August 14, 2013

Finding Her Roots: A National Trust Employee Explores Family History in a Historic Home

  • By: David Weible
Joan's father and mother pose on the historic home's steps in 2013. Credit: Joan Menzer
Joan's father and mother pose on the steps of the historic house where he spent his youth.

When National Trust employee Joan Menzer was in elementary school in the 1970s just outside of Washington, D.C., her father would occasionally drive the family past the Craftsman bungalow he had spent the first few years of his life in near the Palisades neighborhood of the city. And though the house -- which her great-grandfather, a streetcar driver, had built in 1927 -- had remained within her extended family into the 1980s, Menzer had never stepped foot inside.

Then, this past April, curiosity got the best of her. After talking it over with a few friends who own historic properties in the area, Menzer decided to write the owner a letter, offering up history of the house. The owner responded with an invitation to visit, and Menzer took her parents -- who had since moved away from the area but were back visiting -- to see it.

What were some of the more interesting parts of the tour?

One of the interesting things was we were walking through the basement, because that’s where the grocery store had been [that my grandparents used to run], and I looked down on this concrete step and there was some writing and there was a name and a date. And I said ‘Oh, Dad, who’s Linda Lee?’ And he said ‘Oh, that’s my cousin.’ 1949 was the date on it, and so I pointed it out to the owner and he said he had actually never noticed it.

Another interesting thing that the owner mentioned while we were there was that he thought maybe it was a Sears home. So when I got home I started going online and looking at Sears homes and I did find the exact same-looking house that was a Sears home in the '20s. I don’t think it was a kit home but I think the plans were definitely poached from, or purchased from, the Sears homes.

Ad for the Sears Kit "Vallonia" model. Credit: Joan Menzer
Ad for the Sears Kit "Vallonia" model.

What was the experience like?

It was fun. It was just a really nice way -- you know, my dad is up in his 70s -- it was a nice way to reconnect him with a piece of his childhood, and for me to be able to see the house too.

Any more interesting family history there?

They did let out several rooms to boarders -- and this would have been in the '30s -- and one of the boarders who came to live with them was my grandmother, who I think moved from Arkansas as soon as she finished high school to work at the Social Security Administration. And my great-grandparents had three sons and a daughter, and so the oldest son and she met in the hallway, I guess, and hit it off and ended up getting married and my father was born around that time.

Did the current owner find anything interesting when he bought the house?

In doing some of the updates to the air conditioning system, he had to rip out a wall to get to the duct work. And when he did he found another room that he didn’t know was there. And so they found this little room that had an actual sink on the wall, a medicine cabinet, and an old chaise lounge. And then he showed us he found this old lace-up corset, this old girdle basically, that probably was from about the '30s looking at it. So who knows, it could have been my grandmother’s.

Joan's grandmother holds her son (Joan's father) on the steps of their D.C. home in 1939. Credit: Joan Menzer
Joan's grandmother holds her son (Joan's father) on the steps of their D.C. home in 1939.

Emotionally, what was the experience like for you and for your father?

I was just very grateful that I was able to do that for my dad because he really has this strong connection to D.C. and his childhood here, and knowing that he hadn’t been in the house for so many years. For me it was mostly I felt like it was a gift to my father. And I know he was extremely appreciative. He was kind of overwhelmed when I first told him.

Did you learn anything new about your family history from this experience?

I learned a little bit more in a couple of things my father said. I hadn’t realized it but apparently his aunts lived in the house next door. And I had never known that. And that my father had actually worked in the [grocery] store. I didn’t know that.

What did you take away from all of this?

I would say one thing it sort of made me think was ‘Gosh I wish I’d done this sooner.’ So definitely reach out if you have that kind of connection or information about something. Like I said, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

If you know that you’ve got a connection, try to learn more about it without letting too much time pass because we’re all getting older. I really was very happy to be able to get there with my father and make that connection with him.

Edited for length and clarity

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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