You know geneaology, but for houses.
August 8, 2010 8:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm suddenly fascinated with the history of the house I bought. Except I have no idea how to go about looking up the history of a house this old (1925, San Francisco, not one of the big, fancy neighborhoods, nothing notable ever happened on the street). Where do I start?

I've never been interested in genealogy, but now that I've purchased a house built in 1925 in San Francisco, I find myself trying to dig through any and every bit of detail about the neighborhood and the house and all that in a way that feels a lot like genealogy. Except I don't have those skills and the resources online are about people -- not structures or neighborhoods.

I want to know the house's history, the way it was decorated, what pieces are historically accurate and what's been modified. (I've already looked up building permits and it looks like nothing but 3 windows in the 60s were permitted changes.) I also want to just get a feel for what it was like before it became this.

Complicating matters -- no one's ever heard of our neighborhood unless they've lived here (Ingleside, not Ingleside Terrace) and it seems that's always been the case. Our street was apparently a field until it became this house and even then, it was an isolated area that wasn't connected to the nearby big street until much later. This appears to have been a diverse, non-rich neighborhood all the way back, so it doesn't fit the typical restoration tropes.

There are in-depth websites devoted to neighborhoods abutting mine:
Western Neighborhoods project (we're smack dab in the middle of the city)
Found SF (which doesn't list our neighborhood)
But nothing that covers around here.

I've also tried looking at houses from the 20s in general to try to get a sense of how the house was decorated, etc. but our low-rent Spanish Mission style row house (attached to our neighbors, but with red tile roof and two little fake "beams" sticking out of the front) doesn't fit in the style of the decor I've found from back in the day.

I've exhausted the Googling, I think, and the SF library has all their photo archives online. Next step, um, microfiche of newspapers the year the house was built and then beyond?

So, advice on how I'd find more about this lil house o' mine? Is there a subculture for house restoration sleuths the way there are genealogists who'd be thrilled to point me in the right direction?
posted by Gucky to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If there was a neighborhood association newsletter, they can be a wealth of information. Also, I'm certain there's a San Fran-specific "historical society" that might have information.
posted by notsnot at 8:30 PM on August 8, 2010

This is a common homeowners' project and there have been lots of road maps developed. You can certainly begin to break down steps and identify resources by Googling things like "researching your house history" or "researching historic house." I'm sure you've found this page on the site you've linked.

This kind of project has a lot of threads. One of the best ways to begin is to conduct deed research and establish the title chain. As you begin to find names associated with your house, this research becomes quite similar to genealogical research - you'll get the names and use additional sources to learn about those people.

In the 20s, it's likely your home was built as part of a planned development, and you could learn about the previous land use and the developer.

Your local (branch?) library and local historical society (or city, or state historical society) are probably the best places to begin your search. Talk to some human beings at those institutions - they have fielded many such inquiries and can give you a quick leg up on where to look and what to look at.
posted by Miko at 8:37 PM on August 8, 2010

Best answer: I've worked in libraries and historical societies and most people start their research with a look at the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of their city/neighborhood. Some libraries have the actual maps, others will have access to them digitally. They won't answer all of your questions, but it is the traditional starting place.

When I was googling online to see if they were available online (without a subscription), I found this resource page, How to Research Your SF Building, from the San Francisco Public Library. I'm sure that the people at the San Francisco History Center (the dept. of the library that put together that web page) will be able to point you to the right resources for your home.

Unless your home is architecturally or historically significant in some way, it's unlikely that you will find photographs of the interior (and maybe even the exterior) but you should be able to answer some of your questions about the history of your home.
posted by kaybdc at 8:37 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I did this a year ago and the people at were amazingly helpful-- led me to this article which had not just a photograph from 1900, but a hilariously scathing review to boot. My house is in figure 5, and the review starts in the last paragraph of the page.
I was astonished.
posted by alexei at 8:42 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I wanted to know more about my house in Colorado, I found the names of all of the owners on the website of my county, where deeds are kept as part of the public record. Does San Francisco have a similar agency?
posted by pickypicky at 8:54 PM on August 8, 2010

I've also tried looking at houses from the 20s in general to try to get a sense of how the house was decorated, etc. but our low-rent Spanish Mission style row house (attached to our neighbors, but with red tile roof and two little fake "beams" sticking out of the front) doesn't fit in the style of the decor I've found from back in the day.

That kind of sounds like the little planned "villages" all over LA. They are tucked away off main streets in little enclaves, pedestrian only by design because they were along streetcar stops and even today many still have no vehicle access. All the ones I've seen were themed and the houses were generally small and all-around-adorable. I wonder if you have the SF version of that style?
posted by fshgrl at 9:19 PM on August 8, 2010

You could go to UC Berkeley's map library. If you know someone with a UCB library card, you can even look at Sanborn maps online.
posted by salvia at 9:48 PM on August 8, 2010

Not all the SF photo archives are online yet -- there are tons of negatives from the assessor's office that haven't yet been digitized (I found quite a few for my neighborhood when going through the indexes). Have you checked the finding aids at the History Center? If there's nothing listed by your 'hood, check for street names nearby, or landmarks, or stores and businesses.

