A Case In Point For Chevy Chase Kit House History

3700 Military Martha Wash

3700 Military Rd, Washington DC. Photo courtesy of Evers & Co./Lamb

Perhaps not surprisingly, the “Martha Washington” kit house model was rather popular in the District of Columbia in the early 1920s. Sears offered the stately Dutch Colonial in their mail-order catalogs for a number of years.  It was not the largest model the company had to offer, but certainly not one of their smaller ones, either. We have identified and authenticated about half a dozen “Martha Washingtons” in NW DC–including one each in Shepherd Park, Takoma DC and  Cleveland Park, and two in Chevy Chase. One of these was just listed for sale with our very own office.


Sears Martha Washington

Image from 1926 Sears catalog

The Chevy Chase house, built in 1925, has got a bunch of things to offer for the kit house enthusiast and the home buyer alike. It’s a warm and charming place in a great upper NW location, walkable to Friendship Heights shopping and Metro. There is an attached garage — a rarity in older city homes — and a flat, landscaped fenced-in backyard. The kitchen has been expanded and updated, the attic finished, and the two (former) front bedrooms have been combined into a larger bedroom/bath master suite.

And for the Sears house fan who has always wanted to see some of the tell-tale determinators we use to authenticate kit houses, you won’t be disappointed. Apart from numerous original details, there are the famous stair plinth blocks. Or, even better, you can bring your flashlight to see the stamped lumber on selected beams and risers in the basement.  (Check out the picture here: in addition to the Sears-typical inch-tall, four-digit stamp, you’ll see a larger number written by hand: “13080.” It’s the catalog model number for the “Martha Washington.”)

IMG_4866FullSizeRenderWhen Michigan kit house researcher Andrew Mutch analyzed the type of Sears houses sold and built in Washington, DC, he came to the conclusion that they differed from those in other parts of the country. They tended to be somewhat larger on average, and were often built not by, but rather for an upper middle class clientele of government lawyers, clerks, accountants, doctors or professors.  This house and its history are a case in point. The first owner, according to the 1930 census, was Earl Steer, an attorney in his late 30s. He was employed by the “U.S. Govt” and moved into the house with his wife Carrie and their two young daughters. Carrie was college-educated as well, not the norm for women born in the late 1800’s.

Similarly typical was the post-depression picture painted by the 1940 census (after Carrie Steer, now widowed, had moved to LA with her kids). The “Martha Washington’s new owners, John and Mary Richards, lived here with their five children, aged 15 to 26, as well as a young lodger. Apart from the mother and the youngest who who attended high school and college, every single one of the adults was a government stenographer, bookkeeper or “statistical clerk” of some kind. Quite fitting for a house named after a former first lady.

The house is listed for $999,500. You can find details and a pdf with pictures here, or please let me know if you wanted to see it.


If you think you own (or live in) a Sears house or other kit home and would like some assistance in authenticating it, I’ll be happy to help! 
Just fill out the form below and I’ll be in touch shortly.

Posted in Historic Homes, None, Sears Houses and Other Kit Homes, Washington DC Area Real Estate | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Strong Women, Un-Handy Men, Nicer-Than-Average Homes

On average more elaborate than elsewhere: Aladdin kit house (in Takoma Park)

On average more elaborate than elsewhere: Aladdin kit house (in Takoma Park)

What can we learn from local house history, and especially from the early 20th century kit houses? The question came a few days ago from DC writer Audrey Hoffer as she was preparing a piece on (I think) the preservation of kit houses in our area for the Washington Post. 

Well, a lot, actually, and especially when we can put it in the context of a whole country and a period in its history. Michigan kit house historian Andrew Mutch, for instance, just completed the amazing task of analyzing a couple of hundred records of mortgages given to the first owners of DC Sears houses in the 1920s.

From that, we can go back to names, census data about the first owners, newspaper mentions of their life events and achievements, and to visual observation of what the houses (if they’re still standing) and neighborhoods look like today. We learn about the owners’ professions, their incomes, their race, their immigration status, the number of their kids, how much money they borrowed, if they had live-in help, if they served in WWI, if they lost their jobs during the depression, where they retired to, what political parties they might have supported. And much more.

