Digging Into the History of Your Old Rowhouse

Kevin Lewis, shown with his wife Sera outside their rowhouse, traced his property’s history from his home computer. Photo by Mary Braman.

(This article originally appeared in the April-May 2022 print edition of the South Baltimore Peninsula Post.)

Kevin Lewis has long been interested in history and genealogy, so after buying a house on the peninsula in one of Baltimore’s older neighborhoods in 2014, he did some research on his East Clement Street home. He discovered that it’s decades older than the real estate listing stated and that the house was built on land once owned by a representative of France during President Thomas Jefferson’s administration.

“It’s like a detective story,” says Lewis, recalling how he uncovered clues to the property that led him back to the early 1800s.

It’s not unusual for new homeowners to be curious about the history of their house, particularly on the peninsula which boasts several historic districts. But even long-term residents might have had their interest piqued after spending more time in their homes during the pandemic. Fortunately for amateur researchers, much of the history of a house and the people who once lived there is available free online. Although once they start, they may find it difficult to stop.

“It’s totally addictive, especially since you can do it all from your home computer,” says Lewis. “You can be watching Netflix and at the same time go Google and see what you find.”

So where to begin?

Start by looking at your house for hints of its history, suggests Julie Saylor, a librarian at the main Enoch Pratt Free Library downtown who has fielded questions from residents about their homes. “It’s a physical artifact, and you can learn a lot by just looking with an eye to seeing what the clues are,” she says.

For example, Saylor notes, one document records that the Central Library at 400 Cathedral Street was built in 1886. But the architecture is more like 1920s Art Deco, and the 1932 cornerstone confirms that the current library replaced the older building, Saylor says.

Next, track the house’s deed as it transferred from one owner to another. Begin with the most recent transfer (your purchase) and work your way back. First, go to the Real Property Data Search and select Baltimore City and Street Address. That will take you to a page where you type in your street address.

Your deed transfer should pop up.  You will be listed as the grantee (buyer). Jot down the date of the transfer, the name of the seller (grantor), and the deed reference number. The reference number has two parts: the book (often called the liber) and the page number (folio).

To track older deed transfers, create an online account at MDLandRec.net. Once on the site, search under Baltimore City and plug in the deed reference number (book and page numbers). That should take you to the previous deed transfer when the prior owner of your house purchased it. Again, jot down the names and date, along with the book and page numbers of the earlier owner’s deed. Use those numbers to conduct a new search to find the next deed, and so on. Continue to go back as far as you can to trace the ownership of your property.

This 1869 city map, which shows Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church on West Street in the center, predates Lewis’ home by one year.

“If you’re lucky, you can trace it back to a bare piece of ground,” Saylor says.

That’s what Lewis did.

His real estate agent had told him his house, like many in the area, is listed as being built in 1900 because many of the original records were destroyed in the 1904 Baltimore fire. “That got me curious,” he says.

Lewis began by tracking the deed history of his home. “Our house was actually built in 1870 by some German immigrants,” he says. And the house remained in that family for three generations.

Tracing the land back further, Lewis discovered that a large area around Fort Avenue and Light Street, including his lot in the 100 block of East Clement Street, was once owned by Louis Leloup. (An online search of the Maryland State Archives revealed that President Jefferson in 1806 recognized Leloup as France’s “provisional commissary of commercial relation” in Baltimore.) The property stayed in the Leloup family until the mid-1850s, when Leloup’s son sold the land and it was divided into lots.

You may also be able to find pictures of your house or block from decades ago. The Maryland Center for History and Culture, 610 Park Avenue, maintains the Passano-O’Neill index of published photos arranged by addresses. The index and some of the photos are available online, although the majority of the pictures are only available in books at the Center or Enoch Pratt, says Francis O’Neill, senior reference librarian.

“I’m such a nut about houses, that if people come in, I will drop everything and work with them,” O’Neill says.

A lot of information can be found in Sanborn fire insurance maps like this one from 1914 showing homes along E. Fort Avenue in Locust Point.

At the Center you can also look at Sanborn Maps for Baltimore from 1878 to 1951 that show the size, shape, and construction of dwellings and other buildings in the city. The maps were used by fire insurance agents for decades to assess the risk of insuring properties. (Sanborn maps are available online through Enoch Pratt Library and the Library of Congress.)

Be aware that your street name or house number might have changed over a century and a half, O’Neill says. Baltimore often renamed streets after annexing land with roads bearing the same names as city thoroughfares, according to O’Neill. And twice – in the 1850s and 1880s – the city changed the numbers of addresses. (To find house numbers before the 1880s revision, go to the 1887 directory.)

The people who once lived in a house are also part of its history.

The Baltimore City Directory, published for hundreds of years, allows you to search for residents by name and lists their occupation and addresses. (Sea captains, coopers, and cordwainers were common professions in 1816 Baltimore.) Find many of the directories online at the University of Maryland Libraries.

Enoch Pratt Library also has a wide range of resources on its website, available to those with library cards. For example, go to bit.ly/3HMduIw for Historical Census Data from 1790 to 1940 to learn more about your house’s former occupants. You can also search the library’s archives of Maryland newspapers, including the Baltimore Sun going back to its founding in 1837.

There are plenty of other resources available, which you’ll likely discover as you conduct your research. But these key tools should get you started in uncovering the story of your house. – Lena Ambrose

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