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Build-it-yourself ‘kit’ houses popularized by Sears endure in the Philly region

Sears barely exists as a retailer any more, but homeowners still adore the "kit" houses it fabricated and shipped across America from 1908 to 1940.

Bill and Ashley Haggerty bought a Lexington model of a Sears "kit" home in Absecon, N.J., in 2008. It was built in 1928 of pre-cut, pre-fitted materials shipped to a nearby railroad station and assembled on site.
Bill and Ashley Haggerty bought a Lexington model of a Sears "kit" home in Absecon, N.J., in 2008. It was built in 1928 of pre-cut, pre-fitted materials shipped to a nearby railroad station and assembled on site.Read moreVERNON OGRODNEK

Judy Lieberman loves her Sunbeam in Lower Merion.

Jessica Todd and her husband, Dan Brill, treasure their Americus in Collingswood.

And Bill Haggerty said the Lexington that he and his wife, Ashley, bought 13 years ago in Absecon “has really good bones and is a great home” for their family.

“I fell in love with the details,” Ashley said. “The glass doorknobs, the high ceilings, the materials, and the integrity of the house.”

Dating from the 1920s, the Sunbeam, Americus, and Lexington were among nearly 450 models of “kit” houses that Sears Roebuck & Co. catalogs offered between 1908 and 1940. The Modern Homes line of mostly single-family detached houses included tiny summer cottages, tasteful Tudors, and plenty of bungalows, Cape Cods, Dutch Colonials, and American Foursquares in between.

The Chicago company that pioneered mass-market, mail-order merchandising in America more than a century before “fulfillment centers” became a thing managed to perfect a way to fulfill the American public’s demand for well-made, stylish, affordable housing — and created a one-stop shop that made ownership feasible and easy.

The prices put new-home ownership within the reach of many: The Sears Natoma, introduced in 1908, offered three rooms, but no bathroom, for $191 (about $5,500 in today’s dollars). The nine-room Hillrose kit with bath cost $3,547 in 1922 ($56,000 today). And the Magnolia, 10 rooms with a porte cochère, sleeping porch, and majestic pillars — called Sears’ “crème de la crème” by kit home expert and author Rosemary Thornton — cost $6,488 in 1922 ($103,000 today).

No wonder Sears kit houses became known as “the American dream in a box.” Or, less grandly, “bungalows in a box.”

Kits, containing what some experts estimated at tens of thousands of pieces, were delivered in stages to the railroad station nearest the building site. Sears included the nails, hardware, windows, doors, flooring, and pretty much everything else necessary for assembling the house, except the foundation — and Sears offered a Triumph Concrete Block Outfit, or device, for $12.50.

“Sears was already a massive company by the time it entered the mail-order home business,” said department store historian, author, and Cherry Hill native Michael Lisicky. “It was a well-known and largely trusted name.”

The Sears Archives have the number of kit homes shipped at 70,000 to 75,000. But some researchers say there could have been as many 100,000, noting that Sears disposed of the housing program’s records in the 1940s.

With the company’s step-by-step, 75-page assembly manuals, buyers could opt to build the house themselves rather than hire a contractor — although most did so, particularly for larger, more elaborate dwellings. Electrical, heating, and plumbing systems were not included in the base price, but Sears sold those, too. And the company also offered financing.

“For nearly 32 years, Sears ... was the most prolific designer and manufacturer of prefabricated housing ... in the world,” authors Barry Bergdoll and Peter Christensen wrote in their 2008 book Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling.

Awareness of Sears houses has grown as the company’s once ubiquitous department stores, appliance stores and auto centers — 3,900 locations were operating as recently as 2010 — steadily disappear. The company, founded in 1892, declared bankruptcy in 2018 and now has just 28 stores left nationwide, Lisicky said.

But tens of thousands of the Sears homes not only endure but also have become prized by owners, buyers, and fans. Websites about the Sears homes, or kit homes offered by competitors such as Montgomery Ward, showcase a lively array of catalog illustrations, extant house photos, and tips for identifying the real thing.

