A map from 1908 that shows the parts of San Francisco that burned in the fires after the 1906 earthquake. (Penny Nelson/KQED)
Ask around in the more historic parts of San Francisco and you’ll find a good number of the homes were built in 1906. Or so people have been told.
One of our Bay Curious listeners, Scott Sharpe, couldn’t help but notice how often that date popped up when he and his wife went house hunting.
They ended up buying a condo on Grant Avenue in North Beach and the records for his building say -- no surprise -- 1906.
Scott knew about the earthquake and the fires. But he also had heard rumors that his building was older than its 1906 date. His upstairs neighbor thought sailors might have rented rooms in the long narrow buildings on his block when they came ashore in San Francisco.
That got him wondering ...
What proportion of houses in his neighborhood and other neighborhoods actually have been around for much longer than we have records for?
And also, was his building older than 1906? Was it a boardinghouse for sailors?
Let’s find out.
On April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake tore through roughly 300 miles up and down the San Andreas Fault.
The epicenter of this enormous temblor was near San Francisco. It brought down buildings, and the fires it caused burned for three days. By the end of the nightmare, roughly 80 percent of the most populated part of the city was destroyed. An estimated 28,000 buildings in the burn area of North Beach, the downtown area, along Van Ness Avenue and the Mission were lost. A quarter-million people, more than half the city, were homeless. On top of all that misery, while exact numbers remain unknown, around 3,000 people are thought to have died. Numbers remain hard to determine, but math leads us to believe that 7,000 buildings might have survived.
Another loss from the quake and fires — a loss that we still feel today: documents. Volumes of building records, deeds to homes, contracts, parcel histories and the like went up in smoke those three days.
As a result, much of the historic part of the city received a second birthday: 1906. While San Francisco was formally incorporated April 15, 1850, much of it was destroyed 56 years later, on April 18, 19 and 20. But with money in the bank and bodies ready to work, all the rebuilding was a rebirth of sorts. And a new date of 1906 was slapped on much of the city.
That gets us back to the search for an answer to Scott’s question, and a trip to the city history center and archives on the sixth floor of the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library.
Make no mistake. This is no musty, dank setup. These archives, just like the library itself, are light and airy, and accessible. City archivist Susan Goldstein and her crew are there to help me every step of the way, and I ask her Scott’s first question: What proportion of the city’s homes are older than their build date of 1906?
We speculate that roughly 7,000 buildings survived. She explains that this question is one that will take quite a while as it will require serious data digging and compilation, as well as follow-up on the status of those 7,000 or so homes and buildings. It’s doable, but requires more time that Bay Curious can invest. But we can dig into Scott’s second question.
Is his building older than its 1906 “birthdate”?
I ask Goldstein how we research this, given that the city’s documents burned in the fires. This is when she offers a golden nugget.
“People think we’ve lost all the records. That’s really not true.”
Many of the city’s building records did burn. But not all of them. While documents about ownership, deeds and the like may have burned, there are many other types of records that were distributed around town in different places that did survive.
Goldstein said, “For example, there’s a wealth of information in the water tap records.” Those are the ledgers dating back to the mid-19th century that document when and where water was hooked up to a home or building. From that we learn the names associated with a building, about the buildings, and interestingly the order in which buildings were put in place. So while they may not be in order on any given street, the water hookups, or water tap records, reveal the order in which the houses or buildings appear on a street.
Those ledgers are at the library in hard copy and digitized. The digitized version offers photos of the ledgers, so either way it’s a trip back in time with a glimpse at the old-fashioned handwriting and the ink blots on the pages.
The archives also have Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. With colorful drawings, they paint a picture of what was on any given street and even the outlines of the buildings and hints at the interiors. The building materials used are included.
There are block books that show an entire block’s buildings. There are loads of maps, as well as 44,000 photos of old San Francisco that did NOT burn. So, the myth that all the documents burned is dispelled.
With that, we know we have different options for finding out what was on Scott's place in 1906.
Goldstein is looking through the water tap records, through some cross-street reference guides, and a few other spots. No luck. She and her colleagues remember that Grant Avenue used to go by the name Dupont -- and that leads to success.
Goldstein then turns to the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, which end up being a goldmine and show us what, in 1905, was on the spot where Scott lives now.
And, you know what? It does not look like what’s there now. But that’s cool, too! The building footprint today is different from 1905, when the Sanborn Fire Maps were drawn. What's there on the page shows what looks like mixed-use strip of shops with flats on top. And we can almost see in our mind's eye what was there. There are three shops joined together like a strip mall, and then a second-floor flat for each shop.
And the maps even give us clues about the shop’s business. One was a furniture repair shop. That was easy -- it said so on the map. Next to that was what may have been a bakery or a potter's shop because the oven was so large it shows up on the map. And where Scott's building is, it’s harder to tell. But atop each shop is a flat with two large rooms. Nothing looks like the rooms that Scott described for the boardinghouse rooms in which he imagined the sailors stayed.
So, sorry, Scott. From what the Fire Insurance maps show, it doesn’t appear that your building predates the fire. Perhaps it really was built in the flurry of construction in 1906. It was a popular birthdate, after all!
One more thing. Archivist Susan Goldstein invites anyone curious to learn more about the history of a house or building to come down to the sixth floor of San Francisco’s Main Library on Larkin Street and start digging. It’s there for the public to enjoy!