1925 Lewis "Marlboro" mail-order house in Chevy Chase, DC

Favorite Dutch Colonial: 1925 Lewis “Marlboro” mail-order house in Chevy Chase, DC

As I have researched individual house histories in this city by means of pulling more or less random examples (houses that had come on the market for instance), a certain picture has emerged of these original kit house buyers in DC. The majority appear to have been associated with government or public service — accountants, bureaucrats, party officials, department heads, attorneys or military doctors. Only a few of times, I came across houses that were built by a plumber (in Brookland) or electrician (in Takoma Park) or other tradesman for his family.

Andrew’s research on the DC Sears houses seems to confirm just that: the models that were favored here tended to be larger, trendier and more sophisticated than elsewhere. This applies even more so to the Lewis Manufacturing Co. and Aladdin homes from the 1910s and 1920s; the majority we have identified were rather stately and stylish. At the same time, Andrew found that some smaller models that were Sears catalog bestsellers either can’t be found in DC or weren’t particular popular here.

Unlike in other parts of the country, the Aladdin, Lewis or Sears houses in DC or close-in suburbs such as Takoma Park or Bethesda were usually not put together by some handy home owner guy and his son or brother. They were ordered, delivered, and then–sometimes in record times mandated by the lender–put up by professional contractors. In many cases, the houses were actually built on spec by local developers altogether, such as in the case of the early Sears houses on Macomb St in Cleveland Park. Even the legendary Harry Wardman offered a couple of rather luxurious Aladdin kit houses in Bethesda during his early years in the local business.

Another thing both Andrew and I found striking as we were browsing through those mortgage records was how many of the 1920s borrowers were single women. Whether they were war widows or professionals with steady employment — it seems that it was easier for women to get mortgages before WW II than during the Mad Men decades later on. Or was that a DC special as well? Perhaps, since Andrew says he hasn’t noticed anything comparable in other jurisdictions.



Posted in Historic Homes, Sears Houses and Other Kit Homes, Washington DC Area Real Estate | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

On The Market: Historic Mail-Order Homes

What a surprise that the DC real estate market is suddenly flooded with those well-kept Sears bungalows (or Aladdin colonials, for that matter)! There were few of them available when I prepared for my last talk about historic kit houses.  Some of these specimen actually have such interesting or exquisite details that we might come back to them later, but here’s a current lineup I’ve scouted out:

Aladdin Brentwood DC Bannier

1912 Aladdin “Brentwood” in Cleveland Park

A rather unusual 1912 Aladdin “Brentwood” in Cleveland Park is for sale for $1,879,000  We featured it before the rather unexciting and somewhat inconsistent flip renovation (take a look at Marcie’s awesome time capsule slideshow of Brentwood before renovation!), and I’m just glad that historic preservation requirements at least made sure that the integrity of the facade was maintained. (Current MLS photos).

Sears kit house DC Bannier

1927 Sears “Fullerton” in Chevy Chase, DC

Bannier Kit House IMG_4333

1925 Sears “Walton” in Chevy Chase DC

Bannier-DC-kit house-IMG_1808 (2)

1930 Sears “Westly” in Chevy Chase, DC

Sears kit houses in DC b. 1924

1924 Sears “Puritan” in Shepherd Park

In Chevy Chase, DC, there are two fabulous Sears houses on the market right now, both cherished, lovingly kept and sensitively updated. The first one is a 1925  Sears “Walton” for $849,000  (MLS pictures here). It’s got the original pedestal bathtub as well as lots of charming original built-ins that look like straight out of the 1925 Sears catalog. In the unfinished basement, the first owners have preserved parts of what might have been an original shipping crate, sent to some “Col. A. J. Mc[…]” who presumably was the first owner of the house.

The second one–just a couple of blocks away– is an equally fab 1927 Sears “Fullerton” for $899,000– a bit of a bargain for the neighborhood, but it might get more than one offer in the end. (MLS virtual tour here) It was unusual not only to find that the owners (or realtors) in both cases were aware and proud of their kit house, but that they even used catalog images and references in their marketing. Then again, we’re talking about Chevy Chase here, certainly one of the more historically aware parts of town.

Also around the corner, and also once beloved but perhaps not quite as lucky is a 1930 Sears “Westly” that’s offered for $835,000. It’s in need of rescue from a multi-year gutting and restoration effort that apparently came to a halt at some point. Not all is lost here — the original, very solid porch columns for instance are waiting in the basement — but the price seems steep for a house that’s not currently livable.

Just across Rock Creek Park in the Shepherd Park neighborhood, a sweet 1924 Sears “Puritan” is for sale at $624,000. We featured this house a few years ago when the owners rented it out. It’s a pretty little place with a lovely deck and backyard.

