“Is it true that you could once buy a house from a catalogue?”
“Do I have a kit house?”
“How can I identify which house I have?”
During my years as a historic preservation advocate, at event after event, I think that these are the questions I have been asked the most frequently.
Though last year, nearly 81% of the American population shopped online, the novelty of a whole house arriving on a train intrigues. I find the picture of a family waiting at the station in excited anticipation of hearing the toot of the train signalling the arrival of their first home to be most endearing. Who would not wish to be a part of this story?
Sadly, Sears, the primary outlet for these homes, destroyed their sales records during a routine corporate house cleaning, so finding information on individual houses today can entail quite a bit of patient research. Adding to the mystery, the various companies that offered these homes often copied plan elements or even complete designs with only small changes from one to other. As a result, there are a number of models from different manufacturers that look similar or identical to other models. Determining which company manufactured your home may well require extensive research.
So much has been written on kit houses that I have chosen to just be a reference librarian here & point you in the direction of the wealth of information that already exists on the subject. Whether you are merely curious, or have the burning desire to uncover whether you have a kit house or not, these references should provide you with what you need.
BOOKS ANSWERING THE QUESTION, DO I HAVE A KIT HOUSE
The Houses That Sears Built; Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sears Catalog Homes
by Rosemary Thornton
From the author:
“When you have finished reading The Houses That Sears Built, you will be your community’s expert on Sears homes. You’ll learn how to identify Sears homes from the inside, outside and from courthouse documents. You’ll learn the interesting details of Sears homes’ construction.”
Also by Rosemary Thornton Finding the Houses that Sears Built; A Guide to the 60 Most Popular Designs
Thornton explains, “If you learn how to identify these 60 designs, [of the almost 400 designs offered] you’ll discover about 90% of the Sears homes in your community.”
And perhaps one of these is yours!
introduced by Rosemary Thornton & Dale Patrick Wolicki, California’s Kit Homes: A reprint of the 1915 Pacific Ready Homes Catalog
Houses by Mail: A Guide To Houses from Sears, Roebuck & Company
by Katherine Cole Stevenson & H. Ward Jandl.
This definitive field guide for identifying Sears homes tells their curious story & provides meticulously researched material to aid in identifying Sears houses across the U.S.
The book features nearly 450 house models with more than 800 illustrations, including drawings of many houses & floor plans & gives advice on how to return them to their original charm.
These books are available from several book sellers. I recommend searching the titles to find out who might have them currently in stock. The prices are all over the place, so my advice is to keep looking until you find one that is most affordable.
These researchers maintain the National Database of Sears Houses, authenticating each entry through public records or other primary sources data. They have a page with a list of blogs that provide information about houses in specific areas of the country.
Wikipedia has an extensive article on kit houses, including information about:
Delivery & construction
Kit house companies
with an authoritative bibliography & excellent linked references.
If all the above fails, there is a group page, The Original Sears Kit Homes Group on Facebook- Since 2009, that you can join. Should you discover that your house is a kit house, but it was not made by Sears, I invite you to start a group that covers the other manufacturers. I think that people would flock to it!
And finally, visit my playlist of curated videos on YouTube. They contain huge amounts of information & some cool images. My favorite one is presented by the state architectural historian at the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, Devin Colman. His in-depth, scholarly talk is very thorough but easy to comprehend, & he shows many illustrations. This is a man who clearly has a strong background in historic architecture & presents the kit house phenomenon against the culture & the technology of the times.
Historic kit houses hold an intense interest for old house lovers. The very idea introduces the possibility of getting so many questions about the origins of our homes answered. We all burn with curiosity to know: Who built it? Who designed it? When?
The fact that there were many companies manufacturing & shipping houses, & they stepped on one another’s designs all too frequently, makes this puzzle even more intriguing.
My article, DO I HAVE A KIT HOUSE? provides many references that are chock full of the most authoritative answers. I invite you to read it but I also offer you a tip-back-&-eat-popcorn experience in the form of videos that will impart some more cool knowledge.
The first couple videos are entertaining but the last one is highly illuminating, answering questions for me that I never knew I had about historic kit houses. The speaker, Devin Colman, state architectural historian at the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, has obviously researched this topic well & he fleshes out the subject, enriching our understanding of the origin, success & decline of historic kit houses.
HISTORIC KIT HOUSES VIDEOS
Build your own Sears Kit Home – Life in America (8:01)
Some good information & wonderful images.
Sears Houses– Kit Houses Sold by Sears, Roebuck, 1908-1940. From Two on Two, WBBM-TV Chicago. (6:58)
Blueprints found in the attic! Neat! See inside some houses as they are now.
The Kit House! When houses were made by Sears (and others) and shipped for assembly. (8:12)
I always love to hear Brent’s take on all things old house. He doesn’t dissappoint us here!
Bungalow in a Box: Kit Houses of the Early Twentieth Century (41:19)
Historic New England
Now you’ve hit the motherlode!
Devin Colman, state architectural historian at the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation speaks on historic kit houses. He explains the houses from various aspects giving you a full & fascinating education on the subject.
