Owners Get Leads on Their Homes' Histories

Times Staff Writer

So maybe your old house isn't Heritage Square-caliber, but you still would like to piece together its history.

The way is paved by such readily available documents as old maps, tax assessor's records and obituaries, said Judith P. Triem, a Ventura County historian who has been hired by the City of Oxnard to piece together the past of homes slated for its historic preservation project.

The author of "Ventura County: Land of Good Fortune," she also has coordinated historical surveys of many older buildings in Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula, Ventura and Oxnard for the Ventura County Cultural Heritage Board. For volunteers involved in the Ventura survey, she compiled a handbook on researching the history of local houses.

Can Consult Survey

As a first step, Triem refers curious homeowners to the "Heritage Survey" for their area. The surveys are available at the Ventura County Historical Society and the Ventura County Heritage Board in the Ventura County Government Center.

Homeowners whose houses have not been included in past surveys would do well to consult Triem's "Volunteer Handbook: Ventura Heritage Survey," which is available at the county historical society, she said.

A step-by-step guide to researching the history of a building, the handbook lists valuable historical documents and their locations. An appendix with descriptions and drawings of historical styles can be used to approximate a house's construction date.

The date can be determined more precisely by using Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, published periodically for insurance purposes beginning around the turn of the century. The maps are available at the Geography Department Map Library of Cal State Northridge. By comparing maps from different years, homeowners can fix the date when their house was built within several years.

Date Approximated

"For example, if a structure appeared on the 1890 Sanborn Map for Ventura but did not appear on the 1888 map, you could say it was built between 1888 and 1890," Triem said.

The names of past owners can be learned by using a county residence directory called "The Householder's Guide." Available at the Ventura County Historical Museum, it lists occupants of houses by address. In the year the house was built, its occupants most likely will be the original owners.

But there are drawbacks. The guide is good only for houses built after 1926, when the directory first was published, and researchers should be mindful of changes in address systems. In Ventura, for instance, current addresses correspond with listings that appeared after the city revamped addresses in the late 1920s, Triem said.

Early tax assessment roll books, often available at city halls, also can supply the names of a house's original owners. The books list the value of land improvements which, meager as they seem now, may in fact represent the original cost of the home.

"In the early 1900s a $500 improvement might mean a modest house and a $2,000 improvement might indicate a much larger, more elaborate house," Triem noted.

Some Rolls Lost

Homeowners in unincorporated areas may have trouble, however, because county records from the 1890s to recent years have been lost, she said.

For biographical information on past owners, obituaries in local newspapers stored on microfilm in public libraries can be rich sources--provided the death dates are known. For help with this, Triem suggested consulting computerized vital records stored at the County Recorder's office in the county government center.

So-called "mug books"--old-time histories in which prominent families paid to have biographical information listed--also can provide background on original owners. The Ventura County Historical Museum's collection includes several of these.

Triem also urged homeowners not to forget the most obvious route: "Interview family members, if they're around."

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