If you live in Washington, DC, or your ancestors did, or you are just interested in DC history, you might want to take a look at the DC Building Permits. Aside from using them to find out when a house was built or remodeled, you can also find individuals by name. If your ancestors owned property in DC, you may want to check out the building permits.
I think these are interesting records, but there are a couple of things you need to keep in mind when using them. First, just because you find a permit for a specific date, it doesn’t mean your house was built immediately after the permit was issued – these are permits, meaning the owner was allowed to build (or remodel), not that they necessarily did so. Second, some, but not all, of the permits contain plans and drawings. In some cases, there are additional blueprints and plans in our cartographic division – more on that below. Finally, in order to use these records, you will need to know the exact address, or the square and lot number.
There are three separate indexes, all of which are on the same series of microfilm as the permits themselves. The first part is by square and lot number, the second part is by subdivision, and the third part is by street address. It’s usually a good idea to check all of the indexes. There is an additional index available on CD-Rom in the Microfilm Research Room at the National Archives Building. It was created by the Government of the District of Columbia Historical Preservation Office, and it allows searches by several fields, including architects and builders.
Let’s take a look at a couple of permits.
This is an index card for square 491, lot 3. Permit #239 was issued April 23, 1877. At the top of the page, you can see that square 491 covers the area on Pennsylvania Ave., between 4 ½ and 6th Streets, NW. The owner (H.S. Johnson) is listed rather than the house number.
The permit itself gives us a little more information. Again, we see that a “Mr. Johnson” is listed as the owner. The building was four stories tall and was constructed of brick. The proposed alterations included the construction of a new front, with 24 inch deep show windows, as well as general repairs. This was some type of store, although the permit doesn’t indicate what was sold.
This permit from 1931 provides more information. C.A. Harnett was planning to build a block of eight buildings with four apartments each, and another building with two apartments on the corner of Neal and Holbrook Streets, NE. The estimated cost for this project was $76,895, and an estimated 140 million bricks would be used. The permit for this project was ultimately cancelled, but it provides an interesting look at the cost of construction in 1931. By using the indexes, we could check to see if these apartment buildings were ever built.
The permit also has a drawing showing the proposed layout of the buildings.
The card you see below indicates that there were additional plans, but they were removed. I mentioned above that some of the drawings and blueprints (mostly the oversized ones) were removed and are held in our cartographic unit in College Park, MD. If you see a card like this, you can view the plans at Archives II. They are filed by permit number.
The DC government began keeping building permits in 1877, and the National Archives holds the permits from February 17, 1877 to September 7, 1949. They are part of Record Group 351, Records of the Government of the District of Columbia, 1791 – 1978. Later permits are still held by the DC government. The permits at the National Archives have been microfilmed as M1116, District of Columbia Building Permits, 1877-1949, and Index, 1877-1958. This series is available at the National Archives Building. They have not been digitized.