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Researching Historic Buildings

By William Kostura, 1997

One can research the ownership history of the building lot without regard to the building upon it. This generally involves a title search of the property going back in time to shortly before the building was built.

Assessor's Parcel Maps
or current real estate map. Just because you know the address of a property does not mean you know "where" it is. The first step in research is always to locate your building on a current real estate map, or assessor's parcel map, in order to establish a legal description of the property. Example: "North side of Broadway, 137'-6" east of Scott Street, thence east 82'-6" by north 156" describes the location of the lot. Because addresses sometimes change, this legal description is more useful than an address such as "2550 Broadway." Parcel maps can be found at the Assessor's Office.
Title Search Materials:
General index, deeds, sales, books, sales ledgers, etc. These are the county's official documents pertaining to property, and can usually be found in the County Recorder's Office. Use of these documents can be mastered in a short amount of time. In San Francisco, deeds from 1914 to the present can be found abstracted in the Sales Ledgers (on microfiche) at the Assessor's Office. Deeds from 1906-1914 are abstracted in the Sales Books at the Recorder's Office. Deeds (1849-1853, 1894-1906) and Indexes from before 1906 are available through the San Francisco History Center.
Historic Real Estate Documents
Abstracts of deeds published in 19th century periodicals (newspapers, real estate newsletters, etc.), block books (bound volumes showing every lot of land on every block in a community, often with owners names printed on each lot), "Chain of Title" documents (hand written or typed by a title search company), and tract maps often find their way to historical societies and library history rooms. These can provide an invaluable short cut to the title search process. For San Francisco during the period 1868-1887, especially see the San Francisco Real Estate Circular and San Francisco Newsletter. The San Francisco History Center has block books showing ownership of land from 1894-1909.
Sanborn Insurance Maps
The Sanborn Insurance Map Company was not the only firm to make map books showing the outline, or "footprint," of every building in a community, but it is by far the best known today. Buildings were color coded as to construction type and materials, and labeled to indicate the number of stories and use (dwellings, flats, stores, woolen mill, police station, etc.). Agents of the Sanborn company went around to subscribers to update the maps once or twice a year by pasting in drawings of new buildings, alterations, etc. These updates were always dated in the front of each volume. If your historic building shows up on the 1900 Sanborn Map, but does not appear on the 1886 Sanborn, then you know it was built (or moved to the site) during that time period. The San Francisco History Center has several Sanborn maps from 1886 to 1913 on microfilm, plus a set from ca. 1950 on microfilm and the 1880s in the original. The California Historical Society has an original set from ca1929.
Building Permits
As the construction of buildings became more regulated around the turn of the last century, municipalities began to require building permits before allowing construction to proceed. These permits will identify location, name of owner, name of contractor, name of architect (if any), number of stories, construction type, cost, etc. Permits will also reveal alterations, such as the addition of a story to a house. Copies are available from city planning departments, building departments, or public work departments. For San Francisco, visit DPW/ Central Permit Bureau, 1660 Mission, first floor, for building permits from 1906 to the present. Be sure to specify whether you want the "original permit to build," or alterations for a particular time period.
Building Contracts
These legal instruments existed long before there were building permits, but supply similar information. This contract between a would-be building owner and a contractor spelled out the terms of the agreement, including building specifications. In larger cities, abstracts of these contracts were often published in periodicals devoted to the building trades (e.g. architectural journals) and sometimes in the regular newspapers. Frequency of publication of such abstracts may be daily, weekly, or monthly. To find "your" building, you should first determine the approximate construction date to avoid a long, needle-in-a-haystack search. In San Francisco, first find the building's listing in the Water Department Tap Records, then look in California Architect and Building News (1879-1900), the San Francisco Chronicle's weekly "House and Lot" column (1889-early 1890s), the building contracts section of Edward's Abstracts from Records (1890s-1950s) and Building and Engineering News (1911-1930s).
Assessment Rolls