Vallonia DC Sears Kit

1923 Sears “Vallonia” in Woodridge

Further east in Woodridge, an early 20th century railroad (and now Metro) neighborhood with a bunch of authenticated kit houses from both Sears and Aladdin, you can find a 1923 Sears “Vallonia” (MLS photos here) for $424,900. Nearby Brookland is one of the remaining DC neighborhoods that has seen sharp increases in value over the past few years, and Woodridge is bound to follow suit.

Sears "Winthrop" in Bethesda MD - IMG_4009

1928 Sears “Winthrop” in Bethesda

And just steps over the District line in Bethesda, MD, a picture-book Sears “Winthrop” from 1928 can be yours for $749,500. We featured this house as well when it was offered for rent some years ago. There are some really fun details and catalog pictures in our slide show.

1929. Sears Roebuck is listed as the "architect" in original building permit.

1929 Sears “Barrington” in Cleveland Park

Speaking about which, there’s a nice lease offering as well: Also in the Cleveland Park historic districtthis 1929 Sears “Barrington” with its many original features can be rented for $4,500/month right now. It’s in a location that couldn’t be more beautiful and convenient. It’s been a rental and in the same family for a really long time, it seems so perhaps they’re not quite willing to let go of their treasure.

Found some more current kit house offerings? Let me know, and I will add them here.

Posted in Historic Homes, Listings, Sears Houses and Other Kit Homes, Washington DC Area Real Estate | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

What’s Cooking Now: A Win-Win Outcome

IMG_2085 IMG_2224 IMG_2088IMG_2151   IMG_1162“What happened? Is it done?!” I’ve heard the question countless times in the past couple of months, and I kept promising–first an update on the project, then a wrap-up. But the winter was suddenly over, and we had our hands full with new listings and new buyers, spring break, holidays, prom, high school graduation prep…

We made it to about Day 60 of The Kitchen Timer with a few more wrinkles before things came to a halt. Completion of the project has been stuck at 99%, however, with one crucial piece of a cabinet left to install. I’m not complaining: We do have a kitchen now.

Today I learned from a friend that our contractor–whom we really liked–had gone out of business.  It’s a shame, but frankly, I’m also glad he didn’t drop the ball at, say,  50%.

We love our kitchen. It’s beautiful, solid and incredibly functional. There are many clever details that I adore every day. (For what it’s worth, Marcie thinks the pictures here don’t nearly do it justice.) And as so many of my friends predicted, all the little nightmares along the way–from the Counter Intelligence Disaster to the Cut Corners Discovery and the Week Of Clogged Pipes (don’t ask)–are completely forgotten. Well, almost forgotten.

Even the “bad” parts of the experience turned out to be a good thing: I can relate to those living through the process, and I’ve learned a lot. The next time a client muses about what it would “take” to improve that kitchen/bath/[fill in the blank], I have more wisdom to share.

So, it’s a win/win on all fronts. Although I’m not entirely sure about Kelly, the contractor. I seriously hope he’ll get to see the result.

(For a slideshow with pictures from beginning to end, click here.)

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The Kitchen Timer, Day 44 — Why I Was Wrong

Day 44

Day 44

After Sunday’s admittedly somewhat whiny post, I received a bunch of virtual hugs and comforting words. Thanks, guys–I feel so much better now. I had to put things in perspective: to tear out your kitchen and replace it with a new one isn’t exactly a horrible hardship-type problem to have. Even if it sometimes feels that way.

The funny thing is, as soon as I cleaned up my Debbie Downer act, things started to happen. For one thing, we’re finally done with the snow, and you can walk down the block now without developing icicles under your nose. The trend was brought into the house as well. Look at the slide show and you’ll see that between Day 42 and Day 44, there’s a big change. And it’s not only cosmetic.

While we still don’t have any appliances, we do–after 6 weeks!–have drinkable water again, as the water line and filter in the new fridge were connected. Anybody who lives in the DC area knows that’s huge. Tap water here–while supposedly safe–tastes like somebody dumped mud in a public swimming pool and then pumped the resulting mix into your house. Icy-cold, fresh water on demand–it’s divine.

Another big thing has been announced for tomorrow. The plumber is supposed to show up in the morning, to install sink, disposal and dishwasher. The end of the mountains of paper plates and plastic cutlery that we’re hauling to the trash every day is in sight.

I think I love plumbers. And water. And light fixtures. And glass tile. Life is good.

(To see pictures of the project from the beginning, please click here.)

