Every House Has a History

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Presented February 24 at the Personal Digital Archiving 2012 conference at the Internet Archive, San Francisco.

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  • Each time an earthquake hits our 1910 house in Oakland, things fall out of the chimney into the empty fireplace. Mostly ashy dust, but once a lead foil wrapper from some embroidery thread, often brick fragments (which is a little disconcerting) and last October a bigger than usual quake – 3.9 on the Richter scale – knocked loose a piece of wadded up newspaper. \n
  • I flattened it out to try to find a date, hoping naturally for something extraordinarily old or extraordinarily significant. What I found was a page of syndicated stories and advertisements from the December 3, 1947 Oakland Tribune. So it’s not a secret message from the builders or first occupants of our house. It’s not an article about how Jack London slept here. It’s evidence of the lifetime of a house that has seen more than 35,000 days of daily routines of its inhabitants, changes people made to make the house work better for them, and changes the house itself made as it cracked and settled into its place on 62nd Street. When this newspaper was printed, the house was already almost 40 years old. I learned from old directories that the people who lived here when the newspaper was delivered and discarded were Raymond and Evelyn Taulbee, who bought the place in 1932. Raymond had a heating company on 48thAvenue just below 14th Street. And I can’t wait to learn more about them when the 1940 U.S. census opens up. \n\nTen years ago I wouldn’t have been able to find out even this basic information without a lot of legwork, and a lot of time looking through pieces of paper in archival collections. But with the explosion of online collections of historical document images, we can each start to build local histories around the focus of our own home - and make what’s publicly available personally significant.\n
  • I flattened it out to try to find a date, hoping naturally for something extraordinarily old or extraordinarily significant. What I found was a page of syndicated stories and advertisements from the December 3, 1947 Oakland Tribune. So it’s not a secret message from the builders or first occupants of our house. It’s not an article about how Jack London slept here. It’s evidence of the lifetime of a house that has seen more than 35,000 days of daily routines of its inhabitants, changes people made to make the house work better for them, and changes the house itself made as it cracked and settled into its place on 62nd Street. When this newspaper was printed, the house was already almost 40 years old. I learned from old directories that the people who lived here when the newspaper was delivered and discarded were Raymond and Evelyn Taulbee, who bought the place in 1932. Raymond had a heating company on 48thAvenue just below 14th Street. And I can’t wait to learn more about them when the 1940 U.S. census opens up. \n\nTen years ago I wouldn’t have been able to find out even this basic information without a lot of legwork, and a lot of time looking through pieces of paper in archival collections. But with the explosion of online collections of historical document images, we can each start to build local histories around the focus of our own home - and make what’s publicly available personally significant.\n
  • When we think of doing architectural history in the Bay Area, this is often the kind of place that comes to mind. Grand buildings with plaques boasting of their historical designations. And when we see a plaque that a building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it means it’s met the criteria for what the National Parks Service (under which the register is administered) identifies as “the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation,” and that someone has cared enough to nominate it. At the state level, we also have the California Register of Historic Properties, which includes places that might not be of National significance but are important in California’s history. The criteria to get on the National Register and California Register are intentionally restrictive – a property has to be an exceptional example of an architect’s work or architectural style, or be associated with significant events or persons. It also has to possess integrity of “location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association.” This means that it has to look pretty much like it did during what’s called its “period of significance” – or the stretch of years during which the building was associated with whatever important person, event, or style that makes it significant. Municipalities usually also have a “local landmarks” status for places that are significant in local history that might not otherwise measure up to state and federal standards. \n\n
