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A Complete Guide to Researching Any House in Los Angeles

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Curbed University delivers insider tips and non-boring advice on how to buy, sell, or rent a house or apartment. Additional questions welcomed to Today Rory Mitchell of Valley Spring Lane Historical Consulting tells you everything you'd ever want to know (and answers your questions) about researching a house in Los Angeles.

My career as a historical consultant began with an article on the Echo Park Historical Societies' Website by Matthew Dubois called History at Home. In a nice twist, Matthew would become my first client when he hired me to research what seems to be the oldest house in Echo Park. This article is excellent as far as illustrating the general methodology for researching your home. In that article was a link to what has become the best starting point for someone researching the history of a home or neighborhood, the LA Conservancy's Historical Research Guide.

If you're going by the book with your research, you'll start at either the LA County Assessor's Office with building a chain of title (the list of the owners of the property) or pulling the permits for the building at the Department of Building and Safety. For less exacting research, or for general information, or for zoning information, use the Department of City Plannings Zone Information and Map Access Systems aka Zimas. Zimas contains lots of fun and useful information, but is not compatible with all browsers. It does contain information from the Assessor's Office, which can also be accessed through the Assessor's Office Parcel Viewer.

I tend to rely on the Parcel Viewer because I've found it faster and more reliable than Zimas, and, it works on a smart phone, which is handy when you're out and about and curious about the general age of any building you happen to come across. Note "general" as the "year built" field in both Zimas and the Parcel Viewer is unreliable, and can only give you a general idea of when something was built. For best results, you need to find the permit at Department of Building and Safety for "new construction" which even then doesn't tell you when the building was actually completed, and then cross reference that with the Assessor's mapbooks in the basement of the Hall of Records or some third party reference to the building in the either the Historical LA Times, or some other record, such as the "Southwest Building and Contractor" which was a periodical published in the first half of the twentieth century.

The uncertainty with the date of construction in the Assessor's office seems to apply primarily to buildings constructed before 1930, which brings up another issue with researching older buildings in Los Angeles, which is that DBS Permits don't go past 1903, and the Assessor's Office doesn't go back past 1900.

The number one request I receive is for old photos of a house, and unfortunately, those are few and far between. No, they did not take photos of houses for tax purposes, no, there is no google street view for the nineteenth century. The best way to find an old photograph of your house is to research the history of your house to discover the people and events associated with your house and then research those people and events and hope to come across a photo of your house. Contacting past residents is often times the best way to come across a photo, as someone may have a picture of Grandma posed in the front yard and voila, an old picture of your house.

Now, with that general overview, on to your questions:

Question: I'm interested in old, historic photos of our neighborhood, as well as old maps. Where would I find those?

The Los Angeles Public Library's online Visual Collections contains a wealth of information for the historic researcher--on this page are links to the online Map Collection of the library, as well as the main photo Archive of LAPL, and subsidiary photo archives covering the DWP and El Pueblo covering the historic plaza Downtown.

Searching the photo collection first by neighborhood, and then by street name (try it both with and without street/avenue/boulevard, etc.) is the best approach here. You might also luck out and get a direct hit on a street number with street name.

If you've built a chain of title and know the people who lived there, you might also search for them in the photo collection.

The online map collection is primarily regional, but if you want to get down to the neighborhood level, the Sanborn Fire insurance maps are an invaluable resource for discovering the history of your home.

Separated into volumes that cover different parts of the city, the Sanborn Maps can be tricky at first, but once you learn to use the Map Index that's located in the first few pages of each volume, you can identify if you're in the right neighborhood, and then utilize the street index (again in the first few pages of each volume) in order to figure out the page number. The Sanborn Maps include a footprint of the house, with windows and doors marked, as well as any fire hazards contained therein, as they were created initially to aid fire departments en route to a fire.

Question: How would I research the original builder of a small tract of homes built in the late 40's in the San Fernando Valley?

Research on individuals usually begins and ends with Oftentimes descendants or relatives of the individual have already gone through the trouble of searching the historic LA Times and other sources and have collected the information on Ancestry. The database takes some getting used to, but once you're comfortable with it, there's a remarkable amount of information contained therein. Also, the Historic LA Times located at the LAPL through Proquest is exremely useful.

The link above to the LAPL's visual collections also includes a link to the LA City Directories that have been digitized and put online. Searching by address or last name or type of business tends to be most useful. In most of the pre-World War II city directories, home addresses are usually preceded by an "h" or an "r" to signify a "home" vs. a "renter." Therefore if youre searching for who lived in your house at "123 History St." you'd want to drop the "St." and search for "h123 history", "r123 history" and plain old "123 history" to cover all your bases.

Question: What are the important web sites to use in researching the history of a house? How do I find out about zoning restrictions for a given property?

Question: I was actually wondering what recommendations you have to locate photographs of a home built as part a large development in the 20's and 30's?

I would start by researching the development and the developer. Look for articles in the LA Times and search the photo archives of the LAPL and the USC Digital Library. Sometimes you can find tract maps or other promotional literature associated with the development, which is always fun.

Question: My home was part of the la investment companies development in view park at the time and my homes construction is even mentioned in the los angeles times as part of a design competition, but no photos, what are your thoughts on how to locate?

I would research the history of the LA Investment Company, as well as researching the design competition, including under whose auspices the competition took place. Depending on who ran the competition, you might have luck searching the Online Archive of California. Also, see number one re: searching the LAPL and USC Digital Library photo collections by neighborhood, street name and the name of development. You might also research the LA Investment Company itself through Google, etc.

Question: Is their a source which has the name of every owner of house since built? If so, what is it?

Yes. The County Assessor's Office has the name of every owner since the house was built, but that information is divided into 3 parts. For owners from the 1970s onwards, you have to perform a search through the Assessor's Office computer terminal downtown at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration room 220. From the 1960s through the 70s, you request the assessor's mapbook from the kind, yet overworked clerks in 220. Be nice to them as they spend most of the day arguing with people over taxes.

For 1900 to 1960 you're going to the basement of the Hall Of Records across the street from the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration to the assessor's mapbook room.

All of these searches are done with the nine digit Assessor's Parcel Number in form xxxx-xx-xxx and can be found on Zimas or the Assessors Parcel Viewer. Additionally, it's also helpful to have a tract map printed out (also found through either Zimas or the Parcel viewer) with the property identified on it when searching through the mapbooks.

Finally, if you're going back past 1900, you're going to the basement of the County Recorder's office in Norwalk where youll have to trace the chain of title through the deeds. This is difficult as you can't be certain that there's actually a house involved with the transfer of ownership, so you'll need a good reason to go down there.

Question: How can I find out when my neighborhood was developed, and who developed it? My house was probably built some time in the 20s, but I have no idea where to start researching the neighborhood. Any ideas?

Researching a neighborhood is basically the same as researching a house, except you do it multiple times and you have several streets to search for by name in photo archives and thr historic LA Times.

For an example of what you can discover about a neighborhood, take a look at a short doc I made about the Wahington Heights section of Echo Park, the younger sibling of Angeleno Heights.

For further stories about researching the history of your home and short documentaries on the History of Los Angeles, visit my tumblr or follow me on Facebook where you should feel free to post any questions you have in the comments on the wall. I'll also be posting a new video on the history of a certain infamous bar in Echo Park on the tumblr and Facebook page soon, so tune in, this is one you don't want to miss.

Thanks for having me, Curbed University! I'll see you all in the archives!
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