Researching a San Francisco Building: Online Resources

Want to learn more about your home or apartment building? Do you walk down the street and wonder what businesses were there 100 years ago? Researching a San Francisco building is one of our more frequent queries in the San Francisco History Center. Our savvy archivists crafted this online guide to get building researchers started: How to Research a San Francisco Building. For this post, we culled through the guide to share pro-tips on what you can do online with our digitized content (as in how you can be a researcher from home). These resources include how to find built date, property owners, occupancy information and aerial photographs. Some digitized resources are open access and others require a San Francisco Public Library card and PIN.

These are the highlights to get you started from home.

1. San Francisco Property Information Map (open access)
The San Francisco Planning Department's Property Information Map provides a single access point for a variety of useful property data, zoning and permitting information. Among the useful information available for each property:
  • General Property Information, including Assessor's Reports, 1990s historical Sanborn Map  and the official address and zip code of the property.
  • Zoning Information of the Property, including Zoning Districts and other Applicable Regulations.
  • Historic Preservation Records of the Property, including the 1976 Department of City Planning Architectural Survey (with a photo).
  • Building permit history of the property.
Contains the date a water connection was first made for a structure and the name of the applicant (owner/contractor/developer). Dates may reflect the beginning of construction, the beginning of occupancy, or the date water was provided to an existing structure. Connections are recorded alphabetically by street name. Use the index at the beginning of each volume to find the street name and starting page. 

3. Sanborn Map Company Fire Insurance Maps
Published to help assess fire risk for buildings, Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps show the footprint for every building in the city. These maps also indicate type of construction, use of structures, addresses, and, sometimes, the names of businesses.
Databases: Digital Sanborn Maps of California or FIMO Fire Insurance Maps Online (San Francisco Public Library card and PIN required)
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, 1905 (open access)
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, San Francisco, June 1905. Courtesy of San Francisco History Center.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, San Francisco, June 1905. Courtesy of San Francisco History Center.

4. San Francisco Block Books (open access)
 Indicates lot sizes and the names of property owners. Check the index at the beginning of each volume to see if your neighborhood is included. 1894, 1901, January 1906, October 1906, 1907 (Homesteads only), 1909/1910.

5. San Francisco Chronicle Historical (1865-2017) and San Francisco Examiner Historical (1902-2007) (San Francisco Public Library card and PIN required)
Search the digitized newspapers by address. You may also search with past building owner name, occupant name or business name.

6. San Francisco City Directories, 1850-1982 (open access)
Use the name of the possible owner or occupant of your property to check the city directories backward and forward from the water date to determine whether that person lived at that address, the length of occupancy of that person, as well as his or her occupation. "Reverse directories," which list the owner or occupant by street address, appear in the directories beginning in 1953.

7. San Francisco Aerial Views, 1938 (open access)
A complete aerial survey of San Francisco digitized. The index indicates which sheet to locate for property or neighborhood. For those who want to go down digitizing memory lane with us: our story of when these were digitized in 2011.
San Francisco Aerial View, Sheet 16, 1938. Courtesy of San Francisco History Center.
San Francisco Aerial View, Sheet 16, 1938. Courtesy of San Francisco History Center.


  1. Great Post, Christina, this will be an excellent reference for people!

    Also search non-SFPL sources like and , you might get lucky!

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