  • Of course, I’m all for the National Register, the California Register, and local landmark designations. While the system of designation favors grand architectural examples, thoughtful architectural historians have found interesting ways to apply the criteria. This house at 65/67 Ramona Street belongs to some friends who very graciously let me snoop around their home and its documentary past to put together a prototype House History for the business I’m trying to start. The house, and all its neighbors along the short street between 14th and 15th in the Mission District, are contributors to what architectural historians working for the Mission Dolores Neighborhood Association and San Francisco’s planning department recommended was a National Register Eligible District. While this was one of the areas completely burned in the 1906 earthquake and fire and then rebuilt with dense housing over the following decade, that’s not the street’s claim to eligibility. It’s that most of the houses on the street have integrated garages on their lower stories. And, somewhat fortuitously, very few of the street’s homeowners have done major alterations to the facades or basic structures of their houses. \n\nThis is a good angle. But I still three big reasons that this kind of institutionalized architectural history falls short of being meaningful to the people who actually own and live in the houses. First, most of our houses and most of our neighborhoods will never be the subject of formal historical study. Second, when neighborhoods are the subject of formal historical study, the results usually end up (in the best case scenario) buried in a technical report PDF on a public agency website. If the study was contracted by a private agency, the results may never be made publicly available. Third, the emphasis on integrity and periods of significance deny the reality that buildings are lived in and changed continuously over time. The history of a house is a process, not a snapshot. If we want to build meaningful, rich local histories, we’ll need to do it ourselves.\n\n\n
  • I’m going to use a little house that I used to live in – a particularly architecturally uninteresting little house – to illustrate the process of collecting information about past residents and building the genealogy of a place. To tell the story of a home’s life as lived-in, we need to draw on disparate sources that aren’t necessarily hard to find, but are scattered in such a way that organizing them around the focal point of the home takes some work. We don’t usually – especially in urban California – share genetic connections with the people who lived in our house before us. But aren’t we somehow related to them – if not by blood, by experience and geography and even the mundane daily routines like looking out the same window onto the same street each morning year after year? And though there is definitely some overlap in the types of sources that genealogists – both professional and avocational – use in their research, the focus on place makes the structure of using that information different. People are maddeningly mobile. They move over great distances to seek greater opportunities or flee from terrible situations. They get married and change their names. They emigrate and change their names. They name their children after their ancestors and cause all kinds of archival confusion. And we chase these people whose genetic material we share to try to find some kind of connection to who we ourselves are. Houses, on the other hand, usually stay put. We can track them over time while location stays (relatively) constant. \n
  • Every house in every jurisdiction will have different details of record location and access – but every house will have a dispersed trail of history. To organize all the information and ideas, I like to think in terms of scale, or “zoom level,” when approaching the documentary record of a house. In the information gathering stage (shown in green), I start building historical context at the level of the town or city, zooming in through the neighborhood and street to the household unit. The individual house and its residents are interwoven at the most detailed level of investigation. Once I know who lived in and owned the house in successive years, the really interesting interpretive stuff starts. Connections between the sequential homeowners and between the residents and the building itself tell stories of transitions over time. The stories of each family as they moved into, and out of, a house connect to broader patterns in local and regional history. \n
  • At the city level, images like this 1891 birds’-eye view of Berkeley from the collection of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, accessed through the Online archive of California, shows how the city still had whole blocks of open space between the university (the big buildings in the foreground) and the more densely settled core of Oakland off the map to the left. \n
  • A 1909 map from the Library of Congress American Memory collections shows how, in less than 2 decades, the agricultural landscape of south Berkeley was transformed into residential neighborhoods with interurban rail lines along the major north-south arteries.\n
  • Zooming in to the neighborhood level an 1878 Alameda County atlas, produced by Thompson & West and available in the David Rumsey collection, shows that the ‘imagined’ neighborhoods of real estate speculators was mapped out decades before actual houses were built.\n
  • Also from David Rumsey’s extraordinary collection, this 1909 map of Berkeley shows more specific detail about the neighborhood at this time.\n
