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  1. #1
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    Default Sears Catalog Homes

    Before mobile homes (aka manufactured homes) and modular homes there were Do-It-Yourself kit homes. Kit homes personified the can-do attitude of America and went way beyond This Old House; they were more This Whole House. I found the following article about Sears Catalog Homes interesting.

    Last year I inspected a post-WW2 house that the seller told me was a Sears Catalog Home kit that his father built shortly after the war. (Photo attached.) According to the article Sears pulled the plug on their Catalog Homes in 1940 making it unlikely the house I inspected was a Sears kit. (It may have been a kit produced by another manufacturer, e.g., Montgomery Ward.)

    Has anybody else inspected any of these Sears Catalog Homes or other kits?

    What are the clues that a house was a kit (beyond markings on framing components)?

    Are there particular things to be aware of or watch for when inspecting a kit house (other than workmanship)?

    For a bit more insight into Sears Catalog Homes check out Wikipedia.

    Sears catalog houses become obsession

    CARLINVILLE, Ill. (AP) - She speaks with the fervor of a woman possessed. In the cadence of a grange hall auctioneer, Laurie Flori jabs a finger at each house on her street, every one ordered from Sears, Roebuck and Co.


    "That's a Carlin," she pronounces. "That's a Whitehall. That's a Warrenton. That's a Lebanon."

    Starting nearly a century ago, these stately names were bestowed upon a modest line of homes that could be purchased by mail. To Flori, they are verses in a hymn to working-class America, to a time when things were built better and cost less, when everything in the Sears catalog looked bigger and better than ordinary life.

    For a while, the American dream shimmered on those pages, just as obtainable as a pair of work boots or dungarees.

    A house of one's own. Outhouse and plumbing extra. A great deal of assembly required.

    Flori's worship of these houses has been known to propel her right up the porch steps of people she's never met to proclaim they have history in their joists and it's their civic duty to preserve it.

    Sometimes the folks at home are intrigued. Sometimes they have no idea what she's going on about, and couldn't care less.

    At all times, this stout, mile-a-minute talker is a woman obsessed: By houses that during a 32-year span could be sent away for and ordered on credit. Houses that arrived with precut lumber and numbered for easy assembly, with 750 pounds of nails and enough paint for two coats.

    She is not alone in this self-appointed mission. Across the country, otherwise ordinary people have been transformed by obsession into identifying and preserving "kit houses" from Sears. They drive through unfamiliar neighborhoods armed with flashlights and fervor, searching for a telling detail of a specific model - the gabled roof of the Warrenton, the dormer windows of the Medford.

    They pound the doors of strangers, seeking admittance to their basements, searching for exposed beams with telltale Sears assembly numbers. They proselytize preservation with the fervor of Jehovah's Witnesses shoving copies of the Watchtower through a cracked screen door.

    Yet they are as similar and dissimilar as the 447 floor plans that Sears delivered.

    "It's like King Tut and the Titanic," said Marilyn Raschka, who used to cover the bedlam of Beirut as a foreign correspondent and now lives in Hartford, Wis. "It's utterly fascinating."

    "It's history," said Rebecca Hunter, a historian who lectures on preservation and lives in Elgin, Ill. "It's part of our heritage. And we have to do it ourselves because apparently Sears threw out everything."

    Flori, true to her nature, is a little more blunt. "The only way I can explain it," she says, and falls into laughter, "is that it's like a cult."

    All are fighting to identify and preserve whatever is left of the estimated 100,000 houses sold by Sears. It is not easy. No one knows where all of them are because Sears, over the years, destroyed most of its sales records. So people like Raschka and Hunter and Flori rely on their wits to seek out houses and authenticate them.

    Other companies offered catalog homes - Montgomery Ward, for example, and the Michigan-based Aladdin Co. But it is Sears - because of name recognition - that gets the most attention.

    The city of Carlinville is a special case. It encompasses nine blocks of nothing but Sears houses, the largest concentration in the country. The homes constituted a $1 million order placed by Standard Oil of Indiana in 1918. The fuel giant purchased nearly 200 dwellings to house an influx of miners and managers for 400-foot-shafts it was sinking in southern Illinois.

    They called this new neighborhood the Standard Addition. They built a park and schools nearby. The city extended its limits so water and sewer lines could greet new homeowners.

    Young Carlinville was in love. Here were symbols of prosperity and security for a small town in southern Illinois. Here was the promise of better times ahead. In brand new homes, courtesy of the Sears catalog - whose copies traveled their own journey, in-house to outhouse.

