Some houses come with a ready-made history. Like the beautiful Rock House on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland. Built in the latter half of the 18th century, it is well-documented as the studio of photographer David Octavius Hill and collaborator Robert Adamson. This photograph, taken approximately 1890 by photographer Alexander Inglis shows the house pretty much as it is today, although the small photography studio to the right of the main building has been replaced with a more elegant structure.
The house even has a pane of glass in one of the upstairs windows with a name scratched into it – “W Menzies 1795”. Nothing I have read so far reveals much of the history before the photographers took up residence, so we have history and a mystery – a house with much information available about a specific time period and not so much about others. Who W Menzies was is still to be revealed.
History and mystery could be the tagline for any kind of genealogical research, including house histories. Often we start with a blank slate. I have known nothing about several of the houses I have researched but along the way have come up with both history and mystery. The census records are wonderful pictures into who lived in a house – except they only come about once every ten years. In between those times there are many things we can turn to for research – newspaper articles, voter registration, city directories. Sometimes we get lucky and get a snippet of information from a neighbor or find something around the house that can tell us more. That happened to me recently here in San Francisco. I had the feeling that someone involved in journalism had lived in a particular house I was researching. There were odd, built-in filing cabinets in the basement labelled by year with “San Francisco Chronicle” on them and I really wanted to find out who they had belonged to. I was only part way through the history at that point and had really only really studied the land records and census records which took me up to about 1940.
One day I noticed this hand print in the concrete down the side of the house;
“T.O.F. 1992”. Not an especially historic discovery but an intriguing one. I hoped that the initials would lead me to a connection with the filing cabinets and my hunch about the occupier of the house.
A few days later I met a neighbor who confirmed my hunch. He told me that before the current owner purchased the building, it had been owned by Terence O’Flaherty. It wasn’t a name that was familiar to me but it turned out he had been a TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1950 to 1986. During his career he became the only TV critic ever to be awarded an Emmy for his work.
In this case, O’Flaherty was sufficiently well-known locally to have been remembered in the neighborhood. In addition he left a literal mark in the concrete, presumably for a bit of fun. W Menzies, who may or may not have lived in the Rock House, left similar clues to the past by scratching his name into a pane of glass more than 200 years ago. The analysis of these clues adds a fascinating richness to house histories which research in other records can’t always provide.