How to Research Your San Francisco Building

By Jean Kortum

Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board copyright, 1992

Revised: June, 1993

  • Note: Addresses and numbers may have changed since this was written; contact the SF History Center (415-557-4567) for the latest numbers.
  • Note also: Before you do anything, make sure your building isn't an individual landmark or in a Historic District which means it is already researched, although not as thoroughly as you may want to do. Ask at the desk in the History Center for case reports. And don't forget, as you work, to write everything down; straighten out later.

  1. Assessor's Office, City Hall. This step is to orient you. There's a large map in the office where you find your block number. Using the Block Books (on shelves, southeast corner of the ante-room arranged by block numbers), make a freehand sketch of your block and lots. Note the depth and width (metes and bounds) and lot number of each lot fronting on the street on which your property is. The map will identify the part of town: 50 vara (downtown), 100 vara (south of Market), Mission, Sunset, etc., and the homestead or subdivision name. Using the microfiche (ask at desk; use the section by street names) note whatever information is given for your building. Dates for buildings built before 1900 are not always accurate; the date is invariably "1900." Note the dates of the other buildings fronting on your street, on both sides of the street if it seems relevant.
  2. Recorder's Office, City Hall: Map Books. These are oversized books (labeled A-B," "G," etc.) in a bookshelf at the rear of the Recorder's Office, just before the northern office. There's an Index on the counter. By this time you know the name of your subdivision (if there is one). Look in the Index under its title for the Map Book and page number. These maps will give you the date of the survey, the date filed, the owners, the designer (if any) of the subdivision.
  3. History Room, Main library: look in the earliest Block Book to show your block and lot. These books are 1894, 1901, 1906, 1907 (Homesteads) and ca. 1910. Some of these are on microfilm and may be copied. At the beginning of each volume, there are maps, arranged by sections of the city (Western Addition, etc.) which will give you your block number and, a few pages beyond, the page number for each block. What you are after is the owner of your lot in that year (who might not have been the first owner). Note the metes and bounds, plus the lot numbers and block number (important; it's the old block number) and anything else on the map, such as the name of the tract or homestead. Scan both frontages on your street and in your block to see if the owner of your lot owned other lots--he could have been a developer. Check other Block Books in the same way so you have a record of ownership before going to the City Directories. (See number 5)
  4. Water connections. What you are after is the name of the person who signed for the water; if you are lucky it will be the owner, but it could be the plumber, contractor, etc. It is best to go to the Water Dept., 1155 Market Street, and ask to see the original application for water because other information is given, such as the use of the building, number of rooms, etc. Copy down everything including sketches and their dates--and watch for erasures and other changes. (Dates could even be a previous building on the lot. In Water Dept. parlance "rebuilt" means a completely new building.) The application will be filed by today's address but may have the historical address. If you can't make the trip to the Water Dept., the History Room has Tap Records on microfilm, filed by street names. These list the name of the person who signed for the original water service. The old addresses have been crossed out and replaced with today's addresses, but check the location of the tap connection (to the right of your address) to make sure you have your lot. While you're at it, check other water connections on your street to get an idea of the settlement pattern. The weakness in using the Tap Records is that you don't know whether there was a subsequent building on the lot--and not every building is listed.
  5. City Directories (Periodicals, Main Library): check the names of all persons whose names appears on the water application. The date of the water connection should function as the date of construction or completion; use the appropriate year or the next year. With luck the signer will be the first owner-occupant of the building. If the signer is not the occupant, check the name you found on the Block Book to see if he/she was living there at the time the water was connected. Quite often ownership was in the name of the wife, the Directory in the name of the husband. Check both backwards and forwards for as long as you can find your person. Note all persons with the same surname at that address. You may do the same for other owners in other Block Books.

