The House That Sears Built

In the early part of the last century, Sears Roebuck’s kit houses were sold by the thousands to do-it-yourself builders throughout America. Today, these modest structures are gaining recognition as architectural gems.



The House That Sears Built

 

In the early 20th century, Sears Roebuck & Company provided thousands of Americans with affordable “do-it-yourself” homes that are now considered modern architectural treasures

 

By Lynn Hazlewood • Photographs by Michael Polito

 

 

Kit and caboodle: Malave and Drag’s circa-1930s Sears kit house, located in the city of Poughkeepsie

 

 

When Linda Malave and Kate Drag were looking for a house in Poughkeepsie in the mid-1990s, they hoped to find a pristine place in what realtors call “move-in” condition. Instead, they bought a 1930s Cottage-style home that needed a lot of TLC. “It was neglected, it had a funny odor, the paint was peeling on the outside, and it really wasn’t our taste,” Malave says. “But we could see there was a gem underneath. It had hardwood floors, a working fireplace. And what really sold us was the very charming, open floor plan.”

 

A few years later, Malave (who is now project director of Hudson River Housing) had gone back to school and was studying art history at Vassar. “I was doing research for my senior thesis on domestic architecture, and I came across some pictures of Sears catalog homes,” she recalls. “And I thought, ‘Jeez, this kind of looks like my house.’ I went to the library and found a book on kit houses that had the exact picture of our house, and a floor plan.”

 

Excited, Malave and Drag measured the rooms in their house. “They were exactly the dimensions of the floor plan,” Malave says. “And it has the vestibule, the telephone nook, the fireplace, the built-in bookcase — everything. I felt like a detective who had solved a mystery.”

 

Between 1908 and 1940, Sears Roebuck sold as many as 75,000 kit houses — kits containing everything from floorboards to roof shingles that “a man of average abilities” (the catalog declared) could assemble himself in about 90 days, weather permitting. It’s a fascinating part of America’s architectural and social history — and Linda Malave is among the growing ranks of homeowners delighted to discover they’re in possession of a piece of it.

 

Ah, but not so fast — most are mistaken, declares Rosemary Thornton, an expert on kit houses. (“The expert,” she’ll merrily inform you.) “About 80 percent of people who think they have a Sears home are wrong,” says Thornton, who has written three books on the subject, and who is able to denounce a Sears kit house imposter within seconds of receiving its snapshot via E-mail.

 

In Malave’s case, the evidence is strong that her house, a model called the Mitchell from Sears’ premium Honor Bilt line, is the real thing. But Thornton, who lives in Norfolk, Virginia, points out the many difficulties of identifying kit homes. For one thing, Sears sold building components that were often incorporated into non-kit houses. They also encouraged kit buyers to customize plans, so variations are almost endless. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Sears models reflected popular housing styles of the times — some of which were themselves fashioned from stock plans — and local builders may in turn have copied original Sears homes.

 

Some kit-house dwellers may be right about the kit aspect and wrong about the brand: Although “Sears kit house” has become a generic term, thousands of kits were sold by other companies during the first half of the 20th century.

 

Becky Collins lives in a storybook-pretty little house of indeterminate style in High Falls. “It was built in 1934, and it’s definitely a kit house,” she claims. “The contractor told us. He found numbered pieces in the basement and in the attic. There’s a nearly identical sister house next door, with the same dormer over the front. An elderly neighbor who lives across from what’s now the rail trail told me that she remembers the train dropping off the pieces when she was a young girl.”

 

Although Collins has yet to find any documentation, she discovered that the downstairs floor plans of her house were similar to one Sears model, and the upstairs similar to another. Could it be the real McCoy? Nope, says Thornton. “This house has no feature that identifies it as a Sears. The size, shape, footprint, dimensions, roof pitch, proportion, fenestration, etcetera, is simply not right.” Nor does it appear to be any of the other brands she’s familiar with. “Bennett Homes was a big regional company in New York State. Perhaps the design was one of theirs,” Thornton allows. But she is adamant that unless a house can be matched to a picture in a catalog, or the owners find specific written evidence, they can’t claim theirs is a kit house.