  • Black and white scans of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, available through the San Francisco Public Librarys’ subscription to Proquest’s service, give detailed information at the neighborhood and street level. Showing building construction materials, commercial building functions, and utilities, these maps are available for this neighborhood for 1903, 1911, and 1950. \n
  • At the closest scale of the household, United States census records from 1910, 1920, and 1930 give demographic snapshots of who lived in a house, their family members’ ages, nationalities, and occupations. Voter registry records for years between the censuses help fill in the chronology of occupation, and offer insights into changes in the residents’ reported job or business. I usually access both of these record types through Ancestry.com, but this isn’t the only online source for censuses and voter registries.\n
  • Before the Internet Archive made good starter collections of city directories for San Francisco and the East Bay available online, I searched the hard copies at the San Francisco Public Library, Oakland Public Library, Berkeley Public Library, and Berkeley Historical Society. Now I can do that at home in my pajamas. Directories organized alphabetically by residents’ last names show the years through which families listed in the census and voter registries lived in a house. “Reverse” directories - like the page shown at the bottom-right, and organized by street address - were made starting in the mid 20th’-century. These are especially useful in finding information about residents from the 1940s onward.\n
  • The big lacuna in online house history research is at the level of interactions between people who owned and lived in the house, and between people and the house itself. Deeds, mortgages, and other property transfer related documents are generally held at the county recorder’s office, and while the records are open to the public - sometimes even in digital format on locally networked terminals - they can’t be found online. The same goes for building permits, which are usually held by municipalities. For Berkeley, the collected permits for any residence can be viewed on microfiche at the permit office.\n
  • After combing multiple sources to find out who lived in a house, what they did, and for how long, their stories start to emerge from their record of residence. Santaro (Sam) Fujita, his wife Toyo, and their son, Saburo moved into 1710 Russell street in 1932. Both born in Japan, Santaro (who worked as a gardener) and Toyo were longtime residents in the Bay Area, living in Mountain View before moving to Berkeley. Saburo was born in Oakland in 1925. Then, in 1942, they left Russell Street and disappear from the city directories. Following the issue of a series of exclusion orders in the spring of 1942, Japanese-Americans throughout the West Coast were evacuated from their homes and relocated to detention camps in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Arkansas. A wide variety of publicly available online documents illustrate the experience of Japanese-American Californians who were interned during the war. Photographer Dorothea Lange, as part of her assignment with the War Relocation Authority, documented the last-minute marriage of a Berkeley couple at 2903 Harper St. (only two blocks from the Fujitas’ house) noting in her title for one of the photos that neither the bride nor groom spoke Japanese. \n\n
  • A collection of documents related to the Topaz camp is available through the Utah State University Digital Library, and includes scans of the 1943 and 1944 yearbooks of the Topaz High School. Saburo Fujita, who lived at 1710 Russell Street and attended Berkeley High School before the spring of 1942, graduated high school at Topaz in 1943 and is pictured in the yearbook. \n
  • After the Second World War, many migrant workers moved from temporary housing near wartime manufacturing plants to more permanent East Bay homes. Among these were Fred and Ethel Benford, who moved from Southern California to work in Richmond in 1942, living in the Canal War Apartments. An article from the 1943 Berkeley Daily Gazette (one of the publications still up on the now defunct Google News Archives) reports how this segregated housing complex for African-American workers was a poorly built fire hazard. The Benfords bought 1710 Russell Street in 1948, and lived there until 1955. Ethel, who had been a homemaker before the war, continued to work at an Emeryville die casting plant until her retirement.\n
  • The Fujitas’ and Benfords’ stories are just two examples of how the past residents of a single house in Berkeley were connected to significant events and broad patterns in our shared history. While additional texture and evidence can be added to the stories using primary and secondary sources that are only available in print, a great deal of both the general context and house-level detail can be found in archival documents online. Going through the research process ourselves, and learning the history of our own homes, can connect us to our local history in ways that visiting a well-preserved house museum never will. \n\n
  • Every House Has a History

    1. 1. Oakland Tribune images from Newspaperarchive.com through Archives.com

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