Yesterday's kit houses are today's sought-after properties
By Jesse Leavenworth, The Hartford Courant
For thousands of people, the American dream came ready to assemble, from front porch columns to back door trim.
Sears, Roebuck & Co. of Chicago sold about 100,000 "kit" houses from 1908 to 1940. Aladdin of Bay City, Mich., delivered about 65,000 Readi-Cut models.
Altogether, the mail-order home industry sold about half a million whole-house packages from California to Connecticut.
The many early-20th-century kit houses that survive have become sought-after properties, touted in real estate brochures as gems of enduring quality. People who have studied the industry say that's not just advertising.
"There are many testimonials that speak to the extreme quality of the wood and materials in kit houses versus anything a customer could buy locally," said Robert Schweitzer, a professor of architectural history at Eastern Michigan University who co-authored a book about the industry called "America's Favorite Homes."
"People seem to like the concept," said Betsy Little, a real estate agent who is selling a 1938 Sears house in Norfolk, Conn.
In the age before Bob Vila and personal power tools, the attractions of such structures were variety, low cost and ease of construction. Kit-house companies precisely cut and marked all the lumber to correspond to a blueprint. Many of the mail-order houses were modest, without the ornamentation and complicated angles that characterized 19th-century architecture.
So anyone with a good knowledge of carpentry and a few friends could build his own place. Even if the homeowner contracted the work, kit-house companies promised big savings on labor because on-site cutting and fitting was minimal.
Prices on Sears' first models ranged from $650 to $2,500. Besides lumber, the package usually included nails, shingles, shellac, windows, doors, hardware, paint, downspouts and, of course, instructions. A typical Sears house could fit in two box cars, not including foundation materials.
The low cost and relative simplicity of construction put home ownership within reach of blue-collar workers such as Connecticut toolmaker August Anstett, who ordered a house from Sears in 1926.
Hubert Anstett remembered that his father chose from among five models in a catalog. Kit-house companies published beautiful catalogs, with detailed illustrations and floor plans for each model. Buyers could customize the plans with alternate layouts, dormers, trim, paint and the like.
"Sears attempted to make ordering a home as easy as ordering an automobile, radio or piece of furniture," Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl wrote in "Houses by Mail" (Preservation Press, $24.95).
The Anstetts' house was delivered by train and truck to a lot on New Litchfield Street in Torrington, Conn. The family lived only a few houses away from the building site, and Hubert Anstett, now 84, recalled his father and a carpenter he had hired working late into the night erecting the two-story gable-front house.
"I can remember lying in bed, listening to my father pounding nails and scraping those floors," Anstett said.
The house stands today; August Anstett's grandson lives there.
Residential kits are still sold, but the product is "not anywhere near the quality of an early-20th-century kit house," said Schweitzer, the architectural history professor.
Homes made by Sears, Aladdin, Lewis, Montgomery Ward and the industry's other big outfits have become valued property throughout the nation, he said.
"In Chevy Chase, (Md.), owning a Lewis kit house is a real plus," he said. 'And in various areas of the country, the kit-house label adds to the price of a house, in some ways because it provides a real history of the structure that everybody wants."
Aladdin, based in a booming lumber town, touted the clarity of its wood and offered customers $1 for every knot they found. Sears sold a high-grade kit called the Honor-Bilt, a lower grade called Standard Built and sectional cottages that could be built in a day. In Honor-Bilt homes, studs and rafters were to be spaced more closely -- 143/8 inches -- than most house plans required, and the lumber for framing, sheathing and trim was a combination of cypress, cedar, oak, maple and yellow pine.
"More elaborate bungalows frequently contained leaded art glass windows, built-in bookcases and mantels in the living room, plate rails and sideboards in the dining room, and carved staircases," Stevenson and Jandl wrote.
The kit-house companies filled many orders for company housing. Schweitzer said his research shows that an enclave of houses built near the old Bristol Brass Co. near Routes 72 and 229 in Bristol, Conn., is all Aladdin. The book he co-authored says the company "paid Aladdin from $430 to $1,085 in 1916 for the houses, which in the early 1980s sold in the $50,000 to $70,00 range. ... The shaded, well-kept neighborhood of Bungalow, Boxes and Cottages is located on four-parallel streets on a hill overlooking the original Civil War vintage company offices and factory."
Unlike Aladdin, which went out of business in 1981, Sears offered financing for its homes. The Depression hurt business; in 1934, the company had to write off about $11 million in bad mortgages. By 1940, the Modern Homes Department was deemed unprofitable, and the last catalog was issued that year.
How do you know if you live in a kit house? Start by asking the former owners and the neighbors, especially old-timers. Also, exposed floor joists and rafters in Sears and other kit houses can be checked for numbers corresponding to a blueprint, and house hardware made by Sears is marked as such.
To learn more about Sears houses, get a copy of "Houses By Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Co.," by Stevenson and Jandl. The book contains illustrations and floor plans for most of the Modern Homes Department's approximately 450 models. For Aladdin homes, go to Central Michigan University's Clarke Historical Library Web site www.lib.cmich.edu/clarke/aladdin/Aladdin.h
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.