Published in the Seattle Times online on March 31, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on April 3, 2022
Smile! Here’s where you can find a DNA test for your home
By Clay Eals
Whether we’ve been here 40 years or 40 days, we all yearn to embrace the place we call home. One way to do so is to see what came before.
The Puget Sound Regional Branch of Washington State Archives — a godsend to some, unknown to others — provides just such a peek, drawing 5,000 research requests annually. Among its wide-ranging governmental records is a showcase collection that can touch nearly every King County resident.
The collection, starting in the late 1930s, assembled a Property Record Card for each of 146,000 buildings, revealing year of construction, structural materials and myriad other specifics, often with crisp black-and-white photos of same.
Taken with large-format view cameras, the photos bear dates and addresses hand-scratched into their negatives, appearing in white in corresponding prints. Today they might be called a DNA test for your home. But that wasn’t their original purpose.
In 1935, King County Assessor Roy Misener sought to jettison poor data and subjective appraisals that had produced incomplete property-tax valuations. With federal Works Progress Administration dollars, over five years he hired 700 workers to create maps, interview residents and create photos to equalize assessments.
After initial work ended in 1940, if a building was upgraded, staff updated its data and took a new photo. In 1972, high-grade imaging ended. Seven years later, the collection transferred to the state archives. Ever since, copies and reprints (digital scans today) have been available to the public for nominal fees. The reasons for such requests range from nostalgic to legal.
Photos for a few sites, such as areas beneath Interstate 5, are missing. But the collection, which often provides a historic building’s only visual evidence of existence, has remained largely intact— from 1979 to 1998 inside the jet-noisy former Sunset Junior High in the north clear zone of Sea-Tac Airport and since 1998 at a facility built for the archives at Bellevue College.
That the collection survives and thrives owes to a tenacious staff led by a regional archivist who retired in March after 46 years, Michael Saunders. He is quick to credit the “innate stubbornness” of his team and support from the Secretary of State’s office, partner agencies and scores of volunteers.
Of course, digitizing, gatekeeping and otherwise managing the records is an endless task fit for the mythical Sisyphus. It requires, Saunders says, “the ability to see how a bunch of mundane and even sometimes tedious work gets you to a better outcome.” Which is, he says, to serve “a legacy of societal memory.”
In other words, for our collective psyche, there’s no place like home.
Special thanks to Michael Saunders for his invaluable help with this installment.