Sales Records

  1. If you have not found your owner/occupant, you'll have to look up sales records. You might want to do this anyway to find from whom your owner bought. The San Francisco Real Estate Circular (1860s to after the turn of the century, not inclusive) in the History Room gives sales information; however it lists no names and doesn't cover outlying parts of the city. The sales are listed by the area of the city; you know what this is because it was on the Assessor's records and the Block Books. Remember that your owner might have bought several years before he or she built or connected water, or the sale might have been recorded some years after building. Be sure to note in the Circular the dates between which the deeds were recorded.
  2. If you find your real estate transaction and if it falls within the dates of the San Francisco News Letter (September, 1865 through 1886), make a trip to Sutro Library, west of Stonestown, to look at the News Letter. This will give you the names of the seller and buyer and has pretty good city coverage. Look your seller up in the City Directories to see who s/he was.
  3. The newspapers (microfilm, Periodicals, Main Library). Most of the newspapers had regular real estate coverage, at least towards the end of the century, and you can find both your sale and the building contract (if there was one; not every building had a contract). The Chronicle had a section, "Homes & Lot," Fridays and Saturdays, 1888 forward, later called "Real Estate News" on Saturdays. Look at Saturday's and Sunday's papers; these columns tended to list a week's transactions.
  4. For more recent transactions, Edward's Abstracts lists sales and names. There is an incomplete set, beginning in 1906-07, in the History Room. A set at Sutro begins in 1896; you ask the librarian for the year(s) you want but you have to be precise--s/he won't bring out enough volumes for you to go fishing.
  5. The McEnerney judgments will give you the immediate past owner prior to the events of 1906. These were actual legal cases (John Doe vs. all persons), filed to establish title after 1906. They list the then owner and the person from whom he bought. The McEnerneys are in the County Clerk's office, City Hall. The indexes (where you find your McEnerney number) are at the rear of the Recorder's Office. Some books are labeled "McEnerney,' others by the neighborhood, others "Sales." The History Room has Anne Bloomfield's "Index" to 1906-13 Sales Ledgers" which will give you the book and page number for all subdivisions and homesteads in San Francisco. You need your old block number to make these books work; the page number is the block number. Subsequent McEnerney filings are in the General Indexes (microfilm) in the Recorder's office or (easier) in Edward's Abstracts.
  6. In 1866 an Act of Congress allowed San Francisco to award title to the "outside lands" for the first time in the city's history. These "outside lands" were roughly west of Divisadero (into the Sunset and Richmond) and in the Mission and Potrero districts. The Municipal Reports for 1870-71 (History Room) lists these awards. For the most part they were for large tracts of land, but they quite often signaled the beginning of subdivision. You'll probably have to do some more title searching before you get from the large tract to your particular block and lot. Do not be discouraged by the apparent complexity of the above. Finding your sale (after you have the water connection date) is usually fairly simple, the Real Estate Circular to the News Letter, or just Edward's Abstracts or the newspapers.

The Architect:

  1. For pre-1900 buildings: California Architect & Building News (1879-1900); microfilm, History Room. Ask for them by year (the water connection year). These monthly newsletters gave accounts of construction based on building contracts for buildings small or large. If you are lucky enough to find your building, there will be a lot of information, including names, cost, etc. Look for pictures. There's an index to architects by John Snyder.
  2. The newspapers. See number 8. Most of the newspapers listed only sales and building contracts but the Examiner often named the architect. There was good post1906 coverage in the Call (particularly) and the Examiner. Look for pictures. In the early years of this century large tracts of land were developed West of Twin Peaks, so keep your eyes open for the name of your subdivision: Westwood Park, Miraloma Park, Ingleside, etc.
  3. Post-1906: go to the Building Permit office, 450 McAllister, third floor, and ask for a copy of the first building permit, all pages. It takes a couple of days; is about $4 (?). These permits (on microfiche) are not always labeled or filed in order; carefully check the location, XX feet from YY street, to make sure it's your building. You can't look at the permits yourself, but sometimes when there's a misfiring a gracious clerk will make a search for you. Also ask to view original architectural drawings that may have been submitted with the building permit. (You'll need owner's permission to obtain copies.)
  4. If you can't find your building permit, or if you want more information than the building permit gives, the Daily Pacific Builder listed building permits contracts, completion notices, and the name of the architect. These are on microfilm, History Room, Main Library for 1907 through 1912. Periodicals, Main Library has them to 1964. Search them around the time of your water connection. Houses were built quickly in the early years, sometimes in a couple of months. Read forward and back: sometimes the water was connected before the house was built or completed. The Building News section of Edward's Abstracts also listed building permits (not all years), building contracts, completion notices, etc.
  5. Architect & Engineer (1905-45), later Western Architect & Engineer (to 1961), Art & Music Dept., Library, separate index by Gary Goss for 1905-28. (Art, History Room) These were monthly magazines with building information, generally buildings done by architects of note of the day. Look for pictures.
  6. The Foundation for San Francisco's Architectural Heritage (Heritage) has files on architects and on areas of the city it has surveyed. Heritage is at 2007 Franklin Street, but call first for an appointment: 441-3000.

Sanborn Maps

  1. These are in the History Room (microfilm, may be copied). Do this step fairly early in the process. 'These maps begin in 1886 but not for all parts of the city. They were designed for fire and insurance purposes, and work by taking a base year and pasting on changes to "update' it. Ask for Ed Michael's big green book on the Sanborns, and find the first year to show your block, plus the reel, volume and page number. Check the title page on the map itself to find the base year, and then a page or two after for the handwritten notations on the update. Sanborn maps were color-coded; yellow (which appears colorless on the microfilm) was a frame building; red was brick, etc. Only the 1905 Sanborn microfilm is in color. The maps show the footprint of the building, plus the number of stories; 2BA means two stories, basement and attic. "S" is store, "Sal" saloon. "A" alone is auto; PC and BC are patent and brick chimneys. It is best to make copies of these maps for studying alterations. There's a post World War 11 Sanborn at Heritage, a 1970S one in the Recorder's, a fairly up-to-date one in the Assessor's. You ought to be able to describe alterations to the building by using the Sanborn maps alone (and by visual inspection), but if you need to you might ask for subsequent building permits.

