N&M House Detectives: Unlocking the History of Your DC Home

N&M House Detectives crack another case. Photo: Art Shmatko

Have you ever wondered what intriguing people might have lived in your house or condo? Do you know what businesses occupied your lot in years past? Capitol Hill residents Michelle Pilliod Carroll and Nina Tristani were curious about the history of their homes, and in 2015 they decided to undertake a research project. Their investigations took them to the Historical Society of Washington, DC, the Washingtoniana Collection at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives. As the history of their homes came together they decided to compile the information into hard-copy books.

An adventure that started as a lark has become a second career for both. According to Tristani, “After finishing the books about our own homes, we realized how much we enjoyed the process and learning about the history of DC. We thought others would be interested in something similar for their own homes, and N&M House Detectives was created!”

N&M House Detectives (www.nmhousedetectives.com) has completed more than 20 house-history projects during the last year. For a cost of $600 plus a $75 publication fee they will produce a 20-page, 8 x 11-inch book documenting in color the history of a home. (Discounts are available for the purchase of multiple books on different homes.) The books include copies of building permits, Census reports, directory listings, maps, neighborhood and archival pictures, and a history of the surrounding area. To research a property typically takes eight weeks, a bit longer for an older (pre-1877) or a commercial building.

Not surprisingly their research has uncovered some interesting quirks and tidbits about DC. Building permits, for example, were not required until 1877, and then, from the 1890s until 1964, the Department of War (now the Department of Defense) had to approve building extensions or alterations on any DC home. The research has also followed the evolution of neighborhoods. In the mid-1800s, for example, many residents of DC’s Uptown (now Shaw) neighborhood were employed at Northern Liberty Market, located on Mount Vernon Square from 1846 to 1872. Over time “Uptown” became a mecca for jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Pearl Bailey, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, and, later for homegrown talent such as Billy Eckstein and Sarah Vaughn. Meanwhile, several decades before Harlem's Apollo Theater featured black entertainers, the Howard Theater boasted the best vaudeville and early jazz performers on its stage. While only spanning one block, Shaw’s French Street was known as DC's Black Broadway.

Most of the houses around Logan Circle were built from 1875 to 1900 for the wealthy and powerful. John L. Logan, a Civil War general, later senator from Illinois, and originator of Memorial Day, owned the home at 812 12th Street NW. In 1930 Iowa Circle was renamed Logan Circle in his honor. As a youngster Duke Ellington sold peanuts, popcorn, and candy at Griffith Park (later know as Griffith Stadium), located between Georgia Avenue and Fifth Street and between W Street and Florida Avenue NW. 

Before starting N&M House Detectives, Tristani was a scholarly publisher while Carroll owned and operated a meeting-planning company. The skills, knowledge and accomplishments from their former careers are serving them well in their new endeavor. And customer reviews are positive. Dan Killingworth is pleased with the research N&M did for his French Street NW home. Capitol Hill resident Marie Cox notes, “We’re so pleased with the book that N&M House Detectives produced documenting the history of our 1904 brownstone. We’re surprised to see how much history they were able to find, including the building permits. What a treasure for our family!”

While N&M House Detectives often fills a sentimental niche with their work, it also fulfills very pragmatic needs. Leigh Mailloux, president of LR Mailloux Construction Inc., notes, “I needed help with a historical provenance for a home on Capitol Hill. N&M House Detectives uncovered the information I needed to get approval from the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and an expedited permit. All this in addition to information on the builder, original owner of the home and more!” N&M will soon be launching areal estate research service for licensed DC realtors. Check out their website for details.

If you’re looking for a unique gift for a DC homeowner – yourself, a friend or neighbor – or to document the history of your own home, consider putting N&M House Detectives on the case.

N&M House Detectives’ final product: a hard-copy book documenting the history of a home. Photo: Michelle Pilliod Carroll

Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer, and a blogger for the DC Recycler: www.DCRecycler.blogspot.com; Twitter @DC_Recycler.