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.
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.