Do you know the history of your house? Information about your house, including its age and its setting in the Wedgwood neighborhood of northeast Seattle, can tell you about the house itself and about the people who have lived on your street. In learning about your house and neighborhood, you can share the info with neighbors to help build camaraderie on your block.
Many house-history resources are now on-line, while other materials are best accessed by an in-person trip to City and County archives.
Available on-line resources for house history research:
Build date and house photo:
On the start page of the King County Parcel Viewer, enter your address and then click through to “property detail.” There you will find the build date of the house, information about square footage and the legal description of the plat name, the lot and block number.
A photo of your house are shown on the property detail page. Click on the “camera” icon if there is more than one photo, often due to remodeling of the house.
For all houses built since 1938, there is a photo taken soon after your house was built. Even if the house was built before 1938, that is the oldest photo because it was the year when King County began a property tax inventory, endeavoring to photograph all taxable structures.
In 1937 to 1940 King County, including Seattle, undertook to photograph every residential and commercial building for the purpose of correctly determining the house value for property tax assessment.
During this King County project all buildings were inventoried, photographed and the property taxes adjusted accordingly. HistoryLink Essay #3692 tells how the photo project was done.
We have this wonderful treasury of house photos and original assessment records which is kept in the Puget Sound Regional Archives (a building on the campus of Bellevue College, see resource list below.)
A “plat” is an area of land, any size, for which a map of streets and lots is laid out. The plats are filed for approval with King County. On the Parcel Viewer site and on the house photos is written the legal description of plat name, block and lot number. On the Parcel Viewer page after you call up your address, on the right margin is a link to the plat map.
Learning about plat names can also tell you more about the history of the neighborhood. For example, if your house is in Wedgwood’s State Park Addition, here on this blog you can read the story of the original homestead settler, the later speculative owner of the plat who gave it the name State Park, and stories of people who lived there in the 1920s.
Some plats were filed in the Wedgwood area in 1890 and they were ahead of their time — the lots did not sell, such as in Pontiac.
For some other early-1900s plats in Wedgwood such as Earl J. McLaughlin, Morningside Heights, or Nevins & Park, houses began to be built as early as 1910. These areas of Wedgwood did not have a unified development scheme or house style. Families would purchase a site and then contract with a builder. Electricity and city water supply did not become available in Wedgwood until the late 1920s, so a consideration for early house sites was a well for drawing water.
Other areas of the present Wedgwood are characterized by development in the 1930s such as Wellsdale. Others, such as Fir Crest, Francis L. Martin’s and the original Wedgwood plats of houses, are part of the history of the demand for housing in the 1940s-1950s.
The original Wedgwood plat of the 1940s
The original Wedgwood plat is a five-block square from NE 80th to 85th Streets, 30th to 35th Avenues NE. All of the houses in this forty-acre tract were built in a unified manner by developer Albert Balch who had purchased the entire property in 1941. The property was undeveloped, so Balch filed a plat plan with King County showing where streets and houses would go. The houses in Balch’s first Wedgwood plat were designed by architects Harlan Thomas and Clyde Grainger in Colonial and Cape Cod styles. All of the houses in the original Wedgwood plat were then constructed between 1941 to 1945 by Balch’s company.
Side Sewer Card research:
The name of the original owner and builder of a house can often be found at the on-line searchable Side Sewer Cards. Entering your address will give both the front and back of the card. The front of the card shows your house’s position on the block and where the sewer lines are located. Nearby creeks and underground streams are shown.
The back of the card (photo below) has notations of the owner at the time that the contractor put in the sewer line. In the example pictured here, we are using the Fred Kane house at 8008 39th Ave NE. It is in the Eastwood plat and we know that Albert Balch did not own this plat of land, but he built many houses there.
A look at the back of the Side Sewer Card shows the name of Albert Balch and also Crawford & Conover (the real estate arm of Balch’s corporation) as owner for several of the houses built on 39th Ave NE. From this we see that Balch built a little more than half of the houses on 39th Ave NE from the corner of NE 80th northward, but not all of the way to the next corner.
Another example is the 8200 block of 38th Ave NE. The Side Sewer Card shows that the southern half of the block has Balch houses and the northern section of 38th Ave NE, up to NE 85th Street, was done by another developer, McCaul, with houses in modernist architecture by Paul W. Delaney.
