MyHistoricLA: Part 3 – MyPlace (introduction to property specific research)

MORE RESEARCH!!! Those two words can strike terror into the heart of a school-age student working on a paper. When you’re doing something you love, however– and you’re not on a tight deadline– research can be incredibly fun and rewarding.

Property-specific research is something that I’ve always found particularly fascinating because it often requires thinking imaginatively. In the field of science or medicine, for example, the resources you go to when you need more information are usually going to be in that same field– that is, the resources you use are often the work of other scholars and researchers. Even historians usually use materials that were originally created or collected as historical records– diaries, archives and manuscript collections, and secondary sources by other historians.

For researching properties, however, it’s often hard to find resources that were specifically intended to serve the needs of future historians. Rather, some of the best information comes from resources that were merely “functional” at the time– business and governmental records, blueprints and plans, building permits, even phonebooks and city directories. A great example are Sanborn maps, incredibly detailed atlases of individual cities that show every building in the areas they cover. Produced since the late 19th century, they can be wonderful resources for determining what properties existed at particular times, and how properties have changed over time. However, they were never intended for architectural historians; rather, they were always produced as fire insurance maps, so that insurance companies could have their own record for assessing risks and claims. Finding resources like these is what can make property specific research exciting (and, occasionally, frustrating!) Fortunately, buildings are big, expensive projects, and that means that they usually have left a significant paper trail of some sort or another, from building permits to insurance maps.

The “MyPlace” section of the MyHistoricLA Guide to Public Participation serves as a fantastic introduction to doing property research in Los Angeles. Over time, researchers in the Office of Historic Resources (link to Newsletter) have developed a number of standard methods and sources as first steps in property-specific research, and the majority of time these offer fairly simple and productive ways to find the information you need.

Equipment and Supplies suggested by the “MyPlace” section in the MyHistoricLA Guide:

  • Notebook or computer to compile information that is gathered. Keep track of when you looked for information, and where it was found (or where it wasn’t found).
  • Pencil for recording information (some libraries and archives will not allow the use of pens).
  • Large folder or envelope to store photos, articles, or other loose information that you gather during your research.
  • Magnifying glass for reviewing details in historic photographs, small print, or information on a map.
  • Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) Card as some databases are only accessible to library card holders (including the online Sanborn map database).
  • Petty cash or system of reimbursement for parking and photocopying fees, if necessary.

Property research can be done by anyone interested, including those with no previous experience. In fact, out of all the activities in the MyHistoricLA Guide, this may be the easiest for many people to start with, because it does not require much group organizing– anyone can just pick up the Guide and a computer and start on their own.

Note: As the Guide points out, “there may be community members with specific expertise or who have previously done research on specific buildings, people, or events in the neighborhood…” No need to reinvent the wheel! Local history buffs, amateur historians, or people who just happen to love a particular building all can be wonderful resources. So can previous neighborhood tours or previous architectural surveys.

The first step in doing property research for use by SurveyLA is to determine what has already been gathered, and what information is still needed. What information is needed to supplement the data collected during MYneighborhood and MYstory activities? Remember that SurveyLA is asking a number of specific questions about the properties it surveys, and so it’s important to enter all available information into the MyHistoricLA Neighborhood Data Table and then review what’s still missing.

Below are some descriptions and links for the resources for research suggested by the MyHistoricLA Guide. Remember, there is much more extensive information in the Guide itself, but these can be great places to start.

ZIMAS: the Department of City Planning’s Zone Information and Map Access System (Assessor Parcel Number (APN) & Community Plan Area (CPA))

  • The Assessor Parcel Number (APN) and Community Plan Area (CPA) are important pieces of information to record for SurveyLA. The APN is the identifier for purposes of the Survey, and the property information and maps are all linked to this information. The field work for SurveyLA will be sequenced based on the CPA.
  • ZIMAS parcel records will also tell you if the property has been previously identified as an historic resource, landmark, or part of an historic district.
  • To access ZIMAS, got to and follow the instructions.

Records Department of the Department of Building and Safety (Building Permits)

  • Building permits are found on microfilm in the Records Department of the Department of Building and Safety.
  • Building permits confirm the year a property was built, the architect and builder, and the building permit number and date. The City of Los Angeles has building permits from 1905 to the present for properties in the city.
  • You can access building permits by visiting the Records Department and filling out a request form for same-day service. Office hours are 7:30 am – 4:30 pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; Wednesday office hours are 9:00 am – 4:00 pm. There are two locations where you can access permits:
    • Van Nuys Office, 6262 Van Nuys Boulevard, Rm. 251, Van Nuys, CA 91401, Ph: (213) 482-6899
    • Metro Office, 201 North Figueroa Street, Rm. 110, Los Angeles, CA 90012, Ph: (818) 374-4394
  • See the Records Department website for more information, or fill out an information request form:
  • If you need additional assistance, both the Metro and Van Nuys offices provide training for individuals who wish to learn how to research large numbers of properties. Training is available at the Metro Office on Tuesdays only by calling 213-482-6899; or at the Van Nuys Office on Wednesdays only by calling 818-374-4390.

Sanborn Maps

  • Sanborn Maps provide information such as the outline of each building, the size, shape and construction materials, heights, and function of structures, location of windows and doors.
  • The maps also give street names, street and sidewalk widths, property boundaries, building use, and house and block numbers.
  • Many of the Sanborn maps also give information about the use of the building or its owner(s), and a wealth of other info. They are awesome!
  • To view Digital Sanborn Maps are available through the Los Angeles Public Library (with a LAPL card):
    • Go to
    • Select “Sanborn Maps” from the list of available databases, enter your LAPL card number and the last four digits of your phone number, and then click “Browse Maps” when the Sanborn Maps homepage comes up.
    • You will select “CA” and “Los Angeles” from the State and City drop down lists, and then you can select the relevant date for the maps you would like to review. The most relevant maps will probably be the 1906-1950 maps.
    • Bound volumes, each containing approximately 100 sheets, were created for large cities. In Digital Sanborn Maps if you select a map that is divided into volumes, you are automatically taken to the first volume in the set. A volume selection box appears to the right of the date box to allow you to view other volumes. The best way to navigate a volume is to find the key sheet which provides a birds-eye view of the city indicating which areas of the city are in which volumes.

About Steve Duncan

Urban explorer, photographer, and historian.
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