When Men Were Still Handy, Part II

Real Estate Agent with Compass

Well, turns out that--at least in Washington--the average middle class guy in the early 20th century might not have known that much more about house building after all. But we'll get to that later.

Yesterday, I promised more on kit homes. Here we go.

The next amazing discovery I made when I was browsing all kinds of libraries and websites to find out more about the other big pre-cut/catalog companies. (Sears, Roebuck and Co. has not only been the most written about, most well-known and largest in numbers of units sold; the term "Sears home" has also become more or less synonymous with "catalog home." But that's actually unfair, as there were seven major manufacturers as well as some off-shoots.)

In particular, the pictures of homes from the Michigan-based Lewis Manufacturing Co.  seemed strangely familiar and reminded me of the neighborhoods I walk and drive through daily, namely Chevy Chase and Shepherd Park. I had seen Sears bungalows and colonials in other parts of town, but clicking through the Lewis pictures struck another cord.

I soon recognized a couple of impressive models I'd been in before, both larger, very solid Dutch Colonials. And then there it was! My friend's house!

It was impossible to miss the likeness because the house had a very unusual appearance, with an asymmetrical, sweeping roof line, a huge stone chimney and French doors to an uncovered raised patio in the front yard.

I had helped my friends buy the Shepherd Park house about three years ago, and while it had seen a bunch of owners and changing tastes in its 85 years, it hadn't lost its very special appeal.

We had no idea, however, that it had once arrived by train! (The stucco exterior, by the way, was offered as an option.)

And guess what, on Sunday I found another Lewis "Ardmore" across Rock Creek Park in Chevy Chase.

Now back to the not-so-handy men. Searching the archives of the Washington Post, I discovered an article from February 12, 1922 in which the local representative of Lewis Manufacturing Co. in D.C. was interviewed. The ready-cut system, the sales director said, had become so popular that not only individual families ordered house kits from him, but builders and real estate developers as well! Lewis had sold $500,000 worth of homes in and around DC that year, which must have resulted in a couple of hundred houses. There were about 70 or 80 very different styles in the 1922 catalog, so many buyers might never have noticed.

And while Rosemary Thornton (The Houses That Sears Built) estimates that half the families who bought kit houses in the 1920s actually assembled them by themselves, I wouldn't vouch for that number to be nearly as high when it comes to the Lewis customers in Washington, D.C.

Catalog page image courtesy of Antique Home.


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© 2012, Catarina Bannier 





Comments (10)

Mary Macy
Top Agents Atlanta Metro - Roswell, GA
Top Agents Atlanta Metro

Those were truly the days when you could buy a decent home from a catalog and put it up yourself.  Maybe with this economy we will have to go back there again.

Dec 12, 2011 01:07 PM
Catarina Bannier
Compass - Chevy Chase, DC
DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way

Mary -- I hope not! In this family, we're happy to get a nail in straight! :-)

Dec 12, 2011 01:14 PM
Larry Bettag
Cherry Creek Mortgage Illinois Residential Mortgage License LMB #0005759 Cherry Creek Mortgage NMLS #: 3001 - Saint Charles, IL
Vice-President of National Production

Wow....and to think that the house arrived on a train?????? How awesome....what a great story!!!!

Dec 12, 2011 01:21 PM
Alan Grizzle
Chestatee Real Estate - Dahlonega, GA
Full Time Realtor, Lifelong Resident of Dahlonega

Interesting. Looks like they held up well.

Dec 12, 2011 01:30 PM
Catarina Bannier
Compass - Chevy Chase, DC
DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way

Larry, the catalog explains that all materials would be "assembled logically" and then put on the rail cars "in the order required in the erection." The instructions for the workmen were supposed to be "so clear and simple that mistakes are almost impossible." No measuring, no cutting, no sawing, no waiting for further deliveries...

Dec 12, 2011 01:32 PM
Catarina Bannier
Compass - Chevy Chase, DC
DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way

Hi Alan- I think they held up a lot better than the houses built in the past 30 years will... i doubt my 1988 house will see its 100th birthday.

Dec 14, 2011 11:35 AM
Patricia Kennedy
RLAH Real Estate - Washington, DC
Home in the Capital

Hey, Cati!

I included this post in Last Week's Favorites.  Have a great Sunday!

Dec 18, 2011 03:59 AM
Curtis Van Carter
Better Homes & Gardens Wine Country Group - Yountville, CA
Your Napa Valley Broker Extraordinaire


Very interesting post. If I remember right, Sears Catalog had homes you could order for a few thousand dollars back in the 40's or 50's. No I am not that old but remember looking through some old catalogs. They have about 3 kit homes here in the Napa Valley from a company called Lindal Cedar Homes. I have been through one and it was ok. The cedar log look is not my thing. cheers cvc

Dec 18, 2011 05:32 AM
Catarina Bannier
Compass - Chevy Chase, DC
DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way

Pat - what an honor!! Thanks!!

Curtis - I think Sears sold just about anything thinkable through their catalogs! However, they sold the last kit homes in 1939 or 1940. There were other companies that continued their pre-cut offerings (Aladdin was in the business the longest, I think), but the peak was probably reached in the 1920s.  Or perhaps you're thinking more of pre-fab homes? I have no clue, but wouldn't be suprprised if Sears did those as well at some point.

Dec 18, 2011 11:24 AM

HI, Curtis is right. Sears and several other companies sold prefabricated homes mainly to GI's after WWII. These companies included Home-OLa, Gunnison, and National Homes, Inc. If you put down a concrete slab, the homes would be up in a matter of days. The prefabricated homes and the Lustrons were banned in my community for a few years because they were considered "low class". Then the powers-that-be buckled to the public pressure and permitted them on a limited basis. There a lots of the prefabs from Sears still around.


May 08, 2012 09:54 PM