Building a Happy Home

by Phyllis Speidell

The Virginian-Pilot, January 12, 2006
"Suffolk Sun" Section, p. SU8
(posted with permission from The Virginian-Pilot)

It's a house that may have arrived by boxcar, complete with thousands of parts, a quarter ton of nails and a thick instruction manual.

Known as a Sears home, put together from a kit, it would have been built between 1908 and 1940.

If you are living in one, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources wants to know, and know soon.

This month the DHR – and the cities of Norfolk , Portsmouth , Virginia Beach and Suffolk – are sponsoring an inventory of kit homes manufactured by Sears, Roebuck and Co.

The project evolved from rising interest nationally in the role played by the early 20th-century kit homes in developing suburban neighborhoods, and for their embodiment of the popular architecture of the era.

Half of the cost of the $16,000 inventory, expected to be completed by May 8, is funded by the DHR, with each of the cities chipping in an additional $2,000.

Aficionados of old houses recognize the unique concept – and charm – of the kit homes.

Other residents, including some who don’t realize they’re living in vintage kit homes, often are surprised by the catalog house phenomenon.

From the early 1900s, several companies offered catalogs of houses, from simple cottages to grand, two-story Victorian mansions. Customers could order a house kit, complete with a variety of options and some 30,000 or more parts, for much less money than a ready built home.

The kits were delivered by rail, flatbed truck or even by barge to a building site and an experienced carpenter, or an amateur handyman, would assemble the home. Sears estimated that the average man could build a kit house in about 90 days – in good weather.

Although the unknowing might cringe at the thought of living in a mail-order house, those familiar with kit homes know that the sturdy homes were designed to last and generally featured large rooms, tall ceilings and generous windows.

Rosemary Thornton, a Portsmouth native and self-taught Sears kit home expert, estimates that only about 75,000 Sears kit homes – in 370 different designs – were built.

Over the years, however, the Sears name became generic for all kit homes, including those marketed by companies such as Aladdin Homes of Bay City , Mich. , Montgomery Ward and Lewis Manufacturing, known later as Liberty Homes.

In her three books on kit homes, Thornton acknowledges that identifying a true Sears kit home is an inexact science, partly because thousands of kit homes were marketed by other companies.

For a time, Sears also sold house plans, some of which resemble the kit homes. And, over the decades, owners have updated and remodeled many of the homes, making them almost unrecognizable as Sears models.

Thanks to a savvy real estate agent, Robert Wojtowicz suspected that his two-story home on 52nd Street in Norfolk , which he bought in 2000, might be a kit house.

An art history associate professor at Old Dominion University , Wojtowicz was drawn instantly to the retro styling of his 1921 Roanoke model, six-room kit house.

He capitalized on its charm by furnishing the spacious rooms with heirlooms from his grandparents, who married about the time his house was built.

Wojtowicz believes that the house is 80 percent original – including the five-piece eave brackets that are a Sears signature.

Unfortunately, while the rooms are large, the closets, he said, "are a very shallow affair."

The Roanoke was priced at $1,952 when it first appeared in the Sears homes catalog in the early 1920s. The next year the price jumped to $2,417.

Sears offered two Roanoke floor plans, both with French doors leading to a front porch. Wojtowicz replaced those doors and some of the windows, "before I realized I shouldn't be replacing them," he said.

He believes there are a substantial number of Sears homes in his neighborhood, and he’s eager to see them documented and restored.

"Most people don’t know what a Sears house is," he said. "But people who do think it's a real treat to live in one."

Amie Marracino suspected that her home on King Street in Portsmouth was not a Victorian as it had been tagged.

After she, her husband and their 10 children moved in a month ago, Marracino found their home – a Sears Westly model – listed in one of Thornton's books.

There was no mistaking the seven-room bungalow's second-floor balcony, multipane windows, distinctive porch columns – and those five-piece eave brackets.

"I’m thrilled," Marracino said.

Thornton , on a recent "windshield survey" through the neighborhood, confirmed the house as a 10 on her informal 10-point Sears validity scale.

"It’s got the diamond-shaped window pane dividers and a corner fireplace," she said. Both appear on the original 1928 catalog floor plan.

"Someone said it was marble," Marracino said, stroking the mantel of the dining room fireplace. "But I think it might be soapstone with marble inlays."

Closer to downtown Portsmouth , a Mission-style two-story stucco house on County Street also ranks high on Thornton's Sears scale.

It's an Alhambra , featured in the 1919 edition of Sears Modern Homes catalog. The eight-room house plan included two staircases to the second floor, a built-in sideboard in the dining room and special hat closets in three of its four bedrooms.

Thornton guesses there are at least 45 to 50 Sears kits homes in Portsmouth.

"These are history; it's important to get them documented and recognized," she said. "And they can be a great tourist draw."

Blessed with a photographic memory, she's memorized the Sears Modern Home catalogs, but she's not an easy sell.

"I'll check out a house from 12 different ways, from crawling underneath to up into the attic," she said.

Cruising through Portsmouth's Waterview section where, as a child, she pedaled her Sears three-speed bike, Thornton spots what might be a Sears Kilbourne bungalow on Shenandoah Avenue and then a possible Lynnhaven, with a gabled foyer and a shed dormer, on Grayson Avenue.

"These houses talk to me, sing to me," Thornton said.

That's why she's sometimes known as "The House Whisperer," and has often been asked if she was a Sears architect in another life.

