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When history knocks, invite it in

Posted: October 6th, 2017 | Columns, Community Voices, Featured, PastMatters | No Comments

By Katherine Hon

One advantage of having a nearly 100-year-old house is the number of previous owners out there who may have photos and stories to share about changes through the years. But how to find those people? Sometimes they find you, so be ready to invite them in.

Old city directories show homeowner’s name, spouse and occupation. In this little clip from the 1947-48 directory, several residents worked for The Marston Company, the subject of September’s Past Matters column. (Photo by Katherine Hon)

Last month, Jo Ann, a lovely real estate agent from Escondido, and her husband John drove slowly past our house several times. We happened to be outside, and so we wouldn’t wonder what she was up to, she declared, “I grew up in this house!”

I asked what her last name was back then, and immediately recognized it as the second owner of our house from about 1947 to 1952, based on research I had compiled from old city directories. So we invited them in.

Jo Ann was only 7 when her family moved to this little North Park bungalow, so she wasn’t sure if her mom and dad had even owned it. She was delighted to see her parents listed in the 1947-48 directory as owners.

It was quite an experience for her to stand in her childhood dining room and take a photo of the directory page where her family was listed as living at that address.

We found her best friend’s family listed in the directory as living around the corner. She reminisced about playing “kick the can” and other games in the street, attending Jefferson Elementary School, and enjoying a happy childhood in North Park.

In walking through the house, she expressed surprise at how small it seemed now, and we expressed surprise at how many people lived there (she was one of six children) with only one bathroom. She confirmed that an addition we always thought was built in the 1930s was already there when her family moved to the house. She promised to try to find some old photos where the house was in the background, an incidental part of the view back then, but now the holy grail for historians.

For the owners of the little bungalow across the street, the cutie pie on the Plymouth bumper is an extraneous part of this 1953 photo. (Courtesy of Viola Treweek)

Jo Ann was not the first to ask if she could revisit her childhood home. The son of the young carpenter who bought the house in 1973 fresh out of the Navy has come by twice. On his second visit, Erik brought his own family, and he telephoned his mom from the living room to say, “You won’t believe where I’m standing right now!” His dad created a woodworker’s dream with pieced wooden counters in the kitchen and window seats of cedar and redwood in the living room, which he was happy to see were still there, but were new to Jo Ann.

Long-time neighbors, especially people who live across the street, are another potential source of photos. You never know when your house might show up as part of that incidental background. So get out there and meet the older residents on your block.

Knowing the names of previous owners and neighbors is essential to confidently inviting history into your home.

It is easy to do with the resources available online on the City Clerk’s website at bit.ly/2wfS6aR.

Directories have a “reverse” listing by address from 1926 forward. When you find the address of your home or your neighbor’s home and the names of those residents, you can look up their names in the main part of the directory and even find their occupations. Keep going through the directories as far forward as you can.

Old city directories are full of information and make hefty paperweights if you actually own one. (Photo by Katherine Hon)

The City Clerk website has digitized the directories from 1926 through 1954. Actual copies of the city directories are in the research library of the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park and the Downtown library up to about 1987.

When you have a list of previous owners compiled, you will be ready to invite history in if it happens to knock. If you already have a great story about a previous owner or descendant coming to call, post it on our North Park History Facebook page.

— Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at info@northparkhistory.org or 619-294-8990.

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