On 5 March a group of about 30 people toured the holdings of the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) of the City of Seattle (see left). This tour was one in a series of back-of-the-house tours sponsored by Historic Seattle in their “Digging Deeper” series which explores well known and obscure repositories in the Puget Sound area which have holdings that might be of interest to house historians, architectural historians and genealogists. I have used the DPD collection before as it was my first stop when doing my own house history; however, I learned some tips on this tour that would have made that first visit much easier.
Sue Putnam, Josey Rush and Warren Chapman, employees of the City and caretakers of the records, warmly greeted us, answered all our questions and gave us some great tips about what was included in their collection and how to best access the records.
There are three primary record sets in their holdings:
Holdings include permits issued by the city back to the late 1800s indicating their approval to construct a building. These records are contained on microfilm or “roll film.” They hold some paper copies but these are difficult to access and are only accessed when there is conflicting data or a bad scan on the film. Permits between the years of 1894-1930 are on roll film. Later records are on fiche. Permits issued since 1994 are on line. Permits vary in the information given; usually the builder’s name is listed, as is the building type and permit value. Only during a few years did they record the name of the architect. The permits from the 1920s are particularly rich with content. Some of the very earliest permits have better legibility than later.
There are no plans of houses prior to 1974 due to a fire. Commercial plans, however, do exist. Some of the later plans are online.
- Land use maps
These include environmental studies and maps. Especially strong are the shoreline permits. The available records are generally from the 1970s to today.
These documents are accessed using the street address. There is no cross reference of addresses, i.e. if your address changed then you have to ask for both addresses. (City Directories can help with this.). This creates problems when street addresses change; each street address needs to be investigated and asked for separately. Even a “north” exchanged for a “north east” will result in a different answer. Also, if your house was parsed from another then the history of the house may not be accessible in its present address but rather is recorded with the “mother house.”
The staff will only pull what you ask for.
DPD is an very active office where building permits and other land use issues are reviewed and approved. These holdings are also actively accessed by the general public who is interested in projects being built now or to be built in the future. For those of us interested in the historical aspects of the holdings, it is best to not visit in person but rather send Josey and Warren an email describing what we need and give them a few days to find it. They will scan the record and send it to you electronically, saving the cost (and effort) of parking and coming in person.
If you do decide to go in person, the office is on the 19th floor of the Municipal building. Check their hours of public access as these are restricted. My first impression of the lobby during public hours was of chaos in a large open space. The information desk is in front of you, closed offices to the right and a large seating area on the left. Against the wall behind you on the left are a series of computers for registering your presence and making an appointment (appointments can only be made in person for that day.) While you may be interested in multiple addresses, it is only necessary to enter one address to make the appointment. Be prepared for a wait. I cannot recommend (from personal experience) standing in line at the information counter for personal assistance unless there is no one else there.
Their busiest days are Tuesdays and Thursdays; their busiest time of day is early morning and late afternoon. Noontime is the least busy.
- “History Card”: this is a list of permits for each address. At a minimum it will include the permit date the amount paid for the permit and the size and type of building.
- A copy of all permits listed on the History card.
- Determine if there are plans. If yes, then ask for those.
- DPD also has “Abstracts” which are the historical ownership records back to 1908. These are filed by legal description (lot and block) and are in alpha order. Again, you have to ask specifically for these records.
- If your property might be affected by a shoreline permit, ask for that.
It was a terrific tour and the staff was willing to answer all our questions.
An interesting issue of security and public access was raised during the questions and answer period (Josey responding to questions in photo at left). Yes, these are public records; only one set of plans is unavailable to the public–plans of the County Jail. There may be some reasons why certain owners might not want their plans public but while the DPD staff will work with people on that issue, it is rarely a request that is granted.
Thanks to Historic Seattle and Luci Baker Johnson for organizing this tour and all of the repository tours. Here is a list of the remaining tours. I only blog about those I attend. Click here to link to the series It is necessary to make advanced reservations but Luci announced that some of these tours are already filled.
- University of Washington Built Environments Library
Saturday, April 4, 2015
- Fiske Genealogical Library
Saturday, May 9, 2015
- Washington State Historical Society History Research Center
Thursday, June 4 or Saturday, June 6, 2015 (offered both days, choose one)
- Tacoma Public Library Northwest Room
Saturday, June 6, 2015
- Eastside Heritage Center
Saturday, August 8, 2015
- Providence Mount St. Vincent Archives
Thursday, September 3, 2015
What i have done since the last posting: The past few weeks have been a genealogy marathon where I worked to complete the production of three presentations for Jefferson County GS which I will give on 21 March. I created a webpage where I post presentation materials in advance for the attendees. I keep it active until a week after the presentation and then take it down. I have been asked to write an article for the Illinois State Genealogy Quarterly. I responded to the NGS Call for papers with eight submissions. Next, I need to respond to the FGS Call for Papers.
All photos taken by me on 5 May at DPD.