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Researching Your Home's History

September 21, 1997|SUSAN CARRIER

Form a Game Plan

"Researching a home is a discovery. It's like a treasure hunt, a mystery, and you are the detective looking for clues," said Marguerite Duncan Abrams, president of Pasadena Heritage.

But before you dust off the magnifying glass, figure out which mysteries you'd like to solve. These questions can help you identify the aspects of research that may appeal to you:

* If you are restoring or renovating your house, do you wish to make sure that the project accurately reflects the building's history? What part of the house should be preserved and which parts can be changed?

* How did the house evolve from its original construction to its present state? Do the alterations reflect changing fashions and lifestyles? For example, was a sun porch converted to a family room?

* How did the neighborhood evolve? How have factors such as changing demographics and transportation development affected the neighborhood?

* What (or who) influenced the design and/or specific architectural features of the house?

* Who was the architect, the builder, the developer? What other houses did he or she design or build?

* Who was the original owner? Is the owner's personality or personal history reflected in the house?

* Who else lived in the house and how did their lives affect future changes?

* How does the history of the house fit in context with local, state or social history?

Your interests will determine the initial direction of your research. But as any good detective will tell you, clues uncovered along the way may change your focus.

Contact the Local Historical Society

The local historical or preservation society, if available in your community, can help you:

* Avoid duplication of efforts. If you suspect that your house is "historically significant," the historical society can tell you (or tell you how to find out) if research is already available.

* Get started. Even if your house is not historically significant, the historical society can often provide enough information to get sleuths started. In Maria Kennedy's case, the Covina Historical Society provided two pieces of information: the name E. P. Bomer (the builder, designer and owner) and the year 1922.

* Learn about resources. Many cities, such as Pasadena and Redondo Beach, have access to unique storehouses of historical information. The historical society can tell you what these resources are and how you can gain access to them.

* Hire a professional. If the process seems overwhelming, ask the historical society to recommend a professional historian.

Head for the Courthouse

Deeds, those seemingly lifeless real estate records, are the beginning point in your search for clues. They reveal the house's time line of ownership, purchase prices and property descriptions, information of interest to anyone tracing the evolution of the house. And the original deed might also make known the builder or developer and, if applicable, the architect.

In Los Angeles County, deeds can be found at the County Clerk's Department Headquarters, (12400 E. Imperial Highway, Room 2207, Norwalk; [800] 201-8999).

Real estate records are maintained in alphabetical indexes by name and year the document was recorded. By starting with the current owner's name and date of sale, you can "chain" a title (go through deeds to find out previous owners) back to the original owner.

Building permits are another source for following the development of your house. Contact City Hall or, if your house is in an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County (or was when it was built), head for the Los Angeles County Public Works, Building & Safety Division, 125 South Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. County records are available for houses built after 1932.

Be a Nosy Neighbor

Find out if any longtime residents in the neighborhood know about the history of the area or your house. Historian Tim Gregory, however, cautions sleuths to "take what you hear with a grain of salt unless you can find written documentation to back it up."

By tracking down Stan Smith, the 82-year-old Covina resident who was a boy when he knew Eben Putnam Bomer, Kennedy was able to add a personality to the name on the deed. Bomer emerged as a kind, cheerful man who "fixed broken wagons for the neighborhood kids."

Spend the Day at the Library

Local libraries and the Los Angeles Central Library are stocked with more than books. Directories, indexes, newspapers and maps can be invaluable research tools.

* City directories, available in many local libraries, list the address, the residents' names and their professions or places of business. The profession or place of business will be of special interest. "Unusual architectural features can sometimes be very revealing clues to the personality or profession of the original owner if the house was custom built," according to Gregory.

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