In 1986 Wayne Richard heard that same music when he bought a 1919 bungalow in Pungo.

It's not a Sears home, but rather a kit house marketed by Aladdin. The building, inspired by a bungalow in Pasadena , Calif., now houses the Pungo Grill.

"I had crawled under the house and saw a stencil labeling the wood as sub floor and I knew it was some kind of package house," he said.

The bungalow's multipane windows and the craftsman styling bear a strong resemblance to numerous Sears models – a similarity that makes it difficult to determine whether a home is a true Sears.

In Suffolk, Thornton found more homes that might be Sears kit homes.

On Virginia Avenue she spotted a Dutch Colonial, possibly a Glen Falls model. But, she cautions, there are so many clones of this model that it's impossible to distinguish a Sears from the others without inspecting the house's interior.

On Brewer Avenue she spotted what might be another Westly model. But, according to the owner, Herbert Hawley, the 1915 house wasn't a kit home, but rather was custom built with roughhewn lumber and square-cut nails.

A team of architectural historians from the College of William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research, consultants for the inventory, face the task of identifying and documenting at least 40 Sears kit homes in each of the four cities. Two homes in each city will be selected for more intensive research.

"This is going to be a new venture for all of us working on the project," said Meg Greene Malvasi, the architectural historian who's leading the team.

"There is some question that we will find 40 Sears homes in each city, so we're playing it by ear and may also look at the other kit homes, too."

The team will do drive-by surveys and lots of deed research but hope that residents will nominate houses they believe may be kit homes, Sears or other brands.

Although Chesapeake is not officially part of the project, the city is interested in learning about kit homes there.

If you'd like to suggest a possible kit home in Chesapeake, call Mark Shea, senior planner, at (757) 382-6176, or e-mail Camille Bowman (camille.bowman@dhr.virginia.gov) or Susan Smead (susan.smead@dhr.virginia.gov) with the DHR.

"That this project would be a regional effort involving Norfolk , Portsmouth and Suffolk made this opportunity even more exciting," said Mark A. Reed, historic resources coordinator for the city of Virginia Beach.

"Rarely are historic resources examined in a regional context and Virginia Beach offers a good contrast to the other jurisdictions."

When the kit homes were at the height of their popularity, Virginia Beach was mostly rural with a growing town at the Oceanfront and a few scattered areas of settlement.

Suburban sections of Norfolk , Portsmouth and Suffolk – areas in which kit homes were likely to be found – also were expanding, aided by automobiles, which made commuting to downtown jobs easier.

Having the Sears homes identified – and marked with historical plaques – could be a tourist lure Thornton believes.

She cited Carlinsville , Ill. , which promotes its collection of 152 Sears homes. Closer by, Hopewell boasts 40 or more Sears kit homes, although Thornton doubts that many of those are genuine.

"The survey of Sears kit homes gives us the opportunity to identify buildings that are part of an interesting architectural resource niche, while also allowing us to compare and contrast how people in each of these four cities responded to the availability of kit homes," Reed said.

"There is a lot to be learned through this cooperative effort and with only a small investment from each party."

"This project could change how the state and localities choose to look at historic resources in the future."

Susan Smead, DHR architectural historian and project coordinator, said the Hampton Roads Sears kit house survey is also groundbreaking in that it may be used as a model for future surveys of historic buildings spread over a large region.

* Reach Phyllis Speidell at (757) 222-5556 or phyllis.speidell@pilotonline.com.

Nominate a home

To nominate a home for the Sears and Roebuck kit home inventory, call the contact person in your city's planning or historic resources department.

Suffolk : Cynthia Taylor, (757) 923-3650

Norfolk : Andrew Northcutt, (757) 664-6784

Portsmouth : Landon Wellford, (757) 393-8836, Ext. 4235

Virginia Beach : Mark Reed, (757) 431-4000

Chesapeake : Mark Shea, (757) 382-6176

The inventory team would like to have as many nominations as possible by the end of this month.

In recent years, kit homes, especially the Sears models, have drawn more attention as relics from the time when almost anything could be ordered from a catalog. Rosemary Thornton likens searching for Sears homes to bird-watching, but says, "You'll never see a yellow-bellied sap sucker covered in aluminum siding."

So, how can you tell if you’re living in a genuine Sears kit house? Thornton suggests that you:

* Check the construction date. Sears sold catalog kit homes only between 1908 and 1940.

* Look for stamped lumber in the attic or basement – numerical codes can be found on both the butt end and the face of framing timbers.

* Look for shipping labels on the back of baseboards, moldings, door and window trim and basement staircases, or look for paperwork tucked away in the house.

* Check the design of the house by using a reliable field guide to Sears kit homes.

* Check courthouse records. From 1911 to 1933 Sears offered mortgages on kit homes. Walker O. Lewis and Nicholas Wieland served as trustees for Sears, so their names may appear on the records.

* Check the hardware: Although plumbing, heating and electrical equipment was not part of the basic house kit, the fixtures could be ordered from the back of the Sears Modern Homes catalogs.

* Check the bathtub. Sears kit homes from the 1930s often had a small circled SR cast into the lower corner of the tub and on the underside of the kitchen and bathroom sinks.

* Check for Goodwall sheet plaster, or what Robert Wojtowicz calls "that strange type of sheet rock." Each 4-foot-square panel had Goodwall stamped on the backside.

* Check for unique arrangements of porch columns and for five-piece eave brackets.