    ---

    The American dream arrived in a box - in scores and scores of boxes, crammed with doorknobs and oak doors, manhandled into box cars, then pulled by steam engine across ribbons of railroad track pushing West.

    In that place and time, what arrived from afar inspired hosannahs. Mystery deliveries came from big cities. Creature comforts were unwrapped in new, raw land. Hope came packaged in pretty paper.

    And Sears was selling the biggest consumer good of all.

    The price was cheap. The materials were not. Cypress shingles, bronze door hinges, glazed windows, granite bathtubs. They came in styles and shapes and sizes befitting a wealthy farm owner. They also came in smaller sizes, at prices affordable to even an immigrant coal miner.

    They carried evocative names such as The Montrose, a seven-room, one-bath Eastern colonial with green shutters, flower boxes and a hooded gable entrance. "Justly considered a beautiful home in any community, no matter how exclusive," said the catalog.

    They were sold from 1926 to 1929, at prices ranging from $2,923 to $3,324. Sears estimated its prices were 30 percent to 40 percent lower than market rates.

    Then there was Modern Home No. 55MP22, priced at about $400. It was a three-room cottage too small to qualify as even a shotgun shack. Sears boasted the house could be raised in eight hours, from floorboards to window shades, and offered photographic proof.

    Blurred black-and-white catalog photos from the turn of the 20th century showed four stages of assembly with a big clock in the foreground of each frame. At 7:45 a.m., the lumber lies in piles. At 9:30 a.m. three side walls are up, as are some interior partitions. At 4:30 p.m., the entire house is done, complete with a very modest front porch.

    Sears offered its own mortgages. Over time, it would offer mortgages for land as well, even though it was purchased separately. Regional lumber mills went up near transportation hubs to keep up with demand.

    However, then came the Great Depression, and there went the houses-by-mail boom. Working-class Americans defaulted on their Sears mortgages. Families went even farther West, to California, where it was said there were jobs picking crops.

    So in 1940, Sears got out of the business of making life-size dollhouses.

    And despite all of the adoration from people like Flori, the place of Sears homes in architectural history is decidedly modest, just like the houses.

    Their blueprints were hybrids of what was popular at the time - Craftsman-style bungalows, Dutch colonials, mansard roofs. Sears was "marketing something to the broad population," said Paul Lusignan, spokesman for the National Register of Historic Places. "It was very common."

    Sears architects never aspired to the heights of Greene & Greene or Frank Lloyd Wright. Simply put, they mostly designed common houses for common people.

    ---

    Standard Oil bought nine models for Carlinville's Standard Addition, all of them two-story homes of five to six rooms, plus a lavatory. If one preferred an outhouse, such accommodations were available for an additional $41.

    Carlinville construction began in 1918, after a special spur of the Chicago & Alton Railroad was laid to accommodate the new homes. One house usually occupied two boxcars, and home deliveries were staggered, designed to deliver supplies as they were needed. First came building paper, lumber, nails, and framing. The final shipment brought millwork and a bathtub.

    A horse or a mule dragged wagon load after wagon load to large lots averaging 47 feet by 144 feet.

    At extra cost, Sears also provided contractors and building supervisors; "Hercules Heating Systems"; built-in bookcases with leaded glass doors, and electrical appliances (a 1920s Sears home catalog illustration shows a woman in heels, delirious at the helm of an upright vacuum).

    In Carlinville, Standard Oil hired a female construction supervisor who oversaw construction. According to lore, Elizabeth Spaulding ruled on horseback, trotting from lot to lot, firing men she had hired in the morning who displeased her by lunch.

    At the mines, hundreds were hired to mine coal veins in the waning months of World War I, when many men were still overseas. Immigrants came by the thousands, fresh off trans-Atlantic ships and lured by good wages - about $6 a day when most company mines paid only by the number of tons a man could heave into a coal car.

    Standard Oil also carried the new homes' mortgages, 10-year notes payable at $30 to $40 per month.

    The town surged in size and wealth. New businesses opened, catering to the rise in population and income. And for a time, life in Carlinville seemed as good as the pages of any catalog.

    And then it didn't. Seven years later, Standard Oil up and left. The mines went silent. The gasoline company had discovered it could buy coal cheaper than paying men to haul it out of the ground. And that was that.

    The miners needed work, so they abandoned their Sears homes and their mortgages and moved to another coal dig. Every home loan fell into foreclosure, and the city still owed for water and sewer lines extended to a now-empty neighborhood.

