Old House? - Write a House History For Your Home
1847 - A House Full of History
Historic Homes are an Adventure
Lovers of history are fascinated by facts. They're also enthralled by the buildings that went through history. When you visit an old building, you are taken not just by the structure but by your knowledge of the times the building went through.
I live in an old house, built in 1847. If you're a history buff like me, you need to know about the place where you live. You want to imagine what the former occupants did, and where they were when great historical events became known. I often imagine what the occupants of my house were doing when they heard about the beginning of the Civil War, World War I, Or World War II.
My house was built by John Dean Johnson, a self described sportsman who came into a considerable fortune when he inherited part of the estate of his successful merchant father, William M. Johnson. It was built in the Victorian Era (1837-1901) in the Gothic Revival Style. Four years after building the house, John Johnson purchased surrounding property enlarging the estate to 68 acres. It is now just an acre.
In 1847, the year Johnson built the house, he also helped found St. Mark's Episcopal Church, located three blocks from here. The road on which the church is located is St. Mark's Lane, formerly Johnson Lane, named for the builder of my house. Last weekend Lynda and I hosted the annual Christmas party for St. Mark's. At the party a few of us talked about the house, St. Mark's, and how happy Johnson would be happy to know that 165 years after he built the house and helped found St. Mark's, that a couple of parishioners would throw a party for the congregation. I relish historical vignettes like that.
In the 1920s and 1930s this area of the Town of Islip, Long Island was a favorite haunt of many an entertainment luminary. There are stories of parties nearby attended by George Gershwin, Charlie Chaplain, Flo Ziegfeld, Gertrude Lawrence, and Charles Lindberg. Whether any of these parties were held at this house I know not, but our house has a connection to one of my favorite entertainers, Fred Astaire. Astaire's future wife, Phyllis Livingston Potter, grew up in this house. They purchased the house after they married, in Phyllis's name, in 1942. Their primary residence at the time was Beverly Hills, California. Fred Astaire's acting career was in its heights then. When we walk the halls and some of the larger rooms we envision Fred and Phyllis dancing.
How to Position Your House in History
In planning this article, I had the idea that i would take the year the house was built and put it into historical perspective. I wanted to look at what happened in 1847, not just what began or ended that year, but the history that surrounded it. The Internet has made this task a lot easier for any of you researchers out there. Search on "who was born" or "who died" in a certain year and you will be taken to websites dedicated to answering these questions, such as famouswhy.com or biography.com. With a couple of hours work you can take your drafty old house and plunk it in the middle of the stream of history.
The World of 1847 - The Year My House Was Built
. James K. Polk was President of the United States
· Queen Victoria ruled Great Britain and Ireland
· Pius IX was Pope
· Louis Philippe was King of France
· Nicholas I was Tsar of Russia
· The Ottoman Empire was ruled by Abd-ul-Mejid, Sultan
· There were 29 states in the union.
· Slavery existed in the South.
· The Mexican-American War was fought, with combat operations from 1846-1847
· Abraham Lincoln was a 38 year old Congressman serving his first term representing the 7th District of Illinois.
· The Civil War was 14 years into the future.
· Liberia became an independent republic.
· Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre.
· Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights.
· William Makepeace Thackeray wrote Vanity Fair.
· Famous Births in 1847
o Alexander Graham Bell - Inventor
o Thomas Edison - Inventor
o Paul von Hindenburg - Future President of Weimar Germany
o Bram Stoker - Author - Dracula
o Adolph Coors - Beer magnate
o Joseph Pulitzer - Publisher
· Famous Deaths in 1847
o James Kent - Commentaries on American Law
o Marie Louise - Empress of France
o Felix Mendelssohn - Composer - Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream
o Joseph Morgan - Patriarch of the wealthy Morgan Family
o Daniel O'Connell - Irish hero
Consider making a list for your house like the one above, and then have it blown up and copied onto parchment type paper. Frame it and you have one of the best party conversation starters ever invented - And it will be done by you! Do you think for a moment that a simple project like this won't add to the value of your old house?
A Title Search - Your First Step in Learning the History of Your House
A title search can be tedious but at the same time fascinating. Title records of real property are usually housed in your county clerk's office. Begin with your deed. From that you will obtain a book (often known by the Latin word liber) and a page. From there you can search back as far as the titles exist.
Local Newspaper Records
This is an exercise in browsing not searching, unless your locality has put old newspaper archives online, such as The New York Times. You can spend a few fascinating afternoons looking through the archives of old newspapers. But you may come up with nothing. Most people don't issue a press release when they have a party, but birth, death and marriage records can offer a wealth of possibilities.
You can take your old house and the history that it has seen, and bring them together into a fun and enlightening project. Just follow the few simple steps in this article and you will be well on your way. This is a project that is never complete, nor should you set completion as a goal. You can always add more historical facts and observations as time goes by.
Copyright © 2012 by Russell F. Moran