 

The history of kit houses neatly illustrates the meeting of ingenuity, marketing, and the fabled American “can-do” spirit that was thriving at the start of the 20th century — not to mention the availability of land and relaxed building codes of the time. It also offers a heartwarming picture of “ordinary” people thumbing through Sears’s Book of Modern Homes, looking to order a house they otherwise might not have been able to afford.

 

By 1908, Richard Warren Sears had been publishing his catalog for about 15 years. What started as a vehicle to sell watches and jewelry to his rural neighbors in Minnesota had grown into an 1,200-page book mailed nationwide, offering everything from clothing and housewares to farm implements, sports equipment, and even groceries. About the only thing you couldn’t buy mail-order from the Sears catalog was a bride.

 

People trusted the brand, which had a reputation for high-quality merchandise and good, straightforward service. “Don’t be afraid you will make a mistake,” the catalog gently advised customers. “We receive hundreds of orders every day from young and old who never before sent away for goods. Tell us what you want in your own way, written in any language. We have translators to read all languages.” (Sears catalogs became so strong an emblem of American life that they were sent to comfort wounded soldiers recuperating in Europe during World War I.)

 

In 1908, with sales of building supplies in need of a boost, Sears invited customers to send for its Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, a catalog devoted to kit houses. (Aladdin Homes, a Michigan company, had actually pioneered the kit house idea a couple of years earlier. Many companies followed suit, but Sears soon cornered the market.) The first Modern Homes catalog showed 44 models, with prices starting at $495 — roughly $12,000 today.

 

Over the years, styles ranged from a simple cabin to the grandest and most expensive model, the approximately $5,000 Magnolia (designed in 1915, it had a Tara-style, two-story columned portico and a massive staircase). But even though elaborate models were built, the simpler Arts and Crafts and neo-Tudor styles proved to be the most popular.

Customers chose a model, and were encouraged to alter the plans if they wished.

 

Rosemary Thornton recalls a man whose mother ordered a Sears kit home in the 1920s. “She liked the top half of one house and the bottom of another,” he told Thornton. “She cut these two pictures out of the catalog and taped them together... and sent this taped creation to Sears with a note asking if they could send her this house with that roof line. And they said, ‘We sure can.’ ” (As Thornton observes: “Imagine trying to identify that as a Sears house, 80 years later.”)

 

Even though plans were often simple, thoughtful details — like niches to hold vases or telephones, and built-in bookcases and cabinets — were standard. Kits for outbuildings were also available.

 

Once the order was placed, Sears sent buyers the blueprints and a “Bill of Materials” list. After financing was obtained, the kit was shipped by train, usually filling two boxcars that were left on a siding while the pieces were carried to the building site. (Transportation from the depot was left to the owner, which explains why many kit houses are situated near railway lines.)

 

Average kits ran to about 30,000 pieces, including 750 pounds of nails; 20,000 shingles for the roof and siding; and dozens of gallons of paint, stain, and varnish. A 75-page, detailed instruction book, leather-bound and embossed with the new homeowner’s name, carried the suggestion: “Do not take anyone’s advice as to how this building should be assembled.”

 

New construction materials like drywall meant there was no need for skilled plasterers. “Balloon framing” (using long timbers that ran from sill to eave instead of framing floor by floor) eliminated the need for the team of carpenters required for traditional post-and-beam construction. By 1915, the lumber was cut to fit, which made assembling the house even simpler. Many people built the houses themselves, earning instant equity. “A real estate dealer offered us $1,800 more for our Vallonia than it cost us, but we built it to be our home and we like it so well, we do not care to sell it,” one satisfied customer wrote to Sears.

 

“We are now living in our new home and I cannot find words to tell you how much we are pleased with it and to thank you for the honest way you treated us,” wrote another.

Even those who hired skilled labor could expect to save about a third of the cost of building a house in the usual way.

 

Not included in the basic kit were plumbing, central heating, and electrical supplies — still luxuries in the first part of the 20th century — but those too could be ordered from the Modern Homes catalog.

 

Also missing, of course, was a foundation. The Bill of Materials listed the number of

cement blocks that would be required for the basement walls and foundation, and Sears, ever ready, sold a kit so that customers could make the blocks themselves if they wished.

 

In 1911, Sears even began offering financing, taking a remarkably casual approach.