The desire for lighting is in our DNA. Our circadian rhythms, our bodies’ clocks, determine the patterns of our bodies, our minds & behavior over a 24 hour cycle & respond to light & dark. Light exposure generates signals from our brains, releasing hormones that keep us awake & perky during the day. Darkness activates sleep hormones.
Early man slept when it was dark & trotted about hunting & gathering when it was light. But, as civilization developed, his activities expanded & he wanted to be active after the sun went down. He wanted to be able to see inside his cave.
Almost 130,000 years ago he learned to control fire, which was also handy for warmth & for cooking. It took another 100,000 years for him to make the first lamps, which employed animal fat as fuel. It wasn’t until 4500 B.C. that he invented the oil lamp which uses liquid oil, contained in a vessel, with a textile wick that is dropped in it. The top of the wick is ignited, producing a flame as the oil is drawn up the floating wick.
Following that leap in technology, lamp evolution pretty much stagnated for thousands of years. The American colonists used lamps that weren’t that much different from those used in biblical times- smokey, faint lighting, giving off little more light than candles.
The kerosene lamp was developed in 1850 & was used until electricity took its place. This type of lamp is still sometimes used in emergencies when electricity fails & light is needed.
Of course when the Victorians came along, a lamp became a flower garden, though it was still the basic mechanism of wick & oil. By this time we had learned to mold glass & metal so every material was employed in a manner that obscured its basic nature & turned it into something else, to be displayed in a house of like objects, all competing for the title of the most ornate.
I am not going to say that I do not consider this lamp to be lovely. I’m always happy to see a rose, growing in a garden, or painted on a lamp, but, you have to agree that the materials, function & construction of this lamp are not immediately apparent, being buried under excessive ornamentation!
In 1879 Thomas Edison & Joseph Swan patented the carbon-thread incandescent (An incandescent light bulb, incandescent lamp or incandescent light globe is an electric light with a wire filament that is heated until it glows.) lamp & over the next couple decades electricity technology evolved rapidly & took the lead in powering America.
THE LIGHTING OF THE ARTS & CRAFTS MOVEMENT
I think that my favorite William Morris quote is, “We shall not be happy unless we live like good animals, unless we enjoy the exercise of the ordinary functions of life: eating, sleeping, loving, walking, running, swimming, riding, sailing.”
Somehow he strips away all gee-gaws from life which is the basis of the Arts & Crafts Movement. I am amused by fact that the prehistoric, earthen lamp above, so resembles the lamps of the Movement. Personally, I find its humble simplicity beautiful.
I think the best way to talk about the lighting is to talk about the craftspeople of the Movement’s early years. But first, let’s talk about harmony.
Harmony is the visually satisfying effect of combining similar or related elements. In the decorative arts, this means that the lighting that you see in the Gamble House or other ultimate bungalow, in a museum might not be appropriate in your modest home.
Often, the key visual, size is the first aspect to consider. The Gamble House is a whopping 8,100 square feet. The rooms are proportionately sized & the lighting’s dimensions fit the room. While a modest house may have beautiful built-ins of unpainted woodwork, the Gamble House boasts cuts of wood, hand-picked by Charles Greene out of Burma teak, Douglas fir beams, white oak & Port Orford cedar, cut in elaborate designs. The beautiful stained glass of the lightening is duplicated throughout the house & most impressively, in the massive entry.
This is not meant in any way to denigrate your home. It is merely to state that the look & feel of your house are different from these bunga-mansions (as Jane Powell termed her magnificent house in Oakland) as their decorative elements look no more appropriate in a more simple home than would the crown jewels with your jeans. (And yes, I know that there are those out there who would wear such a combination & 1 in 1,000 of them would pull it off.) There are still some amazing options out there that would enhance your home rather than overwhelming it.
This little gem from Doc’s Architectural Salvation in Springfield, Tennessee. Complete with beautifully patterned slag glass, it is undisputedly Arts & Crafts & would harmonize with any architecture or decor in a bungalow.
In the same way, the light in your kitchen is not from a Frank Lloyd Wright designed house. A simple schoolhouse light is more appropriate & will set off the other design elements of your kitchen rather than overtaking them.
I’m a big believer in visual flow. Keeping within the period & style of your house will ensure that there won’t be so many focal points that your overall look will be difficult to determine. Ideally each item in the room will complement or complete the others & the focal points will be supported by all the other elements.
THIS IS JUST THE FIRST PART OF AN IN-DEPTH SERIES ON LIGHTING
These videos show & tell the story of bungalow character defining features, the architectural bits & pieces that separate a bungalow from other houses. They are the features that you expect to see on a bungalow that has been well-cared for, or authentically restored. They are a good guide in planning & performing your own restoration.
The term bungalow refers to the general shape of a building, not its style. In fact, one of the best things about them is that they were built in a variety of styles. This is why you can drive down the street of a bungalow neighborhood & each house is charmingly unique, inspired by a different style from Swiss Chalet to Victorian to Japanesque to Tudor.
