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Be your own house detective

August 12, 2004|Janet Eastman

How do you unearth the architectural roots of your house if they're obscure?

You can begin by checking out "Los Angeles: An Architectural Guide" by David Gebhard and Robert Winter (Gibbs Smith, $24.95), which lists hundreds of buildings, from 19th century Victorians to newly minted Moderns, along with the name of the architect and the year the home was built.

If it's not there, don't give up. Betsy J. Green, who wrote "Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood" (Santa Monica Press, $14.95), says your search will be a treasure hunt and a jigsaw puzzle, but worth it.

Before you launch your quest, you should know that only about 25% of homes had original plans drawn up by architects, says the American Institute of Architects. Tract, kit and even some custom homes were built using existing plans commissioned by builders or developers.

Here are some ways to find out who designed your blueprints:

* Check closets, attics or other cubbyholes in the house for a copy of the original drawings.

* Locate the original building permit, which often lists the architect's name. In the city of Los Angeles, copies of building permits are kept at the Department of Building and Safety Construction Services Centers. Visit for location, hours and fees.

* Contact local, state and federal historical organizations to see if an architectural survey has been conducted in your neighborhood. Areas that have been deemed Historic Preservation Overlay Zones have been surveyed. For more information on neighborhood initiatives, check with the Los Angeles Conservancy, (213) 623-2489 or www.laconservancy .org.

* Talk to previous owners or longtime neighborhood residents. If they don't know the name of the architect, they may be able to direct you to someone who does. "It pays to network," says Green, "and to follow the trail of the guy who knew the girl who married the man who grew up in the house or some other scenario."

* Place a classified ad in your local newspaper requesting information about the house. "Someone who has photos or documents may respond," Green says.

* Once you have a name, you can find out more about the architect at the Richard J. Riordan Los Angeles Central Library, which maintains a California historical index with biographical material on prominent architects and builders; go to or call (213) 228-7000. Also, UCLA and other institutions offer one-day lectures on renowned architects.

-- Janet Eastman

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