Applicants had only to estimate how much they could pay per month, and state their “vocation.” Most were accepted. As Thornton observes, “Who knows how many African-Americans, single women, and new immigrants who would have been ‘red-lined’ by conventional mortgage companies of the day were able to build a home of their own because of Sears.”

 

Kits were shipped to every state in the country and business boomed, peaking in 1929. Then came the Great Depression, when Sears lost millions as homeowners defaulted on their mortgages. In 1934, the company ended its financial services; six years later, in 1940, the last Book of Modern Homes was printed. Sales records were destroyed after the kits were discontinued, but Sears estimates that they sold between 70,000 and 75,000 houses, in 447 styles. Add Montgomery Ward’s Wardway designs, those from Harris Homes of Chicago, the Ready Built line — and many, many others — and the number of kit homes still standing today is anybody’s guess.

 

Daniel Friedman, a Poughkeepsie resident and building inspector by profession, is one of the Sears kit house enthusiasts who enjoys seeking out what he calls “these undiscovered little gems.” His interest was sparked many years ago, when he found telltale stenciling on lumber in the cellar and attic of a house he was inspecting. “I said, ‘Gee, this looks like a kit,’ ” he remembers. “And I found a book on Sears kit houses that I started carrying around with me.”

 

Driving through Wappingers Falls one day in the late 1990s, Friedman spotted three Sears models in a row, one of which was for sale. “I knocked on the door, and the people were very gracious and let me in to poke around,” Friedman says. “There are still old people on that street who remembered the guy who bought the houses. It was a grocer whose name was Adolph Von Vorstel. The pieces for the houses were left in a siding in Hughsonville.”

 

The discovery prompted Friedman to devote part of his extensive Web site to information about Sears kit houses, where he pictures the house he visited alongside its catalog image. Von Vorstel paid $1,500 for his kit home, Friedman notes. In 2005 it was for sale for $299,000.

 

“Until recently, when people began to appreciate older housing stock, most people who lived in a Sears house didn’t know or didn’t care,” Friedman says. Now these modest prefabricated homes are gaining in cachet. “Unlike projects producing many houses at a low price, like at Levittown, they have a sense of individuality,” Friedman says. In addition, “They are usually tightly built with good quality materials. People say, ‘Oh, those kit houses were just cheap houses.’ But the lumber might have been better than what you’d get locally. Framing materials were free of knots and splits. The cuts would be straight and square. And the houses were usually lovingly constructed, because they were usually being built by people who were doing it for themselves.”

 

As Becky Collins puts it: “The idea of a kit house represents a new day for America and American entrepreneurship. Getting one delivered, it must have been like Christmas — like getting a giant erector set.”

 

Malave and Drag recently repainted the exterior of their home, using colors they believe were popular in the period it was built. “I’m very proud that we’re restoring what I consider an architectural treasure,” Malave says. “And we love living in it. Even if we won the lottery, I think we’d still keep the house.”

 

 

How to identify a Sears kit house

           Check the construction date: The first Sears kits were sold in 1908, the last in 1940.

           Look for blueprints, receipts or other documents in the attic or basement. Check court or county records which may identify the house, or show that Sears held the mortgage. Walker O. Lewis and Nicholas Wieland served as trustees for Sears, so their names may appear on records.

           Look for inch-high letter and number marks stamped in blue, black, or red ink on lumber in attics, in cellars, and on the underside of stair risers viewed from the basement.

           Labels on baseboards, windows, doors, or staircase trim may say either “Sears, Roebuck and Company,” “925 Homan Ave. Chicago” or “Norwood Sash and Door.” (These are usually not visible unless you’re mid-
renovation.)

           If you’re renovating, you may find “Goodwall” sheet plaster, stamped on the wall-cavity side.

           Hinges, knobs, and doorplates may be stamped with the Sears name.

           If original plumbing still exists, check for a small “SR” mark under sinks and in the base
of bathtubs.

           Look for a masonry block foundation, possibly with a decorative face.

           Distinctive arrangements of porch columns, often tapered and rectangular, and five-
piece eave brackets are Sears signatures.

For more detailed information, check Friedman’s Web site (www.inspect-ny.com) and search “Sears.” Or check Rosemary Thornton’s books: The Houses That Sears Built and Finding The Houses That Sears Built: A Guide to the 60 Most Popular Designs.

 

 

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