Uncovering your home's history
Publication Date: Friday Jul 25, 1997

Uncovering your home's history

With attention to details and a little digging, you can unearth the story behind a home

by Jessica McCuan

Margo Schmidt began research on the history of her house with the underside of her toilet tank cover. "If the toilet's an original--which is a big 'if' when you're talking about houses--it'll tell you the date that your house was built somewhere on the underneath side," said Schmidt, a 20-year Palo Alto resident.

Schmidt decided to research the history of her property after she noticed that her two Addison Street homes had some peculiar, historic-looking features. Schmidt thought her doorknobs, which are made completely of glass, might have some historical significance. There was also an unusual hole in one of her walls that she thought might have been the flue for an old pot-belly stove.

The research she's done since those observations has been simultaneously fruitful and frustrating: She's filled in many holes in the story behind her 1899 homes, but certain pieces of information continue to stump her.

Palo Alto historian Steve Staiger said that, whether she's getting anywhere or not, Schmidt is going about her research properly.

"Start in and around your home," said Staiger. "Look for evidence of documents in places like sheds and garages. Check the dates on appliances and even toilets for a possible range of dates in which your house was built."

Interviewing older neighbors, said Staiger, is one of the best things homeowners can do.

"Older folks that live around your home can be a wealth of information," he said. "If you have dates and dry facts, an old-timer may be able to tell you stories about the owners, about exciting crimes, big fires and all kinds of things about the neighborhood."

The history of a house is made up of two parts, said Staiger. The first is a social genealogy, which includes facts about the owners and residents of the house.

"You have to ask yourself, 'Who are these people? What kinds of things did they do here? What kinds of funny habits did they have? Where did they buy groceries?'" said Staiger.

The next part is a physical genealogy, which includes the date the house was built, the cost and any alterations that the house and land might have undergone.

Staiger said a good place to start compiling a house genealogy is the history desk at Palo Alto's main library, where he works.

Even if a curious homeowner only has a street address to go on, Staiger can help. He can access a building permit index that includes permits for homes built from the earliest days of the city's existence until the 1950s.

The pre-1950 index in the library usually offers a building date and the builder, as well as references to old Palo Alto Times articles about the house. Staiger said permits for houses built after the 1950s are kept in the city of Palo Alto's Planning Department.

Once homeowners have found a building date, they can go to an old city directory--also at the history desk at the library--and find the house's original owner.

Homeowners in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto can also begin their searches in Palo Alto's library because older Palo Alto directories may include Menlo Park residents.

More details may be found in county tax records in San Jose or Redwood City.

Homeowners also can search for a "footprint" of their house on a Sanborn map. Sanborn maps, named after the fire insurance company that produced them, are historic maps of the homes in Palo Alto. The maps display houses by a "footprint" or outline of the house, as if the map-maker were looking down at the house from a distance not too far above it.

The maps date back to 1895 and include maps from 1901, 1908, 1924 and 1945. The maps are large and cumbersome and were updated by insurance agents by pasting pieces of paper layer upon layer every time the outline or structure of a house changed. They are kept on microfilm in the library. The most current Sanborn map was made in the 1960s and is kept in the city's Planning Department.

Katherine Watts, an architectural research assistant for the city of Palo Alto, said the problem with Sanborn maps is that they offer street names and street numbers that may have changed over the years. House numbers also change throughout the years, and homeowners may encounter discrepancies between the building permit index and a Sanborn map. Though some homeowners may recognize the outlines of their houses immediately, those with perfectly square houses may have trouble identifying theirs.

Nonetheless, Sanborn maps were a key in Schmidt's research.

She knew from the library's building permit index that both houses on her property were built in 1899. City directories for that year, however, only showed residents living in the larger house. Residents were registered in the smaller house in 1939, but there was no mention of residency in the smaller house until then.

"It was such a mystery as to what the smaller house was used for," said Schmidt.

Last Friday, while she was looking at a 1901 Sanborn map, she found a footprint of the second house with a black "x" on it. In the map's key, an "x" indicated that the building was a stable.

"It's just so serendipitous and exciting," said Schmidt. "For 18 years I had no idea what that building was for."

Staiger said after a few pieces of information are gathered, the research can proceed in many directions. A homeowner can pursue the social genealogy of the home, using library obituary indexes and newspaper clippings to find more information about past owners. Homeowners can also delve into the physical genealogy of the house, searching in the library and Planning Department for information about fires, storms and remodeling jobs that might have changed the appearance of the house.

An in-depth history of a house can be time-consuming and seemingly endless, said Staiger. The end result, however, is usually worth it to homeowners.

"It's a hobby and a booming hobby," said Staiger. "Ever since the television show 'Roots' people have had this curiosity about their own histories."

People do house histories for a number of reasons. Some do research in order to obtain city permits. Some, like Schmidt, are just curious.

"When you get older, it seems like you become a little more interested in your community," Staiger said. "Local history really begins with your own house." 

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