Historian talks researching Baltimore City homes

By EMILY MCDONALD | October 25, 2018

COURTESY OF JAE CHOI Eli Pousson, a local historian, aims to inspire people to research their homes.

Historian, preservationist and Baltimore resident Eli Pousson gave a talk titled “Researching Your Historic Home” at the Station North Tool Library (SNTL) on Oct. 18. Pousson is the director of preservation and outreach for Baltimore Heritage, a non-profit organization which works to preserve historic neighborhoods and buildings in the city. 

The talk outlined materials and research methods available for people interested in learning more about the histories of their homes or neighborhoods. 

Pousson began by relating his own experience writing history. 

“The first time I took an architectural history class, I didn’t have a lot of background in historical research,” he said. “Writing history, while it’s something that can be sophisticated and analytical and complex, it’s also something that we do everyday.”

He hoped that the lecture would help community members understand that anyone can conduct historical research. 

“The same kinds of skills that you use to think about how to make sense of the world are the same skills that you get to use for making sense of the history of your community,” Pousson said. “This is something that you can do. History is not rocket science.”

Pousson suggested some starting points for people interested in creating historical research projects.

“Factories, churches, cemeteries, liquor stores even, all of these have histories that you can dive into,” he said. “One of the ways to begin thinking through how to approach a research project, a local history research project to learn more about a building, is to think about what makes your place different than any other place.”

Pousson explained that there are a variety of different sources available for people who want to research a building or community.

“Almost anything can be a source,” he said. “Even buildings themselves can be sources — the pattern of bricks as they’re laid in the wall, the ceiling tiles, the size of the openings, the materials that the building is made out of — all of these can tell you something about the history of the building or the history of the community.”

He also suggested looking at libraries for sources such as books, directories and maps.

“A good first place is to go to the library,” he said. “A lot of the best sources that we’re talking about are accessible with an Enoch E. Pratt library card.”

Pousson explained that he decided to give the lecture because he hopes people will be inspired to research their own homes and neighborhoods. 

“Sometimes it’s fun to hear someone tell you the story of a historic building, but it’s often even more fun to feel like you’re discovering that story for yourself,” he said. 

Pousson also explained that advances in technology have improved the way people do historical research. 

“The wide availability of sources online makes it a lot easier for people to research historic buildings and neighborhoods than it has been in the past,” he said. “Now sitting on your couch with a laptop, you can really learn quite a bit.”

Arman Mizani, the director of library services at the SNTL, explained that part of the reason that the tool library decided to host Pousson is because of the organization’s concern with historic preservation and protection of legacy residents. 

“We’re working really hard to serve historic neighborhoods in Baltimore that have been underserved and experienced a lot of the negative effects of white flight and gentrification,” he said. 

Mizani added that the history of Baltimore has shaped its architecture and its neighborhoods.

“The first lecture that [Pousson] did was about redlining, the history of segregation and racist policies in the cities,” he said. “It’s why a lot of people will talk about Baltimore as a checkerboard, where from block to block it can change drastically.”

Jae Choi contributed reporting. 

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