The Genealogy of a House

When we decided to buy a 100-ish year old house, I knew I needed to try to find out more about it’s history. The documents we signed for the purchase said it was built in 1915, which I soon found out was wrong.

My first stop was the permit database for my city. I’m lucky, the city of Boston’s permit database is online.  I was hoping to find the original permit to build, but I could not. The first document I found was a note from 1923 when the owners were fined for not getting a license to keep a car in the garage:

Keeping of automobile, with gasoline in tank, in bldg. in rear or premises without a license.

The bldg was formerly used as a play house, built in 1910, Another bldg formerly used for hens, built in 1907 has been attached to it, making it large enough to put an automobile in. Recently a large door was put in. I have been informed that no permit was granted by the Building Department for the alterations.

So, 1915 clearly wasn’t the year it was built. This also explains our little garage. The house inspector had called it a “Buick bump-out”; small additions were often added to garages so that modern cars could fit in them.

I also noticed that the street used to have another name—that of a street it used to connect to, before houses were built in-between, making our street a dead-end at that end and therefore requiring a new name.

I searched the permit database for the original address and found that the land was first surveyed in 1887 and most of the  land was owned by a Mrs. R.M. Otis of Jamaica Plain. I also found notes that contained names of some of the original owners, so I turned to census records to find out more.

Using‘s census records, I found a family living in our house in 1910, from Austria. The neighborhood was filled with people from Germany, Canada, Ireland, England, Russia, and Italy as well as other parts of Europe. There were masons, seamstresses, tailors, carpenters, bakers, grocery wagon drivers, workers at the local brewery and the man living in our house was a printer. There was a livery stable around the corner, as well.

The permit database tells me a few random things:

  • In 1923, the owners tried to make the house a two-family, but were denied.

It appears they didn’t abide by the denial. Our attic has a sink in it and a capped off gas line, that the sellers told us used to have a small gas stove attached to it. When they bought the house,  they were told that people lived in our uninsulated attic during World War II.

  • In 1947,  the owners received a permit to repair the “rear porch, new foundation, replace flooring, joists etc.”

In an archived city directory, I learn in 1947 the owner was an architect named Joseph. This explains the tiny handprints in the cement wall of the underneath of our back porch with the words “Joe Jr 1948”. It’s fun to tie all of this together.

There’s also drama in the permit database.  Joseph and his wife are upset with the people next door, who have lived there since at least the early 1920s. They park their work trucks behind the house and the exhaust and noise is upsetting. The owners of our house wrote a letter to inspectional services that started:

In July 1942, when we moved here, these trucks were being parked on my property so close to the house that the lower row of shingles was nicked and scraped. These trucks were parked in this manner even though I protested, until we built a small fence and erected it on our own property line, which is three feet away from our house.

This explains the short little fence that runs along one side of our house! It did seem a bit random, but now I get it. The funny thing is, our neighbors are still the same family, and they still run a contracting business. However, in the intervening time, they’ve bought a garage somewhere nearby where the trucks are kept.

Our house was sold to it’s third owners in 1959, a Boston Police officer and his family who lived here for 52 years, when they sold to us.

As much as I like placing my family in history, doing the same for the house I live in is fun. I’d still like to find out who “Mrs. R. M Otis of Jamaica Plain” was, the original owner of all of this land. Perhaps the Jamaica Plain Historical Society  can be of help.