Another name seen on this Side Sewer Card for 39th Ave NE (below) is that of Louis Coglas. Coglas was an independent contractor of Western Excavators, digging basements and putting in sewer lines. Coglas did a lot of work for Albert Balch so when we see Coglas’ name on original records, we can surmise that Balch’s company most likely built the house.
Newspaper, census and Washington Digital Archives search:
The Seattle Public Library has on-line genealogy, including newspaper and census search, through their website. By entering the address of your house into a newspaper search, you may find the previous sale of the house listed in the classified ads. You may find names of previous occupants of your house if they were mentioned such as in wedding announcements.
The census which is taken every ten years, is accessible up through the year 1950 and is available through the Seattle Public Library on-line. In the census you may learn about past residents of your house and street.
The Washington Digital Archives is an additional resource for census, birth, marriage and death dates. While not oriented to property research, the digital archives can help you find more info about the people who once lived in your house.
Old city directories:
Some of the old directories, which are similar to phone books, are available on-line through the Seattle Public Library Special Collections. These directories are nicknamed “the Polks” for the name of the publishing company.
Beginning with Polk’s Directory of Seattle for the year 1938, there is a reverse directory in which you can look up an address and see who was living in the house that year. However, one cannot find Wedgwood house addresses listed in the old city directories until the 1940s or 1950s, when the neighborhood finally came into the City Limits of Seattle. Also be aware that the Seattle Street Directional Designations changed in 1961, so in the house photo above, the address is given as 3164 East 82nd Street, and now it is NE 82nd Street.
Mini-histories of Seattle neighborhoods:
Some neighborhoods of Seattle (but not Wedgwood) have been surveyed as to their housing history. The overview of the histories of Fremont, University, Wallingford and others, called context statements, is available on-line at the City of Seattle’s Historic Preservation Program.
Seattle Municipal Archives:
The Seattle Municipal Archives has on-line searchable photos and city documents. The photos are of street work and other engineering projects, not property photos. It is unlikely that you will find a photo of your house on the Seattle Municipal Archives unless, like the residents of Ravenna Boulevard in November 1957, your house was on the edge of a major engineering crisis.
Resources which are not on-line:
Permits and plans:
People often wonder if there is an original construction permit for their house or if the City of Seattle has blueprints of their house. The City of Seattle construction department does not keep any house blueprints. For commercial structures there is some building plan info on microform. “Microform” is a four-by-six-inch piece of film, and you put it under a light to read it. I used the records on microform to find the history of the church buildings in Wedgwood, all of which were built in the 1950s and 1960s. The architect of the church buildings is noted on the plan information.
The City of Seattle construction department located on the 20th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower, has a microfilm library but there are no construction permits for houses built in Wedgwood, due to Wedgwood having only come into the City Limits of Seattle in later years. Up until the 1940s, in northeast Seattle the city line was at NE 65th Street. For this reason only northeast Seattle houses located south of NE 65th Street have construction permits preserved on microfilm.
I know of two houses which were moved from outside the neighborhood into Wedgwood, and these have permits of construction of the houses from their original locations. The original permits show the name of the owner, contractor and the architect of the house. Shown here is the original construction permit for a house built in 1929 at 5816 5th Ave NE. In 1959, to get the house out of the path of construction of the Interstate 5 freeway, the owners moved the house to its present location in Wedgwood at 8921 25th Place NE.
Puget Sound Regional Archives:
As mentioned above, the house which is now at 8921 25th Place NE in Wedgwood was moved there from its original location. The way that I found the old address and the date of moving the house, was by looking at the property records at the Puget Sound Regional Archives.
The PSRA, located on the campus of Bellevue University, is the repository of all of the property records of King County. There is a property card for each house and if a house has been moved, the old address is crossed out and the new address is added onto the card with a photo of it in its new location.
The PSRA also has original tax assessment register books dating from the days when people paid their property taxes in-person. These Tax Assessment Rolls are useful for researching older houses in Wedgwood, to show who owned the property and approximately when a house was built. The ledgers have a column for the value of land, and another column for the value of “taxable structures.” If nothing is written in the value-of-structures column, it means that there was no house as yet.
The PSRA has a busy research schedule, and an appointment is needed to have them bring out the tax rolls and property card for your house. The property cards are filed not by the house address, but according to the parcel number which is part of the house’s legal description. The parcel number for your property is on the top line of the Parcel Viewer info above your name and house address. It is the same ten-digit number which is on your property tax statement.
Old city directories and phone books:
As mentioned above, some of the old city directories are available through the website of the Seattle Public Library. But for doing a year-by-year search of info for an address, nothing is better than going to one of the archives or to the downtown Seattle Public Library to use the actual directories.
