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Your house has secrets. Here's how to find them

Online editor Isolde Raftery reads an old residential ledger at the Puget Sound Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives in Bellevue.
KUOW Photo/Amina Al-Sadi
Online editor Isolde Raftery reads an old residential ledger at the Puget Sound Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives in Bellevue.

First, an admission.

We were clueless when we started researching the house at 1643 South King Street in Seattle's International District.

Producer Amina Al-Sadi and I started our hunt by walking around downtown, ducking into city buildings and looking at the directory for the word "archives."

So, to save you time, we've compiled some tips on learning the history of a house in King County. This will be a living document, part guide for KUOW journalists who will report on future house histories and part tip sheet for YOU to learn about your own house.

King County Assessor (sales 1991-present)  

Tip: Everything at the Assessor's office can be found by searching the Parcel Viewer online

Tip: The search function is a little picky, so you may need to enter your address several times before your house shows up.

Tip: Click on the blue tab labeled “Print Property Detail” (top, right) to see old photos of the house (you’ll want to click on the blue camera icon to see all the photos). To see the house's sale history back to 1991, scroll all the way to the bottom.

Seattle newspaper archives online

Tip: Use your library card for free access. Log in directly with your Seattle Public Library card here. (Or with your King County Library card here.)

Tip: Seattle users, if that doesn’t work (and this has been a problem in the past), log in to your library as you normally would. Once you've done that, go to NewsBank.

Tip: Type the address of the house you are researching in QUOTES (i.e. “1643 S. King”).

Tip: Mix it up. Try “1643 South King” or “1643 S King,” omitting the period. It could yield different search results.


Type your address in quotes. (You might be surprised by what surfaces.)

1940 Census  

The 1940 Census is the most recent available Census, although fair warning that you may have to leaf through several pages before you find your house. This is the only Census that has been uploaded so handily (and we believe the only one that is free; others are available on

Police Reports

Search police reports and 911 calls at and around your house, dating back to 2013. We grew impatient with this because load time takes a while and we were searching way, way back. 

Archives in Bellevue  

If you’re searching a house built before 1937, you must go to the Puget Sound Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives. This is where you can find historic photos of your house.

There, helpful reference librarians will help you find the original records for your house – and possibly the wills for earlier residents.

(They will issue you white gloves so that the oil from your hands doesn’t stain the old records.) 

Polk City Directory  

House records tell you only who OWNED the house. They don’t tell you who LIVED at the house.

That's where the Polk City Directory comes in. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "An old copy of the Polk Directory at the Puget Sound Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives.", "fid": "127381", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201606/5researchpolkdirectory.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery"}]]

[asset-images[{"caption": "Producer Amina Al-Sadi wears the white gloves at the Puget Sound Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives. The gloves protect old documents.", "fid": "127398", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201606/aminaglovesUSE_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery"}]]Tip: Full sets of the Polk City Directory can be found at:

  • University of Washington (basement, Allen Library)
  • Puget Sound Regional Branch (Bellevue)
  • Seattle Municipal Archives (downtown Seattle)
  • Central Library (also downtown).

Tip: The Polk directory lists an individual's profession, too. 
Tip: The Polk directory becomes useful for our purposes in 1937. That’s when a reverse directory started being issued. Use the reverse directory to look up your house's address. It will tell you the name of the resident who lives at the house. 

Now switch to the main directory to look up the resident and the resident’s profession. 

Tip: A circle next to the resident’s name indicates ownership. 

We found it interesting/odd that the Polk directories list women as parenthetical (their names are in parentheses next to their husbands) well into the 1980s. Also, the women’s professions aren’t listed. 

United States Postal Service 

We also delivered letters to neighbors to ask them what they remembered. The neighbors replied that activists had lived in the house for decades. We wouldn't have found out about those activists through archives. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Ronni Tartlet, left, with reporter Liz Jones. We found Tartlet by blanketing the neighborhood letters. The documents couldn't tell us about the period between 1972 and 2009, so we asked neighbors to help us. Without Ronni's account, the King Street house story would have been woefully incomplete.", "fid": "127396", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201606/ronniliz.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery"}]]Seattle Department of Construction

The Seattle Department of Construction has a microfilm library (veer left and walk all the way down the hall). They have building permits from the 1890s to the present and building plans for single-family residences from 1974 onward. We found one record from the 1920s, but it wasn’t very helpful.    

Historic sites

Find out if your house has historical significance. (The King Street house had two entries.)   

Other resources

[asset-images[{"caption": "Mary Kircher Roddy, a geneologist, provided us with dozens of documents she found through her own resources about people who lived at 1643 S. King Street. Roddy also gave us the invaluable (and free!) tip of typing an address into Seattle's newspaper's archive, accessible through the Seattle Public Library.", "fid": "127384", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201606/mary_kircher_roddy_-_geneologist.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery"}]]The King Street house story would not have been told without Wikipedia.

We wanted to tell the story of growth over time in Seattle, and we thought the Central District might be an interesting place to examine, although we worried that story had been over-told.

But Wikipedia told us something we didn’t know about our city: African-American families, moving to Seattle to work at Boeing, moved into houses vacated by the Japanese. That inspired us to find a house that would tell the story of Japanese internment during World War II.

Producer Kate Walters went to the Wing Luke Museum to find out where the Japanese had lived. She found this map, which helped me narrow my search for Japanese families in the 1940 Census.

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "127413", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201606/thesewalls.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Kate Walters"}]]Much of JapanTown has been paved over since World War II. We toggled between Google Maps street view and the 1940 Census to find existing houses where Japanese-born people had lived.

For stories relating to Japanese-American history, the Densho project is vast and thorough. That’s where we found, with the help of a Densho librarian, Sam Shoji’s testimony to a Congressional Committee in the 1970s.

The National Archives has online internment records, which is how we first learned the Shojis were interned at Minidoka in Idaho.