Graham Elvidge and Kathleen Stormont had a feeling the dilapidated Queen Anne-style house they purchased in Vancouver's east end was special.
But they had no idea it was erected by a prominent builder 108 years ago. Nor did they know its basement was once a bootlegging depot.
It wasn't until they hired local house historian James Johnstone to research their new purchase that they got a glimpse into their home's past.
Combing through the city's archives and directories, Mr. Johnstone found that the couple's home is the only remaining residence built by Frederick William Sentell, who constructed Vancouver's first city hall. Mr. Johnstone discovered that Mr. Elvidge and Ms. Stormont were only the building's third owners in more than a century. Later, the couple learned that neighbourhood bootleggers used to smuggle liquor in through their basement window for safekeeping during Prohibition.
"Nobody had any idea that little house actually has a reasonably important place in the early history of Vancouver," Mr. Elvidge said. "It almost certainly would have been bulldozed unless someone like Kathleen and I had chosen to restore it."
Amid the country's real estate boom, old and rundown buildings are often torn down to be replaced with McMansions and condominiums.
But with the help of home genealogists such as Mr. Johnstone, homeowners are gaining a new interest and admiration for their cities' early structures.
In Toronto, Dana King has completed the histories of dozens of residences through her business, Every House Tells a Story. Meanwhile, Bruce Bell, operator of the city's Bruce Bell Tours, examines the past of Toronto's major hotels and business properties for commercial clients.
"The history of the buildings [is]the history of the people who built them, and the people who lived in them and the people who worked in them," Mr. Bell said.
In Vancouver, Mr. Johnstone has researched 500 homes, mostly in the east end neighbourhood of Strathcona, the city's oldest community. He has discovered 827 East Georgia St. was occupied during the 1940s by the grandmother of rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix. He located the site of one of Vancouver's most spectacular shootouts during the 1920s. Through his research, Mr. Johnstone has also tracked the lives and deaths of countless immigrant families who passed through the historically poor, working class neighbourhood.
"There's some pretty intense, poignant history here," he said.
A long-time history buff, Mr. Johnstone began researching houses as a hobby, but turned his passion into a business, Home History Research Services, about six years ago. His services generally cost between $700 and $2,000. At the end of his investigation, he produces the entire genealogy of a home, as well as the histories of the neighbouring houses.
"[Most clients are]curious to find out, 'Okay, who scratched the inscription on the basement wall, or whose initials are on these pillars downstairs, or why would they build this way?' " Mr. Johnstone said.
But some clients call upon him to help explain paranormal encounters they experience in their heritage homes.
Some houses certainly harbour unpleasant stories. Mr. Johnstone said he has researched homes where former occupants have committed suicide in grisly ways. In one instance, he said, a resident killed himself by drinking carbolic acid. Another died by jumping in front of a streetcar. As well, entire families linked to some homes were wiped out by tuberculosis.
Mr. Johnstone's clients don't often get upset by his morbid discoveries. However, when Mr. Johnstone found that a double murder occurred in the bedroom of one upscale Vancouver house, his client chose to keep the revelation a secret - even from his wife.
"It was just too creepy for the client to basically say, 'Look, honey, at what I found out,' " Mr. Johnstone said.
While Mr. Johnstone often grows fond of the houses he is hired to research, his favourites are his "orphan projects" - the ramshackle, forgotten dwellings that he studies out of personal interest.
Recently, Mr. Johnstone began compiling photographs and records for an ambitious project that he hopes will encompass the city's entire east end. He is calling on former east end residents to share their stories and photos about the neighbourhood, and plans to publish his findings on a website that would allow users to freely view the genealogy of each house.
Local historian Bruce Macdonald, author of Vancouver: A Visual History, said Mr. Johnstone's online project would be an invaluable resource.
"[Vancouver's]whole downtown has been completely transformed, obviously. It's all concrete towers and stuff," Mr. Macdonald said.
A widely accessible history bank would help preserve some of the city's earliest houses, he said.
At Mr. Elvidge and Ms. Stormont's home, the couple have become so enthralled by the history of their new place that they have preserved the pellet-gun marks left from a previous occupant's habit of shooting rodents indoors. They have also kept graffiti - the letters M A Y - scrawled on a windowsill more than a century ago by the builder's daughter, May Sentell.
Those are the types of priceless details that bring the past to life, Mr. Elvidge said. "To me, if you're going to bother restoring a place, you've got to keep an eye on the story - all the little stories that you come across," he said.
Finding the story
Just like every house tells a story, anyone can find basic information to piece that story together, Toronto house historian Dana King says - you just have to know where to look.
But, she warns, "it's very time-consuming."
Ms. King recommends starting out with current property tax records. This will give you the home's plan and lot number, key pieces of data that will help you in your research.
Addresses and street names change through time, but unless a property is divided, it will likely retain its original lot number, she explained.
Next, possibly the single best resource for home history researchers is the city archives. Here you will find city directories, which are listed both by the occupant's name and by address. However, they tell you only who was living in the house at the time, not necessarily who owned it, Ms. King said.
City archives also usually keep photographs of various neighbourhoods, old property tax assessment records, city maps and fire insurance plans.
To identify the previous owners of your home, Vancouver home historian James Johnstone suggests contacting the provincial land title office.
Once you've determined the former occupants and owners, you can find out more about their lives through birth, death and marriage certificates at the provincial archives, Ms. King says.
Mr. Johnstone also suggests checking online resources, such as Automatedgenealogy.com, where you can access, for example, the 1901 and 1911 Canadian census, and Ancestry.com, which offers a collection of historical records and family trees.