I chose this format of conveying this information because it allows you to walk around & through a bungalow, rather than seeing bits of us out of context. I have chosen these particular ones because they contain great information that will help you know a bungalow when you see one, & will hopefully answer the question, “Is my house a bungalow?”
Enjoy the videos!
THE VIDEOS- Bungalow Character Defining Features
“Building with History” – Arts and Crafts Era Bungalow House (6:02)
Brent trots us through a brief look at the history of the Arts & Crafts Movement, but spends most of his time discussing bungalow defining features. He shows us some bee-you-ti-ful examples of bungalows.
Building & Brews: Arts and Crafts Era (1:08)
A fascinating, in depth look at the Arts & Crafts Movement.
How this house took over the US (8:20)
The marketing of the bungalow. An amusing story of how the style made a lotta $$$ for a lotta folks.
Chicago Bungalows: The History and Top Facts (7:35)
The Bloom Group-Keller Williams
The history & details of the adorable style.
If you want to read more about these dear houses, visit my article here.
Brothers Charles & Henry Greene can be understood as men through the study of their Arts & Crafts architecture. As with all artists, their creations were born of their unique viewpoints of life, tempered by their educations, their personal relationships & professional experiences, & the cultures & technologies of their times.
At the same time, each creative expression contributes to the personal evolution of the individual. You can see this clearly in studying the works of any artist over their lifetime. The viewpoint does not remain stagnant, as evidenced by the often radical changes in style over the course of the artist’s career.
For an architect the quantity of these in-flowed influences is magnified by their medium- clients, contractors, topography, tradespeople, materials, climate & cost overruns, oh my! Each of these leave their mark on the soul.
These videos are about the most well-known works of the Greene’s. I believe this medium with their virtual, docented tours to be the next best way of experiencing & understanding any piece of architecture. They tell the story of the Brothers Greene through the magnificent Arts & Crafts architecture that they designed.
THE VIDEOS- Charles & Henry Green Arts & Crafts architecture
Though I am an admirer of the Brothers Greene, I am not an expert, nor a scholar, nor do I have sophisticated video capabilities so I prefer to let them do the teaching & they do it exceedingly well.
Arts & Crafts architecture of Greene & Greene including The Gamble House, CALIFORNIA episode (3:03)
Craft in America
A short video with some beautiful shots expressing how the California lifestyle influenced the design of the house.
A Portal – the Gamble House front door (9:50)
The Gamble House x
Jennifer Trotoux, Director of Collections & Interpretation, gives an overview of the artistry and construction of the front door of the Gamble House. Wherever you are, you will be transported to the entry of the house & learn so much about the design & the crafting of this beautiful portal.
The Thorson House Tour- A Greene & Greene Ultimate Bungalow (19:16)
The Wood Whisperer
A close look at the many refined & delicate details through which the Brothers Greene, took items of utility & made them things of beauty, including their version of recessed lighting!
Greene & Greene’s Bungalow for Robert Blacker (10:44)
A short history of the Greene Brothers & some images of the Blacker House.
Two Sides of the Pacific: Japan and the Architecture of Greene & Greene (1:18:15)
Looking at Japan through the lens of the Brothers Greene, a fascinating talk by Edward R. Bosley, Executive Director of The Gamble House on the influence of Japanese design on Charles & Henry & the reception of their work in Japan.
I invite you all to visit the Gamble House at your earliest opportunity. Sign up for their mailing list so you can stay informed of their wonderful array of activities.
Old growth wood, from deep within the forest primeval. From fairy tales to an awed reverence in bungalow fans, the forest is endemic to the lore of humankind. Trees have been regarded as sacred in many early traditions. Since the dawn of time humankind has understood that his survival & that of the tree are interconnected- for shade, for food, for fuel & for shelter.
In old house circles, ancient wood is highly regarded for its strength & its beauty. I wrote an article about it & it is the most viewed post on my blog. That post discusses the properties of old wood, but in these videos, you are going to look at the forest & how it contributed to the wonderful characteristics of the trees & the lumber that was cut from them. 100 years ago, this lumber was used to build your house & today your house stands strong & sturdy.
You are going to hear a fascinating talk by a woman who grew up in the forest & listens to trees. She has learned the secret of how trees in the forest form a strong community, helping one another survive & grow, through communication & by passing chemicals & nutrients to trees in need.
You are going to find out how farmed wood differs from forest grown wood & why it results in inferior lumber.
You are going to see 100 year old logs pulled out of rivers to be milled into building materials.
OLD GROWTH WOOD VIDEOS
No matter how much you cherish your old growth fir, pine, oak – these videos will increase your understanding & appreciation for it immensely. The people who are speaking, are authorities in their fields & each one loves old wood. Let’s get started.
Goodwin Heart Pine on Dream Builders TV Show (5:22)
Pt.1 Introduction – Works of Heart – Goodwin Heart Pine (4:21)
Old-Growth Forests vs. Second-Growth Plantations (2:59)
Ancient Forest Alliance
What are Old Growth Forests? (2:44)
Harvard Museum of Natural History
Suzanne Simard | Mother Trees and the Social Forest (1:09:19)
Long Now Foundation