When Men Were Still Handy

Real Estate Agent with Compass

Original Source: The House In The Post

1917 Sears mail order bungalow in Washington DC's Shepherd Park neighborhood. Photo: Piers Lamb/Evers & Co.

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.

Sears Kit Home

Do-it-yourself challenge: the Avondale's dining room with 12-foot beamed ceilings

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.

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© 2012, Catarina Bannier 






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washington dc
kit houses
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house history
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Paula Bradfield
Bradfield Ramsey Group - Salida, CO
Your Salida Colorado area Realtor Team

Great post, Caterina. I had no idea there were so many kit homes around in that era.

Dec 10, 2011 10:09 AM #1
Lori Bowers
La Quinta, CA
The Lori Bowers Group

Thanks for a great blog. Very interesting. I know about pre-fab homes, but did not know Sears and Roebuck sold pre-fab homes through a catalog. Maybe that will happen again soon?

Dec 10, 2011 10:09 AM #2
Vanessa Saunders
Global Property Systems Real Estate - White Plains, NY
From Manhattan to the Catskills of New York

Great article Catarina, so well written and informative. I'm looking forward to learning more about catalog homes from you soon. Happy Holidays!

Dec 10, 2011 10:09 AM #3
Ellen Dittman
Watson Realty Corp. - Middleburg, FL
#1 Stop for NE FLA-JAX/OP 904.535.1199 (TEXT OK) r

Catrina, I love this! Such great information. There is a neighborhood in Jacksonville called Avondale and is full of these homes and now I wonder if that is how it got its name.

Dec 10, 2011 10:13 AM #4
Chris Smith
Re/Max Chay Realty Inc., Brokerage - New Tecumseth, ON
South Simcoe, Caledon, King, Orangeville Real Esta

Catarina, everything old becomes new again... hence the newfound popularity of modular homes

Dec 10, 2011 10:23 AM #5
Wale Adewoyin
1st Crown Realty Corporation 503-512-6200 - Saint Helens, OR

Modular home designs are really diverse now, quick to construct or put together at a great price.

Dec 10, 2011 10:30 AM #6
Steve Queen
Bennett Realty Solutions - Bowie, MD
Chosen Realtor for Bowie And Laurel

Great post. My grandfather explained these homes to me years ago and showed me one. This post made me reflect on a great day with him.

Dec 10, 2011 10:57 AM #7
Kevin J. May
Florida Supreme Realty - Hobe Sound, FL
Serving the Treasure & Paradise Coasts of Florida

Makes me want to get out there and bolt one together Catarina.  I think it's not so much that the men were more handy simply that there were more handy men willing to help out with their given specialty.  What a way to build a neighborhood, with helping hands!     

Dec 10, 2011 11:43 AM #8
David Farrell
David V. Farrell Co. - Garden City, NY
Licensed NY State Real Estate Broker

What a great Blog.  I knew Sears sold pre-fab homes for on-site completion.  However, I didn't know of other companies and had no idea where to find any of these houses.  Those two photos alone are very cool.  

On Long Island, we have our variation on the theme, which is Levittown.  The houses were all built for vets returning home from WWII and a family could end up with a 4 bedroom home on a 60 x 100 lot for under $10,00.

Dec 10, 2011 01:35 PM #9
Ralph Janisch ABR CRS Broker
Janisch & Co. - Conroe, TX
Selling Northwest Houston to good people like you!

Sounds like it will be a fun property to market.  Can't wait to see your follow up on this one!

Dec 10, 2011 02:34 PM #10
Catarina Bannier
Compass - Chevy Chase, DC
DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way

Paula-thanks! Actually, I didn't, either. At least I had no clue that there were so many. Now I see them wherever I go..

Dec 11, 2011 09:50 AM #11
Catarina Bannier
Compass - Chevy Chase, DC
DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way

Lori - I wish they would still make those--the quality is remarkable. But then again, those materials alone might be prohibitively expensive if they were to be used today.

Vanessa - thank you! I've collected a lot of good stuff this week and went around to take pictures, so stay tuned.

Dec 11, 2011 10:44 AM #12
Catarina Bannier
Compass - Chevy Chase, DC
DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way

Hi Ellen--no idea.  What's the architecture look like in Jacksonville's Avondale?

Chris and Wale --yes, the idea is old, but the difference is that modular homes probably are a lot more convenient! (Then again, I bet they won't last half as long.)

Dec 11, 2011 12:02 PM #13
Catarina Bannier
Compass - Chevy Chase, DC
DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way

Steve- that's so touching. I wonder if he even helped some friends putting one up. Did you grow up in the area or did you move here later?

Kevin, you're right. It's also that most people don't take the time anymore to develop skills just for the joy of it. My kids are incredibly quick with any kind of computer/x-box/Nintendo game, but i'm not sure they will be able to hit a nail in the wall.

Dec 11, 2011 04:15 PM #14
Catarina Bannier
Compass - Chevy Chase, DC
DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way

David- would love to see some pictures! 

Jeanne and Ralph, thanks! The weather was lovely here this weekend, so I took lots of pictures and will scan some catalog pages.

Dec 11, 2011 04:19 PM #15
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DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way
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