In some counties the County Assessor will give assessment rolls to a historical society or library once they are "historic" and of no further use to the Assessor. If your hundred plus yearend assessment rolls are still held by county officials, be proactive and request a transfer to your library. These rolls will list the improvements to a parcel of land, including buildings and, in rural areas, farm implements, livestock, etc. For San Francisco these are unavailable.
Water Department Records
The date that utilities were first hooked up to a property is often a good indication of when a building was built. In San Francisco, the water department hook-up records survive back to 1861, and some of these records are now in our library's History Center. Original application forms dating back to 1861 can still be found at the Water Department at 1155 Market Street, and abstracts of these--the Tap Records--are on microfilm at the San Francisco History Center.
Architectural Plans
Nothing is more valuable to an architectural historian than original architectural plans. These often survive for important civic buildings but are much rarer for houses. The City Planning Department has drawings and plans for commercial buildings and large apartment buildings erected after 1906. Their address is 1660 Mission Street. Anyone may view them but only owners or their agents may take copies. Librarians and historical societies should preserve such plans of older buildings whenever possible.
People
Once you have determined the date of construction and performed a title search of the owners of a building, you will want to research the lives of the people who owned and lived in a building, as well as the contractor and architect who built it. Here, genealogy research techniques are most useful.
Census Records
Census rolls are released to the public once they are seventy years old. The 1890 census was destroyed in a fire, but all others from 1790 to 1920 are available. They can be found at regional National Archives, genealogy libraries, and many public libraries. The census from 1850 on is especially useful, listing all family members, tenants, and servants by name; nativity; occupations; and much else. In addition to the usual index and "Soundex" by name, some local libraries have guides to the census by enumeration district, simplifying the search for a given house or neighborhood. San Francisco's New Main Library (Government Information Center, fifth floor) has maps showing enumeration districts for 1900, 1910, and 1920. The Sutro Library near Stonestown, and the National Archives in San Bruno have indexes for San Francisco from 1852, 1860, and 1870, and the "Soundex" for 1880, 1890, and 1910. (The 1890 census was destroyed by fire many years ago).
City Directories
Issued yearly for large cities (until recent times), and less often for small villages, these list addresses and occupation for a community's adult working residents. These are available on microfilm and microfiche for all large cities in the United States. They are the single most-used resources by house historians, and your library should have as complete a set as possible. Once you have determined that James Cunningham built 2550 Broadway in 1885, look Cunningham up in the 1886 directory to see if he lived there and what his occupation was. Don't stop there. Go forward and backward in time to create a complete occupational profile of Cunningham during his years of residency in San Francisco. These directories may be found on the fifth floor in the Magazines and Newspapers Center of the San Francisco New Main Library.
Newspaper Indexes
If your city's newspapers have been indexed, you may be able to find newspaper articles written about the owners, residents, builder and architect of a building. Be creative in your search of subject headings. The Magazines and Newspapers Center also has microfilm indexes to The Call newspaper (1894-1904) and other newspaper indexes on microfiche (1904-1980).
City and County Histories
Early history books were often financed by including, for a fee, hagiographic profiles of a community's "leading" citizens. Some of these "mugbooks" include hundreds of such profiles. They are very valuable, but take them with a pinch of salt.
Context
If the first owner of your house was a foreman at the local woolen mill, a school teacher, or the owner of a dry goods store, be sure and research that woolen mill, school, or dry goods store for background information. You might also research your house in the context of the its owner's ethnicity, as part of a tract real estate development, as part of a building book that occured in your community, as a rare example of a certain type of construction or architectural style, or an endless number of other categories. Every house has a different story, and it is impossible to predict in advance all of the ways it will relate to the larger community history. Resources you will want to consult include business histories, ethnic histories, church histories, maps of housing tracts and real estate subdivisions, histories of transportation lines--and many others!

Reprinted with permission of the author.