Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Where Real Estate Meets Genealogy... and Personal History

I hit too many roadblocks as I researched our family tree on Ancestry.com and gave up. But it's all right; we've already got my mother's side mapped out, with a big boxful of records at my dad's house. Decades ago, my mom worked with genealogists in the U.K. to trace her family backward from Pennsylvania through Australia (a convict, naturally; he'd stolen his neighbor's bullock) and then to Ireland and Cornwall. She learned we are descended from this fellow, the last man in Britain to be publicly beheaded. I'm not sure she kept going beyond him, since Lord Lovat's appalling life story and unique distinction were just about the most disheartening discoveries she could imagine finding.

My short-lived obsession with family genealogy may be over, but I just discovered a website that is sure to keep me similarly entertained for a long time, since it feeds my ongoing obsession with Back Bay properties. It's called Back Bay Houses. You choose a street and a number, and then you'll find a page detailing the history of that house and its occupants, along with exterior photos.

While Back Bay has many more residents now, with multiple condo or rental units in buildings that were built for one family and their servants, I now understand that these houses were changing hands frequently even a century or more ago. I'm finding that Back Bay has always been a rather "transient" neighborhood, and it wouldn't surprise me if a lot renovating and updating went on even back then. So perhaps reinventing these wonderful old buildings is a long-standing tradition, much as it upsets me these days.

If you're patient, you'll find some interesting tidbits in the buildings' stories. For example, I discovered that the first building I lived in once housed the offices of Daughters of the American Revolution while another former residence of mine had held the offices of the Junior League. So, without even trying, I managed to "crash" two hallowed WASP institutions that would never have welcomed me. And here's another riddle solved: now I know why this place had long rows of grow-lights and seedlings sprouting all over its basement back in the '80s and '90s. Reading that story, I remembered running out of my apartment in boots and a nightgown, late at night on February 16, 1994, to watch the firemen battle the flames in the adjoining building as I stood freezing on the snowy Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

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