They say that to truly understand where you’re going, you have to know where you’re from.

True enough for people…but also true for re-envisioning a life for a historic home in need of some work.

San Francisco EarthquakeIn San Francisco, there are some great resources for tracking down the history of your specific home.  It could, of course, be as simple as talking to older neighbors on your street or at the local coffee shop.  You can check with the City’s Planning Department for the home’s permit history, but keep in mind that many old records were lost at the time of the great earthquake and fire in 1906, so if you’ve got a home that’s older than that, you’ve got to dig a little deeper.

One of the best places to start is at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library where the San Francisco History Center is located, on the 6th floor.

San Francisco History CenterThe History Center is a tremendous resource for old block maps, photos, phone books, periodicals, and more.

One particularly useful set of resources are the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps (made every few years from the late 1800’s and showing every parcel and every home, including its shape, chimneys and sometimes owner name).  A segment of one from 1886 is below.

1886 Sanchez Sanborn Map Segment1566 Sanchez circa 1966

They also host the Here Today files compiled by the Junior League in 1966 documenting the histories of thousands of San Francisco’s historic homes.  The Here Today files are not online – you can just look up your address in the master Index and, if it appears there, you can request to look at the file while in the History Center.

To the right is the picture of our next project, 1566 Sanchez St., from the Here Today file.

To get yourself started, take a look at two great pages (here and here) on the San Francisco History Center website describing what resources are available for researching:

  • Who owned your home
  • Who built your home
  • What it was shaped like over time
  • Who sold and bought it
  • Photos of the home and/or its street

…and how to go about getting whatever might be available for your specific home (keeping in mind that not every home will be richly documented).

SF History Center Website

To get relatively instant gratification (since you can expect to spend hours hunting around in the History Center), check out the San Francisco Water Department main office at 1155 Market Street.

They have the original service request forms for homes going back, I believe, to 1861 (when it was still called the Spring Valley Water Works).  Upon request, they will give you a photocopy of the original form, including the name and signature of the person requesting new water service for your home.  Here’s the one we pulled for our project at 173 Downey Street.  Note that when water was set up, the home was 850 sq. ft.  When we purchased it in 2006, it had 1710 sq. ft and appeared completely original.  Did they count square footage differently back then?  Perhaps the common spaces weren’t included.  Dunno.

1902 Water Service FormAs the great philosopher J. Travolta said in the film Broken Arrow, “Ain’t it cool?”

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