A Guide to Researching Historic Properties in Fresno

The history of a residential property is generally addressed by documenting five basic areas of information:

  1. Name of original owner and other significant persons associated with the home
  2. Architect's name
  3. Builder's name
  4. Construction date
  5. Architectural style or type of construction of the home

A physical description of the home is required for nominations to local or national historic registers, and should include a statement of the original and current appearance of the residence, as well as a log of all major alterations made to the property. Basic biographical profiles of major persons associated with the history of a home also should be assembled to establish whether any social history contributes to the value of the property.

Libraries and Archives

Most of the research resources described in this guide may be found at one of following locations:

Fresno County Library
2420 Mariposa
Fresno, CA 93721
559-600-READ (559-600-7323)

Most architectural research resources are available either at the Reference Desk (main floor) or in the San Joaquin Valley Heritage and Genealogy Center (2nd floor). Library hours are Monday-Thursday 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Sunday 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Henry Madden Library
California State University, Fresno
5200 N. Barton Avenue, M/S ML34
Fresno, CA 93740-8014
559-278-2174 (Reference Main Desk)
559-278-2595 (Special Collections)

Most local architectural research resources are available in the Department of Special Collections, located on the fourth floor of the library.

Fresno City & County Historical Society
7160 W. Kearney Blvd.
Fresno, CA 93706
559-441-0862 ext. 105

Archives open by appointment only.

Research resources

City Directories

City directories are an excellent resource for tracking the occupancy history (social history) of residential properties. The first entry for a residence may also establish an approximate construction date for a home. That date is generally one year late, however, since information for the city directories was usually gathered one year before publication.

Beginning in 1913, city directories cross reference residences by street address number and owner/occupant's name. Earlier city directories document residences by owner/occupant's name only. North/south house numbering changed several times after 1900 (1907-1908 and again in 1952). Shifts in numbering must be taken into account when tracking historic homes, particularly those located in the Old Fig Garden area.

The Fresno County Library has City Directories on microfilm from 1881 to the present. The CSUF Department of Special Collections also has an extensive collection of City Directories.

The County Library has several other types of directories that may also be helpful in establishing occupancy history. These include Fresno phone directories (1909-present), mercantile guides (1904-1931), California Census records (1850-1930), and tax lists.

Sanborn Insurance Maps

The Sanborn Insurance maps used a progressive mapping technique, allowing the researcher to document the historic context of older homes as they relate to surrounding residences, buildings and neighborhoods. Later editions of the maps employ "paste-overs" to update alterations to buildings and changes in land use. Where street numbering has changed, both numbers are usually shown.

The Fresno County Library has microfilm copies of Sanborn maps for 1889 to 1970. The Map Room in the Henry Madden Library at California State University, Fresno (2nd floor) holds both bound atlases and maps in reduced-format suitable for photocopying. The CSUF Department of Special Collections also has selected Fresno County atlases for 1891 to 1944.

Building Permits

Building permits for the city of Fresno are available at the City of Fresno Development Department at 2600 Fresno St. (phone 559-498-1216). The city maintains building permit records in hard-copy and on microfiche from 1910 to the present. If, however, a residence was in the county at the time of construction, only the annexation date and subsequent remodeling permits will appear on the permit card. Plans and blueprints have not been preserved by the city. Building permit cards vary in the amount of information they provide. Permit records often give the contractor's name, but rarely identify the architect or designer. Building permits are filed by street name and number. Copies are available for a nominal fee.

The County of Fresno has not preserved building permits for its older residences. Researchers interested in county properties must rely heavily on oral histories. For the purpose of dating historic properties located in the county, Deeds of Ownership and other contracts maintained at the County Recorder's Office may be helpful. The Recorder's Office is on the top floor of the Hall of Records Building at 2281 Tulare Street (phone 559-488-3471).

Local newspapers

Local newspapers routinely reported construction news, often focusing on residences being planned or recently completed. Articles sometimes include photographs or reproductions of architects' renderings. Both the architect and builder are usually identified in such articles, though not always. Scanning microfilms of old newspapers spanning the construction period of a historic home may yield an article indicating the architect's name and sometimes a detailed description of the design of the home. Microfilm copies of old Fresno newspapers are available at the Fresno County Library.

Biographical data about owners/occupants or architects

There are six indexes available in Fresno for biographical material in local histories, obituaries or miscellaneous periodicals. The Fresno County Library's Heritage Center has available the following:

  • Sam Suhler Collection Biographical Card File
  • California State Library's California File (microfiche)
  • Fresno Bee microfiche files
  • California Death Index, 1905-1997 (microfiche)
  • CSUF Biographical Index of Fresno & Madera Counties

The Fresno City and County Historical Society has the Ben Walker Clipping Files, an extensive collection of indexed clippings from early Fresno newspapers.

Biographical information on prominent architects may be found in Architect & Engineer. The Fresno County Library has microfilm holdings of this journal for 1915-1950.

Existing Surveys

Numerous surveys of historic neighborhoods and districts in Fresno County may be found at the Fresno County Library'sHeritage Center. Those surveys completed within the last few years can be found in "Historic Districts" section of the City of Fresno's Historic Preservation Program website.

Historic Photographs

Both the Fresno City & County Historical Society and the Fresno County Library Heritage Center maintain historic photograph and negative collections that may be consulted for possible sources of early visual records of historic homes.

The Fresno County Library and CSUF Department of Special Collections also have available the Index of San Joaquin Valley Photographs from Selected Sources. This is a 76-page index with introduction and instructions for locating photographs in thirty published works. Subjects include people, buildings, homes, churches, and ranches. It is cross-referenced with dates, addresses and other pertinent data corresponding to specific local city directories.

Family-held photographs usually provide the richest source of visual information about the exterior and interior appearances of historic homes. Although the process is often time-consuming, tracking down descendants of the original occupants of a home using death indexes, cemetery records and obituaries often yields the most useful visual materials, in addition to corroborating oral histories.

Guidelines for local and national register nominations

While many researchers may wish to use information from the above-mentioned sources only for their own interest, others may choose to use their research to nominate a particular property to the city, county or national historic registers.

Guidelines and application forms for placing properties on the Fresno City Local Register of Historic Resources may be obtained by contacting the City of Fresno Historic Preservation Project Manager at 559-621-8520.

Guidelines and application forms for placing properties on the Fresno County Register of Historic Buildings may be obtained from the Fresno County Library Heritage Center (phone 559-600-6230).

Guidelines and applications for the National Register of Historic Places may be requested directly from that agency or from the California Office of Historic Preservation. Of particular value are three bulletins published by the NRHP:

Original guide prepared by John Edward Powell; updated and revised by Kevin Enns-Rempel.
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