Archive for Friday, June 7, 1991


June 7, 1991


Ever wonder when your home was built and by whom?

Lots of people do, and according to historical "detectives," finding the answers to such questions isn't a "mission impossible."

Local historian Katie Armitage describes the researching of a home's history as "a lot like being a detective."

"It's a whole process of putting together a tremendous amount of information from as many sources as possible. . . . There is no one, set way of doing it."

She noted many property owners interested in nominating their homes for such designations as the National Register of Historic Places hire professionals to do the research necessary for such a listing.

Others, who just want to satisfy their own curiosity about a house, frequently launch searches themselves.

RECENTLY, Armitage has been documenting the history of a number of local homes for the new book, "19th Century Houses in Lawrence, Kansas."

Published this week by Spencer Museum of Art, it features 50 historic Lawrence homes, including the Dillard house at 520 La.

When researching that home, Armitage said, she used sources such as the abstract of the house, city tax rolls and city directories.

Local attorney Jane Eldridge said an abstract is a collection of all legal transactions, including any mortgage on a house, that affects a property site. Eldridge is a member of the Lawrence Historic Resources Commission, a group appointed to advise the city commission on historic structures and districts.

The abstract of the Dillard house, located in Old West Lawrence, includes a mortgage that helped Armitage determine the construction date of the home.

ANOTHER CLUE to when a home was built is the city tax rolls, said Armitage, who also is a member of the Kansas State Historical Society.

"The year of 1890 showed a significant jump (for payments made for the Dillard house), from $215 to $600, which indicates an increase in valuation probably due to construction."

She cautioned researchers, though, that sharp tax increases don't always prove a new house was built.

David Benjamin, a local historian working on a survey of Old West Lawrence homes, said if property taxes went up on all houses in an area during a specific year, it was probably due to re-assessment and not new construction.

However, since the increase in taxes in 1890 for the Dillard house seemed isolated, he agreed the rise could be taken as a "very strong clue" that Jesse Dillard, original owner of the property, built the house that year.

BENJAMIN, a library assistant in KU's Kansas Collection, Spencer Research Library, also confirmed the Dillard house was a two-story frame home by examining a 1927 Sanborn Mapping Co. map, on file at his workplace.

After discovering the construction date of the house, Armitage said she went on to research the lives of the residents there because "the more you know about the time period and economic and social environment, the better able you are to interpret records."

By examining city directories of the era, which are available in the Kansas Collection and at the Lawrence Public Library, Armitage discovered Jesse Dillard was first listed as a Lawrence resident in 1871.

He was a messenger then, with the Lawrence, Leavenworth and Galveston Railroad Co., but subsequent city directories reveal he worked in various service jobs.

BY EXAMINING 1870 state census records, Armitage discovered the Dillards were a black family and neither Jesse nor his wife, Frances, could read or write.

However, she said, their daughter, Mary, who lived in the house until her death in 1954, attended Lawrence public schools, received her bachelor's degree in 1896 from Kansas University and became a teacher and principal.

Examining records of Pinckney School, where Mary Dillard taught, Armitage found one of her students was the famous black poet Langston Hughes.

Susan Pogany, who now lives in the Dillard home, said she'd heard anecdotes about Hughes living there from an elderly man, who said he was a boarder himself in the early 1900s.

A former owner of the house who later lived in another home in the neighbor also told Pogany that, according to Mary Dillard, her father built most of the house himself.

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