Find Your Building's History Online -- It's in the Cards

Published on June 06, 2016


Arlington County's newly digitized collection of "house cards" offers easy, online access to some of the history and physical evolution of nearly every building in our community. All you need is a street name and/or block number to start your hunt.

When the County's first Building Code was adopted in 1935, a system was created of using customized index cards to record a structure's builder, subdivision and alterations large and small. If a homeowner installed "asphalt shingles over present roof" on Oct. 16, 1959, it was noted. If a "12' x 9' screened-in" back porch was added mid-April 1968, it was recorded. House cards also served as official "death" certificates. A scrawled "DEMOLISHED" is often the last word on an isolated tear down or a neighborhood bisection in advance of I-66.

When a building built before 1935 was remodeled, or some other work was done to it requiring a permit, a card for the building often was added to the collection.  Building permit information was recorded on the cards through the late-1980s. More than 20 years ago, the cards -- dubbed "house cards" even though they applied to  nearly every building in the County, not just houses -- were scanned, but were only available on CDs and accessible to a limited number of County staff.

"It took a year of collaboration across departments — and lots of digital file conversion -- to get the thousands and thousands of cards digitized," said Cynthia Liccese-Torres, the County's Historic Preservation Program Coordinator. "Making this information easily accessible to the public is in keeping with the spirit of open government and aligns with the recommendations of the County's History Task Force."

A separate collection, "property cards," used by the Department of Real Estate Assessments, documented the value of buildings over time. Those cards, now also available online, include owners' names, dates of sales transactions, and building and land assessment values.

Original building permits for nearly all buildings built from 1935 on, and construction drawings for many commercial buildings and multi-family apartment buildings are still on file at the Center for Local History at the County's Central Library.

Happy hunting.

View Arlington Data, the County's open data portal, where you can find a variety of datasets.

To learn more about civic engagement in Arlington, visit Engage Arlington, on the County website.