For some buildings, it’s a matter of finding information that has already been compiled. Here are some sources to check first:
There are three levels of historic designation: local, state, and national.
You can use city directories to find the approximate date that a building was constructed. These books not only provide alphabetical listings for local residents and businesses each year, but also list addresses alphabetically by street (In San Antonio, the earliest directory with both name and address listings is 1903-04). Start with the earliest year that you know the building was there, check for that address in the city directory, and keep working your way back until you find the first year that the building isn’t listed (you may want to go back one more year, just to rule out a misprint). You can assume that the first year the building doesn’t appear (after working backwards) is the year that is was built. The names of the building’s occupants, which appear alongside the address, may also be of interest. Sometimes the occupant is identified as a homeowner or a renter.
The definitive way to determine ownership is through a deed search using the records in the county clerk’s office at the local county courthouse. Bexar County has scanned records available online. You will need to create a login and password, then select “Records Search” from the menu and “Search All Data.” Your browser must also be able to run Java.
One way to conduct a deed search is to start with the name of the last known owner and work back through deed records, using the alphabetical grantor (seller)/grantee (buyer) index. Keep in mind that the building will most likely be referred to as an “improvement” in the deed description. You can find the name of the current owner through the county tax appraisal office.
The city directories often indicate if the person listed at the address was the owner with an “h” for householder or an “o” for owner after the name.
Finding out the architect or builder can be difficult, especially for more modest structures. Sometimes deed records will reference a mechanics lien placed on the property by the builder to ensure payment for his labor and materials. In San Antonio, the Development Services Department may have a copy of the building permit for work done post-1925. You will need to know the legal description of the property (found on the deed or tax record).
Major architectural commissions or buildings dedications are often written about or advertised in the local newspaper, naming the architect or builder involved. The San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation Library subscribes to NewspaperArchive.com, a database of scanned newspapers that is searchable by keyword and covers San Antonio from 1865 to 1977.
Not every building has a definite architectural style. However, many historic buildings reflect the form, materials, and details of a specific style (or combination of styles) that was popular at the time that the building was built. Compare the exterior features of the building to examples in books on architectural style. Most books present the styles chronologically, giving the date range when each style was most popular. Once you know when a building was built, you can start trying to match the appearance of the building to the styles popular at that time. Conversely, if you identify the style first, you can often make an educated guess about the approximate age of the building.
Sometimes no documentation is available. However, several sources to try are: architectural drawings, historic photographs, and Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps.
The existence of drawings is more likely for a well-known architect or building. You can find architectural drawings of some San Antonio buildings in the collections of the Alexander Architectural Archive at UT Austin, Daughters of the Republic of Texas Collection now housed at the Bexar County Archives Building, HABS/HAER Collection of the Library of Congress and the San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation Library.
You may be able to find historic photographs of the building in local library collections or through the building’s previous owners or their heirs. Sometimes photographs may appear in old newspaper articles or other printed material advertising a particular subdivision or a specific architect’s work. The San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Collection, and the UTSA Digital Collections have historic photographs of various local buildings and streetscapes in their collections.