into here and there before. Brian proposed to drain it.

Coincidentally, David Maloney, the state historic preservation officer, had been thinking along the same lines. Brian was hired as a contractor. Said David: "It is truly amazing that we found somebody who was willing and capable of doing that, of just grinding it out."

And grinding it out is what Brian did. "People said, 'Oh, you just plugged that thing in and downloaded the data?' No, it doesn't quite work like that."

How does it work? "Just eyes and fingers."

Besides the sheer drudgery of copying information from every building permit, Brian had to compare plat maps to make it all make sense to modern eyes. For example, on July 30, 1897, Permit 131 was issued for a row of three brick houses on Yale Street NW, Lot 23, Block 26 of the Columbia Heights Subdivision. Today, Yale Street is known as Fairmont Street, and the houses are on Lots 0832, 0831, 0830, Square 2862. The house numbers have changed, too.

"I wanted it so that the data has current information converted to it," Brian said.

The result of his toil is a searchable database of permits representing 132,000 buildings. You want to find all the wood frame homes permitted on a Tuesday in Cleveland Park? All the churches built in the 1920s? All of developer Harry Wardman's houses? Now you can.

As we sat in the Washingtoniana Room, I asked Brian whether he could look up an address for me: 1440 Otis St. NE. With a few taps of the keyboard, he brought up the information. Permit issued Oct. 9, 1924. Concrete foundation. Shingles on a pitched roof. Valued at $6,000. No mention of an architect, but the builder was listed as A. Jeffery.

"He did quite a lot in Brookland and Woodridge," Brian said. Including the house my father grew up in.

Over the years, Brian became so intimate with the permits that he came to recognize the handwriting of long-dead bureaucrats. He came across odd little buildings, too, such as an airplane hangar built in Wesley Heights in 1910 and a multi-story wooden tower planned for the edge of Rock Creek Park.

The only thing he regrets is that he didn't get up from his chair more frequently and focus off in the distance. "My eyes were fried," he said. "I think it definitely hastened the demise of my close vision."

Brian finished entering the 1877-1949 permits in 2006. He's now in the process of cleaning up the data, and he's started collecting permit information from 1949 to 1958. He expects to be done in about a year and a half. After that: buildings from before 1877.

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