DC Historical Building Permits Database

The DC Historical Building Permits Database is an electronic set of to-build permits from the microfilmed archive. The database uses Microsoft Access software.  Users navigate a menu-driven interface and access the data with forms and reports.

The Reports menu of the database

The Permits Database was begun in 2001. After a few years researching local history, with an emphasis on place and the built environment, I’d become very familiar with the microfilmed archive of DC building permits. Permits were often difficult to find and to make sense of, but it was clear that locked within the collection was the information that represented the greater part of the history of the city’s buildings and physical development.

Snip from one of many database reports
Snip from a database report showing some of the different types of buildings.

Several years were spent manually adding data from permits-to-build (other permits were issued for repairs, plumbing, electrical and many other types of work) and several more standardizing the data so that it includes current location descriptors, such as address, square and lot. That process included about 60,000 permits issued from February 1877 to September 1949. About 130,000 buildings were built in DC during that time and are represented in the database, including over 90,000 that still stand.

John Kelly wrote about the project in the Washington Post.

Database Report 2
Snip from a database report showing the work of a particular architect.

That data was supplemented in different ways at both chronological ends. Newspaper reports on issued permits were surveyed and used as a data source. Over 600 extant buildings are represented in the database by data sourced to these reports between February 1872 and February 1877.

The microfilmed index to the archived permits was also used as a data source. The permits themselves were microfilmed to September 1949, but permits after that time are in an unprocessed collection at the DC Archives. Access to individual permits after that ranges from difficult to impossible, but an index to the collection was kept up until 1958 and was microfilmed. Those listings include permit number, date, address, owner’s name (usually), and building type, such as dwelling or office. The database includes over 12,000 buildings from that time and process, and about 10,000 of those are extant.

Snip from an interactive database form
This is a snip from in interactive database form, in which you can select and sort data to your nerdy little heart’s content.

There is some early property assessment data included in the permits database, some of which is off-menu, but non-permit data that you might find in the permits database is somewhat anomalous, as we tried to keep this collection of data focused on the permits-to-build issued by the DC government.

All of this work was done for the DC Historic Preservation Office with some funding from the National Park Service Historic Preservation Fund. The database is not online, although most of the data is included in HistoryQuestDC. Researchers can use the database at local libraries, including the Washingtoniana Division. You can get a copy of the database from bruce.yarnall@dc.gov.