You can also look at the Sanborn maps online for free if you have an SF library card.

The California Historical Society's library at Mission and Fourth has tons of photos, too -- you don't need to make an appointment to drop by. Again, check the index for familiar street names.

You should drop a line to Woody LaBounty at the Western Neighborhoods Project -- there's a good chance he will know someone who knows more about your 'hood, even if there's nothing much on his site. He is incredibly knowledgeable and connected.

City directories are fun to browse through if you know the names of any former residents. If you don't, you can go to the main library and look in the actual directories -- I think from about 1948 on, they're indexed by street name as well as by owner.

You can call the S.F. Water Dept. and they will tell you the name of the owner when the water was first connected. If you ask nicely, they will mail you (for free!) a photocopy of the original certification. You might find that the water was turned on by the developer/builder, and get a clue that way.

I'm actually going to the assessor's office and History Center on Tuesday afternoon -- MeMail me if you'd like me to do some scouting for your house, or if I can help in any way. (I'm a mostly amateur local historian, but I do a lot of this kind of research, and it would be no bother to add you to my list.)
posted by vickyverky at 10:04 PM on August 8, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone. It certainly gives me a few places to start. We've contacted the descendants of the owners from the 30s to see if they have any photos or details and I'll use a personal day to dig through the microfiche and library catalogs.

alexei, that's amazing. I hope you have the scathing review framed. That's great.

It's certainly not part of any planned anything, but I'm hoping I'll figure out little things like what windows would be historically in keeping with the original intent and things like that, even if I don't have killer details about the house that blow my mind.
posted by Gucky at 10:10 PM on August 8, 2010

Best answer: Also, the SF Chronicle is only available online as 1865-1922 and 1985 onward (so far -- they're working on it). Again, it's viewable for free with an SFPL library card.

Did you see this article on the OMI (Ocean View, Merced, Ingleside) districts? (link to PDF)
posted by vickyverky at 10:17 PM on August 8, 2010

This is a very low-tech suggestion. Are there any old-timers living on your street? Your neighbors could be a great source of information about your house and the area in general. They might even have some older photos of the street which would include your home.

We met a neat old guy who's lived in our neighborhood for 50 years and we spent a really interesting hour talking to him about his house, our house and all the changes he's seen. A first-hand account from a long time resident might be really worthwhile.
posted by Kangaroo at 6:08 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I did this recently for my San Francisco house. Between the city property office and the library you can learn a whole lot. Some of the important records are not online, so expect to spend a few hours in person. kaybdc links most of the resources I used, here's the process I followed:

1. SF property records: researched the ownership of my land. You need the block and lot number, easily determinable by address. Then you look it up in an index, which then gives you which microfiche cards to pull. In an hour or two you can work out the chain of ownership of your property: names and years. If I remember correctly I worked backwards in time, each record shows you "Person A sold to Person B".

2. Library: public utility records for who turned on water on my property. This was necessary to figure out pre-1906 records on my place, which may not be necessary in your case. SF lost most of its property records in 1906 and afterwards everything was renumbered and renamed.

3. Library online: Sanborn fire maps for my block, to see the general history of development. These are available online with a library card and are fascinating. You should be able to get some or all of 1904, 1915, 1928, and 1950.

4. Library: phone books. Useful for figuring out when people moved in and out of your place, where they moved from, where they moved to. Older phone books list people's professions.

5. Library online: newspaper archives. The full text searchable archive of the SF Chronicle is amazing. I got lucky and learned that one of the guys who owned my house was rewarded for heroism, saving a fellow city worker who was suffocating underground. I think the cash reward he got allowed him to buy my place. Cool story.

6. Google search for names. I found the father of the guy who built my house.

I used to live near Ingleside, btw, in Westwood Highlands. Pretty much that whole part of the city was only developed after 1918 when the West Portal tunnel opened. Most of the neighbourhoods were built by developers with houses using common parts and plans. I learned a lot going to open houses for my neighbours' houses for sale. You'll often see the same layout, or same doorknobs, but then something will be different, either preserved or changed. Once I'd seen about 10 similar houses I had a much better idea how my place was designed originally.
posted by Nelson at 7:25 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It looks like your house may be a Doelger House.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:25 AM on August 9, 2010

You've got good information here.

I used the SFPL and Historical Society archives online, plus the Water Dept. info to figure out the name of the woman who built my house. I then used the Census Bureau data and newspaper archives to track down her obituary.

I love the SFPL photo archive -- no photos of our house, but plenty from the neighborhood.

This is one of my favorite SF history blogs. It's mostly about the Mission, but has great links to sites like Calisphere.
posted by gingerbeer at 5:12 PM on August 9, 2010

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