Great House History Discoveries

A Glimpse Behind the Scenes with the Detective

324 North Soledad | Credit: Betsy J. Green

I never know what I’ll find when I research the history of an older home. I researched more than 80 when I lived in the Chicago area, and more than 30 so far here in Santa Barbara. I’m looking for more local homes to write about — see details below! — and I could use your help. However, since I don’t have a house to write about this month, I thought I’d share some of my favorite discoveries in my work to date.

Old Photos

A 1920s photo of the family at 324 North Soledad Street | Credit: Betsy J. Green

There are two kinds of vintage homeowners: those who have old photos of their home, and those who want old photos of their home. The owners of some of the homes that I wrote about already had old photos of their home and treasured them.

The circa 1900 home at 324 North Soledad Street is one example. A few months after the current owners moved into the home, a woman knocked on the door and explained that her grandfather had built the home. Along with some information about the home’s past, she had a 1920s photo of the family posed on the porch. If you have an old photo of a home in your family files, I encourage you to share a copy of that photo with the current homeowners.

In rare cases, I have found a vintage photo of a house in an architecture book. This happened with the 1913 home at 1920 Laguna Street. I was impressed to find a photo of this house in A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester. When researching the 1905 home at 223 East Victoria Street, I found a photo of an almost identical home in the same book. This tells me that the house was probably built from plans that were published and sold around the U.S.

1920 Laguna Street | Credit: Betsy J. Green

Treasures in the Walls

Keep an eye out for items behind the walls or under the floors when remodeling. Several homeowners showed me interesting items found in their homes. The homeowner of the 1923 home at 2127 Red Rose Way told me that when he removed some drywall, he discovered the walls were lined with pages of newspapers dated 1923.

Old bottles are another cool find. In the circa 1898 farmhouse at 1721 Gillespie Street, the owners found a bottle of Dr. True’s Elixir under the floorboards. A 1924 ad for this medication claimed it was good for intestinal parasites, indigestion, nausea, headache, colds, and diseases of the stomach and liver.

The homeowners at 329 West Ortega Street showed me some bottles that had been dug up when a tree was planted in a corner of the backyard. I knew from an old map that the hole was dug in the location of an old outhouse — a great place to find old bottles. One bottle collector that I interviewed years ago said that you had to dig carefully to avoid breaking the bottles, and remember not to lick your fingers!

1721 Gillespie Street | Credit: Betsy J. Green

‘Flying A’ Families

Hundreds of people worked for our local silent-movie studio in the years 1912 to 1921, so it’s not surprising to find houses that were homes to these folks. The 1926 abode at 2319 Wellington Avenue was home to a husband and wife who had both worked at the studio. The large 1906 home at 1935 Santa Barbara Street was owned by a wealthy man who wrote screenplays for the “Flying A.”

Betsy J. Green is a Santa Barbara historian, and author of Discovering the History of Your House and Your Neighborhood, Santa Monica Press, 2002. Her website is

A bottle of Dr. True’s Elixir under the floorboards at 1721 Gillespie Street | Credit: Betsy J. Green

Help Wanted!

If you own a home that you would like me to write about in this column, get in touch through the contact page of my website:

I’m looking for homes built 1920 or earlier, located in Santa Barbara, south of Constance Avenue. Why these limitations? My main sources of information are old city directories and local papers. The directories only covered the homes within the city limits at that time. Local papers are online only up to 1922. 

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