The old city directories nicknamed “the Polks” for the name of the publishing company, are like phone books but have more information. Often a person’s occupation and place of employment are listed. Beginning in the year 1938 the Polks also have a reverse directory so that the occupants of each address on a street are shown.
Here again, a problem for Wedgwood is its exclusion from the City of Seattle up until the 1940s and 1950s. If your house is located north of NE 85th Street you may not find a listing of your address in the city directory until about 1955. At right is a section of a page from the 1955 reverse directory, showing the addresses on Bothell Way (Lake City Way NE).
Regular phone books, beginning with the year 1926, are available on the 9th floor of the downtown Seattle Public Library, and there is a set of the Polk directories on both the 9th and the 10th floors of the downtown Seattle Public Library. After the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, access to these resources was limited so check on the status before you go. Go to the webpage of the Seattle Public Library to check on hours and access to different areas of the library, as the Seattle Room has separate operating hours.
The 10th floor, called the Seattle Room of the downtown Seattle Public Library, also has maps and other resources about the history of Seattle. The Seattle Room has limited hours — check before you go. The library’s online collections has photos pertaining to Seattle history and some neighborhood history.
Three other places which have Polk directories, but not phone books, are: Seattle Genealogical Society which has moved to a new location in the Wallingford neighborhood; the Special Collections Library at the University of Washington; and the Seattle Municipal Archives on the third floor of City Hall, Seattle.
In past times no appointment was needed to go to any of these libraries and archives and use the collection of city directories. As of the coronavirus pandemic in the year 2020, some archives have closed and some offer limited access by appointment only.
Libraries (including those listed above) have maps published by Baist, Kroll or Sanborn. These are of somewhat limited use for research on Wedgwood, which was outside of the city limits. The maps have little squares marking houses, so for older homes in the City of Seattle the maps can help pin down the date of when a house was built. See the comments following this article for more discussion of map resources.
Ask the neighbors:
A resource of house history which should not be overlooked is the neighbors on your street. Long-time residents likely knew the previous occupants of your house and may know stories about how the street developed over time.
Researching your house-history is very similar to doing genealogy, finding out about times past and the setting of neighborhood growth in the history of Seattle. Getting to know your house and your street is part of your family heritage, and once you start researching you will want to share your findings with family and with neighbors. Build your neighborhood connections by networking with others on your block. You can hold a spring season street clean-up, a summertime block party, or a holiday-season hot cocoa outreach or gathering for sharing stories.
Great post about house histories! I didn’t know about the sewer cards; I will check them out.
I would add a couple of comments to your great post:
1. While many of the City Directories are online you can see complete sets at the downtown Library or at Seattle Genealogical Society.
2. Permits and plans: I got the plans of my Queen Anne house, built in 1997, from the City’s Department of Planning and Development. They told me that in the 1970s they had a fire that destroyed all the previous residential plans, but not the commercial plans.
3. Another good source for building of the neighborhood over time, is the Fire Insurance Maps, mostly Sanborn, located at the Seattle Public Library in the Seattle Room. The Seattle Room has limited hours that do not coincide with that of the library itself so check to make sure they are open before you head out.
4. The tax records at the Puget Sound Archives are a good way to work back on deed research to about 1900. To find out ownership prior to 1900, you need to go to King County Archives to do deed work. The indexing system is a little complicated but don’t hesitate to ask them how it works.
Hope this helps some folks. I have been able to successfully help some folks with their house histories by using these tools.
Thanks, Jill! One peculiar aspect of the Wedgwood neighborhood is that except for one early homesteader in the 1870s, no one lived in Wedgwood until about 1905 or later! The property tax assessment rolls which show if there was a “taxable structure” (a house) usually are enough to show who was the first occupant of a house in Wedgwood from the period of 1910 and later. There are no houses older than that, still extant in Wedgwood! For similar reasons, there are no Sanborn maps for the Wedgwood neighborhood. I usually get good results by looking at the property tax assessment rolls (large ledgers at the Puget Sound Regional Archives) as the best way to pinpoint ownership of a house in Wedgwood.
This is a great summary of resources! I love that there are context statements for Seattle neighborhoods. They should definitely get them written for the missing ones like Wedgewood!
Susie, the context statements are part of historic preservation projects done by neighborhood groups. I participated in the survey of housing in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle and the writing of that context statement in 2009. Ballard Historical Society has recently done a survey which is up on their website.