    The deserted houses stood silent, and derelict. Years later, Standard Oil auctioned the blighted houses at rock-bottom prices ranging from $400 to $500.

    It has been more than 60 years since the company blew town, and still there remains a bitter vein of disappointment, deep as the now-capped mines. It helps fuel Laurie Flori's burning obsession to save every neglected Sears house she can find.

    ---

    The self-appointed curator of Carlinville is sometimes an annoyance.

    "With some of the people, I'm not popular and I don't care," she says. "When they die, what are they going to say? I can say I really tried."

    To Flori, "trying" means that she has snapped pictures of Addition homes she considers "trashy," printed copies, and distributed the photographs like wanted posters to the City Council in hopes its members would make the residents step to.

    "What she wants if for all the houses to look as nice as when they were first built," said Mayor Robert Schwab, who answers his own phone in City Hall.

    "But one man's trash is another man's treasure."

    Flori and her husband, David, moved to Carlinville in the 1980s from a nearby town. David Flori had grown up in the Addition, and he wanted to go home. They paid $18,000 for a Roseberry model, with its wide front porch and an intersecting gable roof.

    Little by little, Flori redid the inside until the small house was restored. In the process, it also became a monument to Sears.

    She hung old Standard Addition construction photos and Sears wallpaper. In her basement office, she filled files with Sears home catalog pages. In scrapbooks, she pasted yellowed newspaper clippings heralding the fortune to be made - and the good life that would surely follow - for any man who came to work at the Standard Oil mines.

    Flori remembers how some tried to talk her out of coming to this side of town. "People told us not to buy in the Standard Addition. They said, 'Oh, that's the slum area.'"

    She wrinkles her nose.

    "I set out to change that," she said. "A Sears home is something to be proud of."

    There are moments when Flori wishes she had lived in the time when Sears and Standard Oil came to Carlinville. When seemed to swell with promise, and the future appeared oh, so big. The way a grandparent's house looks enormous to a child building a fort under the kitchen table.

    And so amazingly small to the returning adult, worn by experience and dimmed by disappointment, who no longer fits under the table, and has to duck at the top of the narrow stairs.


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  2. #2
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    Default Re: Sears Catalog Homes

    OK, my pics did not get included for some reason. Do you lose your uploaded images when you preview your post?

    ***IMPORTANT*** You Need To Register To View Images ***IMPORTANT*** You Need To Register To View Images
    "Baseball is like church. Many attend but few understand." Leo Durocher
    Bruce Breedlove
    www.avaloninspection.com

  3. #3
    Tim Moreira's Avatar
    Tim Moreira Guest

    Default Re: Sears Catalog Homes

    Bruce,

    What are the clues that a house was a kit (beyond markings on framing components)?
    I always look for the box it came in in the attic.




  4. #4
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    Default Re: Sears Catalog Homes

    Quote Originally Posted by Tim Moreira View Post
    I always look for the box it came in in the attic.

    Tim,

    Isn't it past your bedtime?

    Last edited by Bruce Breedlove; 04-15-2007 at 09:49 PM.
    "Baseball is like church. Many attend but few understand." Leo Durocher
    Bruce Breedlove
    www.avaloninspection.com

  5. #5
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    Default Re: Sears Catalog Homes

    The floor plan makes no mention of any bathrooms. Wonder if they had a matching outhouse to match the house?


  6. #6
    Tim Moreira's Avatar
    Tim Moreira Guest

    Default Re: Sears Catalog Homes

    The floor plan makes no mention of any bathrooms. Wonder if they had a matching outhouse to match the house?
    That would be the *deluxe* model


  7. #7
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    Cool Re: Sears Catalog Homes

    I have inspected several of these mail order homes in my area. There is usually a
    data plate identifying it somewhere near the furnace/water heater identifying it as a sears unit with model #. Jeff G


  8. #8
    David Banks's Avatar
    David Banks Guest

    Default Re: Sears Catalog Homes

    I found this PDF I put together from years ago from articles on the Internet.
    If I remember correctly I once found a Data plate in the front foyer closet.


    And this if you want tons of info.
    Amazon.com: "SEARS mail-order kit Homes"

    Attached Files Attached Files
    Last edited by David Banks; 04-16-2007 at 05:50 AM. Reason: More info

  9. #9
    Bruce Thomas's Avatar
    Bruce Thomas Guest

    Default Re: Sears Catalog Homes

    Guys,

    I live in a kit house built in 1950. There are numbers stamped in black ink on all of the joist, plates, rafters etc.

    It's still going strong.

    Bruce

    PS there was no box in the attic, just a label.


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