Reconstructing the History of a City Block

Much of the work we do in support of environmental law and toxic tort cases involves compiling comprehensive site histories. We work with our clients to come up with cost-efficient research strategies to compile these site histories, which help answer their most pressing environmental or historical questions. We’ve broadly discussed this type of work before in relation to chemical releases into local waterways. Today, we’d like to take the opportunity to discuss a specific case in which we reconstructed the history of an entire city block.

The client, who is in the oil and gas industry, requested our services to uncover the historical use of a city block on which they owned property for more than 100 years. The client was interested in learning about their predecessor’s tenureship as well as their own. The client operated a bulk plant for a large portion of their tenureship. In the early 2000s — years after the plant had ceased operations — the city found “free product” or standing oil on the property. Because of this discovery, the client wanted to know how their site changed over time as well as learn who owned or occupied other lots on the block. This information could help determine if there were other potentially responsible parties (PRPs) that could have caused or contributed to the source of the problem identified by the city and also share responsibility for the required cleanup.

We implemented a three-step research strategy to uncover the facts our client was after. First, we focused on gaining an understanding of the client’s specific site as well as the entire city block in question. As is often the case when compiling site histories, we began by reviewing land ownership maps available at federal repositories in the D.C. area. Maps such as those produced by Sanborn Map Company, which created maps for fire insurance liability, can visually show how the footprint of an entity expanded or contracted over time. Figure B below provides a bird’s-eye view of the city block in question from 1893, which was one year after our client established its presence on the block. Figure T shows the block as it looked over a half a century later and depicts and labels gasoline and oil storage tanks on the property. Clearly, these maps capture detectable historical changes. In the late 1800s, the block was divided into many small parcels, but by the late 1960s the client occupied the block in its entirety.*

 Figure B (1893): From Real Estate Plat-Book of Washington, District of Columbia. Vol. 2, by Griffith M. Hopkins, Published in 1893

Figure B (1893): From Real Estate Plat-Book of Washington, District of Columbia. Vol. 2, by Griffith M. Hopkins, Published in 1893

 Figure T (1967): From Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia, Volume 2, by G.W. Baist, Published in 1967

Figure T (1967): From Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia, Volume 2, by G.W. Baist, Published in 1967

Land ownership maps only provide one piece of the puzzle, however, and do not show completely accurate changes to properties or city blocks. This is because these maps are not produced on a yearly basis and because some owners do not provide map companies with access to their property. Therefore, we then had to delve into a variety of electronic databases to fill in the existing informational gaps. We mined databases like ProQuest Historical Newspapers and WorldCat to find relevant documentation related to property acquisitions, construction projects, operations and activities, court cases, fires, and other notable events of interest that took place within the city block during the period of interest to the client. For example, we learned that in 1950 an empty 15,000-gallon gasoline tank exploded on the client’s site while five men were cleaning it. The tank was one of several that were going to be moved to another plant within the D.C. area owned by the client.

Informational gaps were further filled in by reviewing city directories and land, deed, and building permit records collections available at the D.C. Archives and Office of Tax & Revenue (among other city agencies and repositories). These records indicated that the client’s footprint expanded in the early 1900s when it acquired the title to a portion of the block that had formerly been a brick and stone yard. By 1917, the client owned all of the property on the city block. Over the next several decades, above and underground oil storage tanks were constructed to house various petroleum products. One building permit from the late 1920s indicated that fourteen underground storage tanks were built that held a combined total of 300,000 gallons of gasoline. Another permit from the early 1930s indicated that eleven storage tanks were to be built that would hold more than 63,000 gallons of gasoline. Some of these tanks were later removed, and by 1960 the client’s bulk plant operations had ceased. In the 1970s, the client began selling off portions of their property, and by the early 1980s only operated a service station on a small section of the property they retained. Oil and automobile companies as well as a fast food restaurant were some of the entities that eventually operated on these other sections of the block. Unfortunately, there were no maps produced by Sanborn Map Company for the Washington, D.C., area in the 1970s, but we were able to provide the client with aerial photographs of the city block such as Figure V shown below.

 Figure V (1975): From Aerial Photographs of the National Capital Planning Commission, Aerial Photographs of Washington, D.C., RG 328, National Archives

Figure V (1975): From Aerial Photographs of the National Capital Planning Commission, Aerial Photographs of Washington, D.C., RG 328, National Archives

Using all of this documentation found from the disparate sources housed in repositories throughout the D.C. area, we were able to compile a comprehensive historical summary of our client’s site that met their initial goals for the project. This descriptive and visual chronological tool allowed the client to understand how the city block and their particular presence on it evolved over time, which would help them address necessary cleanup efforts requested by the city. The client was also informed of other PRPs (including predecessors and successors) that were of interest to them. We suggested a number of additional research avenues the client could proceed with to further understand the role of these entities in the research report we delivered to them.

*Identifying information about the site location and identifying client information has been removed from the maps and photograph featured.