When I was young and living with my wise old grandmother in Kingsville, Texas, I looked forward to the days when the Fall and Spring catalogs arrived from Sears. We also received the Montgomery Ward catalogs, but there was nothing like the catalogs from Sears. Dreamland….
Of course, catalog offerings changed over the years, and it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I discovered kit houses, a common name for the Sears catalog homes sold as Sears Modern Homes.
Sears reported that more than 70,000 kit homes were sold in North America between 1908 and 1940. More than 370 different home designs in various architectural styles and sizes were offered.
Although sold mostly along the East Coast and in Midwestern states, they have been found in Canada, as far south as Florida, and as far west as Alaska and California. Which takes us to Ocean Beach, a neighborhood of San Diego. Recently I discovered that there might be a Sears kit house at 4921 Voltaire Street in Ocean Beach. Looks like this:
Sears Modern Homes offered the latest and greatest technology available to home buyers in the early 20th Century, including electricity, indoor plumbing, and central heating. Eventually, asphalt shingles and drywall (instead of the messy lathe and plaster) were offered. Kits were usually shipped by railroad and included most of the materials needed to build the house. Perhaps this is where the great Christmas adage—Some assembly required.—came from….
A few years after Sears quit selling kit homes, all sales records were destroyed in a corporate house cleaning. Sad. Since many of these kit homes were not documented when they were built, finding them today usually requires detailed research for correct identification, especially since there were competitors: Aladdin (which offered the first mail order kit homes in 1906), Bennett, Gordon-Van Tine, Harris Brothers, Lewis, Pacific Ready Cut Homes, Sterling, and Wardway Homes.
Sears issued its first specialty catalog for houses in 1908, Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans. It featured 44 house styles costing $360 to $2,890.
Sales grew, and Sears expanded production, shipping, and sales offices to sites throughout the United States. In order to meet demand and lower costs, Sears purchased lumber mills in Cairo, Illinois, and Port Newark, New Jersey, as well as the Norwood Sash and Door Company in Norwood, Ohio.
Sears first offered precut and fitted lumber, pioneered by Aladdin, in 1916. Prior to 1916, the Sears-supplied lumber had to be cut on site to appropriate lengths. The pre-1916 houses are considered “catalog houses” but are not not considered to be kit houses. A Sears Modern Home kit could have 25 tons of materials and over 30,000 parts. Yep. Some assembly required….
Sears started offering financing in 1912, with early loans for 5-15 years at 5-6 percent interest. Sales peaked in 1929, being hit hard by the Great Depression, which led to payment defaults and strain on the catalog house program. Sears even stopped selling homes for a short time in 1934 and, after liquidating $11 million in defaulted debt, quit financing altogether by 1934.
4921 Voltaire Street, Ocean Beach, San Diego, California
The home at 4921 Voltaire Street was built by William Feigley, recently arrived from Kansas. The city has dubbed it the William and Ona Feigley Spec House #1. Sadly, the life of the Feigley House appears to be coming to an end. It has been vacant for years after having been gutted in the 1980s to convert it to a doctor’s office. The doctor left in 1989, and records of its use since then are spotty. There have been lots of complaints about squatters and trash, though.
The new owners of the property want to tear down the Feigley House and build a two-story building with commercial space on the ground floor and two apartments on the upper floor, and a rooftop deck so they can see the ocean. The Ocean Beach Planning Board gave near-unanimous approval after the original design was altered to present a more Craftsman look. It appears that a portion of the front entrance might be retained and incorporated into the new building. However….
In October 2016, the Historic Resources Board recommended designating the Feigley House as a historic resource, which would pretty much prevent its destruction. According to the Board’s report, the Feigley House has maintained integrity in terms of design, materials, and feeling. Assistant Planner Suzanne Seguer, one of the report’s authors, said, “Nearly a century after its construction, the prized characteristics of its Craftsman-style architecture continue to shine through. Specifically, the resource exhibits a gable roof with wide eave overhang, wood cladding, decorative beams, a partial width porch with tapered square columns, wood-frame sash windows, and decorative attic vents,.”
Interesting, the owner’s representative charged that its kit house origin didn’t enhance but actually weakened historical value. The “Historic Resource Research Report,” prepared by the architectural firm Brian F. Smith and Associates for the owners, asserted the Feigley House bears a telling resemblance to a “Crescent” kit home, one of the 120 models described in the Sears “HonorBilt Modern Homes” 1921 catalog. Thus, the home is “not architecturally significant,” according to Scott Moomjian, an attorney who has represented owners with historic properties, told the board. He continued, saying that even if the Feigley House had not been damaged by insect infestation, neglect, and weathering, it would still be nothing but a “common, undistinguished, and ordinary Craftsman home” that falls far short of being “considered an important architectural specimen.”
Neighbors seem to agree with Moomjian, which isn’t really surprising considering the condition of the house. Which would you rather live next door to, a brand new building or a decrepit old buildng?
The Feigley House’s status as a Sears home is not 100% certain, though, which possibly caused only three Board members to vote for historic designation, short of the required six votes. Personally I find kit homes to be intriguing, interesting, and important.
The Crescent, on page 29 of the 1921 catalog (between the Ardara and Martha Washington) and costing as little as $1,704, was described as being for “folks who like a touch of individuality with good taste.” The cost included “all the millwork, kitchen cupboard, flooring, shingles, siding, finishing lumber, building paper, eaves trough, downspout, roofing, sash weights, hardware, porch screens, painting material, lumber and lath.” Everything except “cement, brick and plaster.”
I found it interesting that the Sears Modern Homes plans were “passed upon by women experts.” “Architects and women advisors plan economy of space…. We plan the arrangement of the kitchen to save steps for the housewife.”
Ah, yes, the woman belongs in the home….