A Place Where Stories Live Forever: The Department Of Real Estate
Richard Williams glances at the request sheet from behind a chest-high counter and gives the book in front of him a quarter turn. With a pair of pliers, he latches onto a metal wire and pulls, flopping open its spine stacked high with crinkly, worn pages.
“What I find fascinating, especially in these handwritten ones, is the lack of errors,” Williams said. He regards the long page covered in careful, legible script as he steps toward the copier, deed in hand.
Williams is one of seven employees in Allegheny County's Department of Real Estate, part of Administrative Services. The department sprawls over three floors—first, mezzanine and second—but remains largely hidden behind a set of standard issue double doors in the County Office Building.
Floor to ceiling bookshelves hold more than 16,000 deed books so thick they weigh 25 pounds each. There are 32,000 volumes of mortgages, maps of plots and land patent records. In all, the county stores some 14 million individual records.
“Mortgages, deeds, certificates. There (are) charters for when churches were formed, cemeteries were formed. Companies were formed. Freedom papers, the certificates of freedom, the fem del sol papers. It’s just so much information,” said Dru Taliaferro, one of the department’s information specialists.
Since 1788, when Allegheny County was created, whenever property changed hands, someone wrote it down, said Jim Uziel, Allegheny County’s Deputy Recorder.
Upstairs, people stand at long wooden counters paging through handwritten books so large and ornate it looks as if Gutenberg and his press were fairly recent sensations. Taliaferro sits perched on a stool during what assistant manager Valerie Yockey says is a rare break in the action.
“Last year we averaged about 3,000 copies a week,” she said.
That the Department of Real Estate makes a lot of copies isn’t the point. Yockey offered the page count as evidence: the information collected here is so valuable people want to take it with them and photocopies are the only way to do it. Yockey said the documents tell important stories.
“We have found deeds from Mt. Lebanon back in the 1930s that are very clear that no one of color, no one of Jewish descent can live in these communities," she said. "We’ve found records of indentured servants; we’ll find a deed with architectural designs for a major building in Pittsburgh.”
And it’s all written in the deeds. Taliaferro reads part of a freedom paper from 1790.
“‘John McKee of Allegheny County … do by these presents let free my negro man… by the name of Peter Cosco.’ So Peter had to get that registered and then Peter carried that around probably for the rest of his life,” he said.
How is one piece of paper, carrying a rather important tidbit of information about a man’s freedom, supposed to last a lifetime?
“Well, that’s why you record it,” said Taliaferro.
On a recent weekday, the information specialists helped professional title searchers trace oil and gas rights, pointed surveyors toward property lines and guided visitors to long-dead family members etched in land titles. When the right pages were located, Nick or Richard or Joe or Dru or Valerie pulled out the book’s wire spine with pliers, carefully lifted out a deed, and made a copy. Over and over again, as people lined up at the door.
“People strive to better themselves,” said Uziel. “And one of the ways to better yourself is to establish residence. And to establish residence, you buy property.”
The urge to have a piece of ground to call your own is an old one, said Uziel. It’s a negotiation between individuals and between communities. The 14 million records at the Department of Real Estate document how a society was built, and how it’s changing.
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