Genealogy tools, House History, Uncategorized

The Branch mansion in Alexandria

One of my favorite ways to explore the past is through fire insurance maps. I’ve talked about Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps before, but I always discover something new when I revisit them.

The maps were launched in 1867 to help insurance agents determine the risk of insuring properties. They offer a bird’s eye view of every building on a plot of land and detail how many stories, doors and windows a dwelling had.

The first thing to do when looking at the maps is to find the key. This will explain all the notations on your ancestor’s home. Usually, it’s on the first page of a map series.

I decided to revisit the maps after driving past the home of silent film star Mary Miles Minter’s cousin in Alexandria. I’d visited the home in real estate listings and wondered why in the world it was selling for such a bargain basement price. Well, a drive past the day after Christmas ended that wonder. The neighborhood’s definitely seen better times. We didn’t even get out of the car. I wanted to see what the neighborhood looked like in 1914 so I turned to Sanborn.

Introducing the Branch Mansion, circa 1914:

With a little imagination, the neighborhood quickly comes into focus even though more than a century’s passed. 103 Bolton Avenue was the lone house on the block. A servant’s dwelling was located behind the beautiful mansion. Today, the servant’s quarters are gone as are most of the neighboring houses on 16th. The steps to one house still are there.

It happens. Houses burn down. Other times, they’re abandoned and quickly crumble.

Turning to the key, I learn more about the Bolton Mansion. It’s two stories. Oh, that building at the far right was a stable (now gone). All the houses in the neighborhood were frame. Fascinating!

These maps tend to focus on cities rather than rural areas. Enjoy!


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