22 September 2015

Examining a 20-Year-Old Photograph of the House

Today, we examine a photograph of my house first presented in my post on Browsing On-line County Databases. The Montgomery County assessment office maintains a profile for each property on record, and most of those include a photograph of the house, if a house exists on the property. In my experience, most of these photographs are from the days before digital cameras, meaning by this point in 2015 they are at least 15-year-old photos, or older.

Circa 1990 Photograph of my house, courtesy of Montgomery County PA
This photograph of my home I have pegged to the early 1990's, based primarily on the car in the neighbor's driveway. I'm far, far from an expert on identifying cars, but I think this is a circa 1990 Ford Escort. Assuming that the car was a few years old when the photo was snapped and not brand new, the photo was likely taken somewhere between 1990 and 1995. Thus, I'll call this a 20-year-old photograph.

What can we learn from this Photograph?

Placing the 20-year-old photograph side-by-side with a current photo and looking for differences in details, however slight, can give us some clues about the physical history of the home.

The most obvious difference is the exterior paint color. In the early 90's, the asbestos siding was a white color. Now, it is an olive green. At the closing table, the previous owners of our house relayed an anecdote of them painting the house in their early years owning the home, while the wife was pregnant if my memory serves me well. This would have been the early 2000's. The current green is at least the third color the house has exhibited. We know this because the current asbestos siding is not the original siding to the house, having been installed perhaps when the rear addition was performed.


Probably the next most-noticeable difference is the landscaping, namely the hedge at the front of the yard, which no longer exists (although the 2014 is taken from a bit closer to the house, trust me, it's not there). Not a huge story-teller of a detail here, but in another conversation with my current neighbor, he relayed that the previous owner (2001-2014) had constructed a short berm (mound) against the street to prevent water from running off onto the front yard. For his part, this previous owner tells me that the hedge was not there when they bought the house. The planting bed in front of the porch is also more densely planted in the early 90's than it is now. Again, the prevous owner helps out by telling me they replanted some of the azaleas from that location to along the side of the house.


Now, I noticed this one pretty quickly and I hope you did too-- there is one less window on the side of the house now than there was in the 90's. If you look at the second window from the front, it is now covered over.

Interior side
Exterior side
This is located at what is currently a full bathroom. The previous owner tells me that this room was always a bathroom during their time here, and a look at the piping underneath the basement shows that it is certainly more than 15-20 years old. Further, you can see the stack vent coming on roof above this window even in the 90's photo, meaning this bathroom was not a recent addition. Most likely, the only significant change here was that the window was covered over when a plexiglass bath-fitter type shower enclosure was installed at some point. While not incredibly exciting, it is still part of the home's history!

The vinyl shutters on the front windows (and one side window facing the driveway) were added post-2001. Their reddish color compliments the overall olive green building color nicely, although shutters likely never existed here (one shutter had to have a large notch taken out of it to fit against the porch beam). When the time comes for me to do significant work to the outside of this house, I will wrestle with what exactly to do here. I rather like what they add to the curb appeal, yet they are historically inaccurate.

Other Tiny Differences

The downspout on the left-most porch pier has now been moved from the front face to the left side of the pier, a welcome change visually. You can also see in the current photograph that the incoming electrical service attaches to the house at a mast (pole) that was likely added to comply with current electrical code or after a service upgrade, possibly as part of the 2001 transaction.


Photographs preserve a moment in time. They can prove invaluable when other records exist, but they are even more helpful in enriching the story of the subject being captured. Any house history researcher would be grateful to score an old photograph of their subject home, especially one of vintage from the early years since its construction. Photos can potentially be found from a variety sources: old newspapers, historical societies, previous owners, and perhaps even insurance companies. My search for additional, and older, photographs of the home will continue, but even a relatively recent photograph can display a wide range and amount of changes that a house can experience over a 20+ year period.

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