Last week, my business partner, Marcie Sandalow, and I had a listing appointment at a great old house. The owner mentioned it had been a mail order home, not from the Sears catalog but rather from another, a little less well-known kit company.
That was a neat little fact because there is a growing fan base for these homes. There are dozens of them hidden in Washington’s old “streetcar suburbs” –such as Chevy Chase, Cleveland Park, the Palisades, and Shepherd Park, which rapidly developed in the 1910s and 1920s. Many more can be found in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
The first catalog houses were sold and shipped by railway (and eventually horse cart or later truck from the station to the consumer) through Michigan-based “Aladdin” in 1906, and the probably greatest number was sold by the better known Sears Roebuck. They came, in thousands of pieces, with thick instruction booklets—think of a gigantic IKEA project! Families could either hire a contractor or roll up their sleeves and go to town.
Nobody really knows how many kit homes were built in the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century, but estimates exceed 100,000, in all 50 states. Of course, we don’t know how many of them are still standing. Sales records from the seven major kit home companies have been destroyed, and there is no searchable national database.
In our case, I was surprised as the house seemed exquisitely built, with large bright rooms and elaborate woodwork. But then I remembered other catalog houses—such as the 1917 Sears “Avondale” in Shepherd Park that is pictured here—and started searching through my books on kit homes, looked through catalog reprints and some great online fan sites such as antiquehomestyles.com until I found the house. It must have come from Lewis Manufacturing Co—more on the house itself hopefully later in this place.
I sent an email to Rosemary Thornton, America’s leading expert on the history of kit homes and author of numerous bestselling books about them (“The Homes Sears Built,” “Finding the Homes Sears Built”). There are so many fakes and copies out there that she often had to disappoint people who thought they had bought or inherited a kit home. I was excited to hear back from her—she confirmed the authenticity of the house!
(More to come…)
The picture shows a Sears “Avondale”, built in 1917 and one of the 10 oldest standing houses in Shepherd Park and Colonial Village in the tip of DC. Despite appearing not that large from the street, the house had 12-ft ceilings, a banquet-size dining room and extra bedrooms and bath in the attic. It was listed with our office a few years ago. Photos by Piers Lamb of Evers & Co.