It’s hard to tell why the historic kit houses from the early 20th century touch us so much. There’s something different about them that goes far beyond the sheer wonder how the companies that made them could possibly pull this off without computers and automated packing and shipping. Thousands of pieces for often customized house designs were neatly and systematically packaged into some kinds of giant IKEA kit, then shipped in their own railroad car, often in (what seems today) record times between order and delivery.
No, it’s more than the technical aspect. There’s always a longing we feel, for history, for experience of a different fate, a different time in place. It’s a feeling that overcame me once more from the first time I stepped into our new listing of a Sears “Starlight” in the Takoma Park suburb of Washington, DC. I felt an immediate connection with nearly 100 years of DC life, even though I had no idea what exactly this little house had witnessed.
The “Starlight” was one of the more modest and affordable models the Sears Roebuck company offered. In 1921, it cost $1,533. It had fewer bells and whistles than many of the upper middle class mail-order homes in, say, Chevy Chase, DC. So who were the first owners?
There wasn’t a whole lot we could find out about them. Their names were Fred and Willie Lampert. In 1922, when they built the house, they were in their early thirties and had a toddler, little Fred, who would remain their only child. They had gotten married just after WW I. Big Fred was a career soldier in the U.S. Army. (In the 1930 census his rank was listed as master sergeant. Here, we also learned that the Lamperts were white, that they owned a radio set, that Willie was from Georgia and that Fred and both of his parents were born in DC.)
Did Fred put the house together by himself? Did he get help from his army buddies? Did he get a bunch of privates to help him? Why did he buy the neighboring lot a year later but never built on it? We’ll never know. We do know, however, that he took out a $2,300 mortgage from Sears to cover materials and construction. Together with the down payment, this would have been consistent with the deed restriction requiring that a “dwelling of no less than $3,000” had to be erected on the property.
The Starlight turned out to be a good investment for the Lamperts: In 1930, the home was estimated to be worth $8,000. The Lamperts owned it until 1940, at which point Fred had been moved to serve at the “William Beaumont General Hospital” in El Paso, TX, to this day an Army Medical Center. They sold the house to Robert, a “letter carrier,” and Elsie Schullenberger who moved in with their teenage kids, Irene and John.
After them, from 1950 onwards, empty nesters Haskell and Mildred Clark, a self-employed chauffeur and a telephone operator, owned the house for nearly 40 years. Perhaps Haskell was a vet since the house had then been advertised at $11,500 and as “G.I. approved” for a VA mortgage. The current owners, one of them also a federal employee, have been there for exactly 25 years.
Of course, none of this tells us much about what was going on inside the house. But that’s the fun. Here, we can fill the gaps in our minds. We can guess, project and fantasize. We can try to anchor the names and the jobs to well-known events in our minds. We can feel the connection, or just enjoy the mystery of the many lost words, hugs and tears. It’s strange indeed what those houses are able to evoke.
(To see pictures of other still standing Starlights in DC, click here.)