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Washington, D.C., History Resources

A guide to the local history resources available on the District of Columbia.

Cultural Resource Surveys

The D.C. Office of Historic Preservation (HPO), a unit of the D.C. Office of Planning, creates documentation of the city’s history by conducting cultural resource studies required for city planning and designating historical landmarks and historical districts. These studies contain detailed histories of the built environment and landscapes, including archaeological surveys that reveal patterns of land use and consumption from the prehistoric era through the present.  The HPO provides the general public access to its reports, including archaeological studies and landmark applications with supporting documentation. Researchers are also encouraged to contact the HPO to receive access to reports, as it will provide digital copies of reports upon request.

Using Cultural Resource Surveys

There are several methods for researchers to explore the resources provided by the HPO. If you are interested in a specific site, no matter how narrow, the HPO is a good place to check out. HPO reports include more than the history of buildings: they can include information about the Native American societies and cultures, the settlement of the region during the colonial period, nineteenth-century commerce and living conditions, and building improvements.

The primary method of discovery provided by the HPO is HistoryQuest DC, which overlays the database it has developed on historical buildings on an interactive GIS map that provides historical data on approximately 127,000 extant buildings in Washington, DC. It includes links to documentation on properties listed in the National Register of Historical Places, information on residential subdivisions, and identification and boundaries of the L’Enfant Plan, wards, and city squares.

To begin by exploring some of the historic neighborhoods, it is best to consult the nominations for historic districts, supporting maps, and other information by exploring the information posted here. These historic districts include:

  • 35 neighborhoods, including Georgetown, Capitol Hill, and Greater U Street
  • 25 government and institutional historic districts, including Georgetown Visitation, Howard University, and the Smithsonian Quadrangle
  •  11 park and parkway historical districts, including the C & O Canal, Rock Creek Park, Glover-Archibald Park, Civil War park sites, and Theodore Roosevelt Island.

The HPO can provide access to the bulk of its reports by servicing researcher requests directly. These resources include

  • Nomination applications to all properties on the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites. The 2009 list included 700 designations encompassing nearly 25,000 properties.
  • Archaeological surveys generated by the The Office of Archaeology.
  • Major development projects can generate several reports, since the D.C. Office of Planning requires cultural resource surveys whenever new ground is broken.

Contacting HPO

If interested in any reports that are not available on the HPO sites described above, write to or call 202-442-7600.

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