The Census

  1. Flesh out your owners (or occupants if it is rental property) through the U.S. censuses. These were taken every 10 years although the one for 1890 burned. The 1920 census is the last one available for viewing at this time. 'The National Archives in San Bruno (1000 Commodore Drive, phone: 876-9001) has a good set of censuses, including the 1920 one, and an easy reference system, but this library tends to be crowded. The censuses in San Francisco (including 1920) are in Science & Documents in the Main Library, but Sutro Library is best because it has indexes for 1860 and 1870 and the Soundex system for finding your person in other years. (Sutro does not yet have the 1920 census.) The Soundex is fairly easy to use, but ask for help the first time. The 1880 Soundex lists only those households with children up to 10 years of age; thereafter all households are listed. Later censuses were by streets, but the 1870 census shows Ward 12, for instance, stretching from Larkin Street to the ocean and gives no addresses. If you use the censuses in the Main Library you will need the ward and precinct numbers which are found in a black binder in the History Room. The censuses are well worth looking up because, in various years, there was information such as birth place, age (not always accurate), occupation, parents' birth place, owner or renter, value of property, how many children born, how many living, conditions such as "insanity," etc. Check other households on your block. Be sure to note the date the census was taken.
  2. The Great Register of Voters (History Room,- very incomplete set, ages not accurate) may also flesh out your owner and his neighbors. California women were given the right to vote in 1911. When using the later Registers, find your precinct number in a black binder in the same free-standing book shelf.

Other Steps

  1. The Here Today files, plus various miscellany the library has added are in the History Room, listed by streets, but use with caution: they are not always accurate. The same caution applies to neighborhood accounts such as those by Anita Day Hubbard and Edward Morphy, and to any oral history you may find. The History Room also has files on neighborhoods. The Real Estate Circular is good for "color" in the early days, and there are a number of standard histories, plus accounts of businesses and businessmen, all in the History Room. It has traditionally been transit lines that opened up sections of town to development. Bion Arnold's report on proposed post-1906 transit improvements (History Room) has a good summary of San Francisco transit. If your building is in a homestead association subdivision look in City Directories, circa 1870, for descriptions of the various associations.
  2. Try the newspaper indexes and the California Information File (Periodicals, Main Library; Sutro) under the name of your developer, owner, architect, the subdivision, or today's name for your part of town. There are a number of indexes for different years. You might want to check the newspapers at the time your building was built to find out what was going on in San Francisco and the world, and to place your building in its context.
  3. The History Room has a good selection of maps. The Coast Survey maps are particularly helpful in locating buildings in the early days. Wackenreuder's 1861 map and Humphrey's 1870 map both identify owners in the outside lands. Finally, do a photo search, at least at the History Room.
  4. If you want to do a complete title search (post-1906), use first the sales ledgers in the Recorder's office and then the 'black box" in the Assessor's office. As of early 1995 the following offices had been removed to:
    • County Clerk - 875 Stevenson, Rm. 100, lst floor
    • Assessor's - 875 Stevenson, 3rd floor
    • Recorder's - 875 Stevenson, lst floor
    • Dept. of Public Works: Building Permits - 1660 Mission, near Otis, rear of Ist floor
    • The phone numbers are the same as they were.

How to find your sale from just after the 1906 earthquake to 1914:

(See "How to Research Your San Francisco Building.")

Get your water connection date from the Water Department. This should narrow the date of purchase, although some properties were bought some time before construction began. Check the Block Books for 1906 and c. 1910 (History Room) for the owner of your lot. Be sure to note the part of town your lot is in.

Edward's Abstracts. These list the names of the grantor (seller) to grantee (buyer), property description and price. ($10 was used to disguise the actual sales price.) An incomplete set is in the History Room a complete set at Sutro. Search prior to the water connection date for a record of your sale. Check the name in City Directories to see if he/she actually lived there. If you find that someone other than your first owner-occupant built your building, search after the water connection date for the sale. Or: Sales records for 1906-14 are in large books at the rear of the Recorder's Office. The ones to the left are the McEnerney judgments. Thee sales records are arranged alphabetically by the part of town: Homesteads, Mission, Outside Lands in Acres, Richmond, Western Addition, etc. You need the old block number (found in the Block Book) to make these books work; the page number is the block number. If your property is in a Homestead or the Outside Lands check Anne Bloomfield's index to sales (History Room) to find what book it is in. Some McEnemey judgments are in the sales books. If you find an entry which simply describes the property but gives no grantor to grantee you have a McEnemey judgment, not a sale.

Or: Look in the General Indexes on microfilm for your sale. (Recorder's Office.) These are in the circular file near the Map Books. The are arranged alphabetically by year, under both grantor and grantee. In some years they are arranged by the first two letters of the name; for instance, Mr. Rochester will be filed under a section under "R" beginning "Ro." These records will give you the grantor and grantee and also the book and page number where you'll find the actual deed. If you want to look at the actual deed it's best to ask for help in locating it because older deeds are stored in the work area closed to the public. The clerk needs the book and page numbers. The Recorder's Office has copying machines. Beginning in 1914, a list of the sales records are on microfiche in the Assessor's Office. Ask for the black box. You need your block and lot numbers to make these work. If your property had not been laid out in blocks by 1914 look at the rear of the box for transactions for Outside Lands in Acres.

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