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.