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Boring Title: Discovering history through chain of title

Title insurance is boring, but Allied Title & Escrow is here to decode the jargon and make it (somewhat) more interesting. This biweekly feature will explore the mundane (but very necessary!) world of title insurance while sharing interesting stories of two friends’ entrepreneurial careers.

Most people tend to think of title work as, well, boring.

In this week’s edition of Boring Title, brought to you by Bill Johnston, Historic Preservationist with Honey Do Today, we discover that a thorough chain of title can reveal a fascinating history of even the most mundane structures, let alone the grand historic houses and structures scattered throughout the DMV.

For Johnston, the historic summarization process begins with a chain of title search, revealing not only the owners, but the circumstances under which they purchased, sold, and divided their properties.

The so-called “Ball-Sellers House” is, simultaneously, both common and uncommon. It represents what the “common (property-owning) man” of Virginia would have dwelt in during the 18th century (the “colonial period”). Its commonality made such houses almost disposable, unlike the grand estates like Mount Vernon or Gunston Hall. Nowadays this makes it all the more rare and through the painstaking analysis of local history, period accounts, and title research, gives us a story that is quite uncommon…

The house was built at some point after 1742, when a yeoman farmer named John Ball was given a land grant of 166 acres by Lord Thomas Fairfax (as in Fairfax County).  His family would later give rise to the name “Ballston” after further development. John worked the land with his wife, five daughters, and quite probably his nearby brothers and nephews until his death in 1766.

In 1766, deed records show that the property was sold to a William Carlin, a tailor by trade from Alexandria who made clothes for, among others, the Washingtons. The Carlins owned the property for over 100 years, until it was sold in 1887. During this time, they constructed an adjoining house, quite possibly another, only one of which remains standing today. The last Carlins also ran a dairy farm, and a vacation spot at a place called “Carlin Springs” (currently on Four-Mile Run) which D.C. and local residents enjoyed for its airy atmosphere, and the springs themselves.

The last Carlin residents, siblings Andrew and Anne, sold the property in 1887, to two lawyers named Samuel Burdett and William Curtis, who subdivided the land into the neighborhood known as “Glencarlyn.” They intended it to be a neighborhood of modern homes for those of modest means, reinforcing the trend of this modest house as a “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

The house later became a schoolhouse, vacation house and a private residence for a final time under the ownership of the Sellers Family. Marian Rheinhart Sellers sold the property in 1975 for the whopping price of $1, to the Arlington Historical Society. AHS has worked tirelessly using the same research methods that I do: deeds, chains of title, probate/will research, and corresponding inventories as well as written accounts and newspapers. They did this in aid of recreating the house as it would have been around the time it was lived in by the Balls and Carlins.

Maintained by the dues and donations of Arlington residents and patrons alike, the house is well-used by the AHS for community events.

The adjoining house, painted in its original 1880 colors, is now occupied by a tenant under the Resident Curator Program, where the tenant is responsible for upkeep, maintenance, or a bit of restoration in exchange for tenancy.

Want to learn more? Check out the extended version of the history of the Ball-Sellers house. For additional links as well as visitor information, please visit the Arlington Historical Society’s website.

For further inquiries into property history research and historic preservation, Bill Johnston can be reached at [email protected].

Have questions related to title insurance? Email Latane and Matt at [email protected]. Want to use Allied Title & Escrow when you buy a home? Tell your agent when you buy a house to write in Allied Title & Escrow as your settlement company! 

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