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The Kitchen Timer, Day 42 — Encroachments

IMG_1147Some of the kitchen renovation’s side effects are sneaky and not immediately apparent. To refinish the floor in the adjacent family room, for example, we had to take the furniture out of that room. Now that the floors are done, you’d think we could reclaim the space. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the room somehow became the carpenter’s workshop before we could notice it. It seemed cruel to suggest otherwise when there were freezing temperatures and snow outside and the garage was so much less convenient, but now it’s a reality that’s hard to reverse.

IMG_1844Overall, it seems that we have to live with ever-increasing chaos in our house. Every living area has had its basic function overturned. The dining and laundry room share their job as the kitchen, the TV moved into my office (where there’s neither a couch nor a cable hook-up), and a mix of random pieces made the living room look like a furniture store. The guest room is a hoarder’s paradise. Even our lovely Netflix “theater” in the basement (a projector aimed at a big white wall) can’t be used–nobody wants to watch a movie while sitting amidst a drawer assembly line.

Then there are the dirt and dust that manage to invade every part of the house. It seems like there’s no use trying to keep up with it; we gave up on that idea weeks ago. It’s been different kinds of dust and stuff, some of it white and sticky, some of it dry and brown, and an endless chain of every sort of packaging material imaginable.

Basically, there is no escape left. There’s no privacy–the sweet hour after the kids have left the house in the morning is no longer ours. Instead, we hear the key in the front door and the shuffle of whatever is being dragged into the house for the new day. In short: The renovation has gradually been encroaching on our personal space, and it’s  started to threaten everybody’s breathing room. Snow days don’t make this better, either. Instead, they made it seem like it’s all never going to end.

(To see pictures of the remodeling progress from Day 1, click here.)

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The Kitchen Timer, Day 39 — The Heroic Perseverance Of Counter Culture

Day 39 -- Counter Culture Day

A kitchen can’t be a kitchen without counter tops. And a kitchen in progress can’t progress without those counters: sinks and dishwashers can’t be mounted or attached without countertops. Backsplashes can’t be tiled without them. Cabinets that sit on top of counters can’t be installed. Fillers and crown molding on top of those cabinets can’t be installed, either. Doors and drawers can’t … and so on.

That’s why the shocking discovery last week that the company that was supposed to purchase and cut the counter tops for us had vanished was a double whammy. After posting on Facebook about it, I learned from a friend who is in the kitchen business that it had only become known a week earlier that Counter Intelligence was going out of business.

Screenshot 2015-03-05 16.33.33The next morning, I received a surprising call. A man introduced himself as Ted H., “the CEO of Kitchen Systems, Inc.” and proprietor of the new trade name, Counter Culture.  He said his company had taken all orders from CI since January [inconspicuously, I might add]. He assured me that–while my slabs weren’t actually in Maryland right now–they had been purchased and a shop in New Jersey would cut them.

So much for the idea of picking them up and having them cut by another stone seller. 

I wasn’t sure whether or not to trust the guy. Neither he nor his company showed up in any business registers or trade license rosters. But if I ordered from another company now, I’d start over and would have to be without a kitchen for a few weeks longer.

Half an hour later, the friendly saleswoman from Counter Intelligence Culture called me from her personal cell phone. She explained that they would actually start working in a new location on Georgia Ave and University Boulevard the next day. 

IMG_1640Friday afternoon I drove by there. There was an actual showroom in the making. Next, a guy with some amazing computer equipment was sent ad-hoc and spent almost 2 hours measuring my kitchen. — I decided to trust the new CEO who had since called again and fielded my questions. According to him, all the staff they took with them was formerly from CI. The old company folded because, according to Ted, it never owned the property it operated on. In anticipation of the Purple Line, the huge lot in a mainly industrial neighborhood suddenly had become prime real estate, and the lease was no longer affordable. (Brookville Road in Silver Spring is a main road near one of the future light rail Metro stations.)

IMG_1648 So it all came down to real estate. I’m glad I had trusted Ted. Today is another snow day in DC, and while the schools, the government and many businesses all have closed down, a couple of awesome guys showed up, carried the 250-pound counter pieces up my snowy stairs and installed them.

IMG_1648 2While I’m still not entirely sure it’s a kosher business practice to procure business from customers who think they’re dealing with someone else, I’m also thrilled that the apparent heirs handled a difficult situation with such great effort and diligence. They literally delivered, and I would do business with them again.

(For a slideshow with pictures of the project from the beginning, click here.)

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