“There is a great deal of misconception and confusion about Sears Houses,” Judith Chabot, a researcher with a volunteer group known as Sears House Hunters, said in an email. “That’s why we write our blogs and work to authenticate the homes that we find. We’ve just [reached] 13,551 homes on our national database. About 40% are authenticated.”

Chabot, a teacher in suburban St. Louis and the proprietor of the authoritative website, said confusion arises because the company offered versions of already popular designs, and competitors offered their own variations of what worked for Sears. The result is that many American houses built in the first half of the 20th century in inner-ring suburbs and small towns look like Sears houses, and vice versa.

The Sears House Hunters spend many hours examining deeds, mortgage records, photographs, trade publications, newspaper stories, advertisements, real estate listings, and Google Street View to find and authenticate the quarry. Ohio seems to have the most Sears houses, Chabot said, but they are also numerous in Pennsylvania, including the Philadelphia suburbs, particularly in Delaware and Montgomery Counties, as well as in Camden and Atlantic Counties in South Jersey

Sears had good timing: Its Modern Homes program rode, and likely helped propel, the first wave of 20th-century suburban development along the commuter rail and streetcar lines radiating outward from cities such as Philadelphia. The city also was where the East Coast headquarters of Sears’ kit homes operation opened in the company’s landmark “clock-tower” complex on Roosevelt Boulevard in 1920.

“People needed houses, and Sears sold furniture, appliances, tools and everything related,” said Philadelphia architect James Timberlake, founder of the Kieran Timberlake firm. “Sears houses offered choices. They had a range of styles, scale, and affordability.”

The kit system “tended to eliminate the middleman and much of the uncertainty of what you were getting,” Timberlake said.

The company would readily reverse or “mirror” its designs on request. Sears professionals also would incorporate buyers’ suggestions or drawings into final blueprints. By 1916, all of the lumber for building a Sears mail-order house was factory pre-cut and pre-fitted — “no use for a saw here,” a catalog noted cheerfully — which further reduced on-site labor costs.

Meanwhile, space-saving, built-in amenities such as breakfast nooks, china cabinets, medicine chests, and drop-down ironing boards (handy for utilizing a Sears-Kenmore iron) proved popular. Other vintage features such as hardwood floors, handsome doors, and graceful staircases remain strong selling points for buyers interested in older homes, said New Jersey Realtor Diane Azzatori, who sold the Lexington in Absecon to the Haggertys.

“Location usually comes first,” she said. “But people interested in older homes often are looking for charm, and architecture, and durability. Sears houses are well-constructed.”

“I knew Ashley [Haggerty] liked older,” Azzatori said, “and when I saw the Lexington I said, ‘You have got to see this.’ I could tell she loved it as soon as we walked in.”

Lieberman also was immediately smitten with her Sunbeam, purchased in 1992. She’s only the second owner.

“I have a fine-arts background, and this house spoke to me,” she said. “That’s the original front door, and I love it. I love the moldings, and the windows, and the light.

“This house speaks of a different era, and what was valued then — materials and craftsmanship.”

The Brills weren’t familiar with Sears homes when they bought the Americus in Collingswood four years ago. The house had long been vacant, and “there was a hole in the roof,” Jessica said. “But we loved the layout.”

“We discovered it was a Sears kit house when I was Googling. Somebody had written a blog post featuring [what’s now] our house, and the original owner,” she said.

“I love a good back story,” Jessica said. “And it’s interesting that our house is a conversation piece.”

Rebecca Hunter, an architectural historian who lives in Elgin, Ill. — the home of 200 Sears houses — said nostalgia for the stores accounts for some of the interest in the kits.

“Once, almost everybody spent time shopping at Sears, and the houses were seen as a smart buy,” she said. “Later generations didn’t think it was good to own a Sears house. But now, it’s a wonderful idea again.“

Scholars generally agree that Depression-related mortgage defaults, as well as materials and labor shortages related to the looming war effort, led Sears to pull the plug on Modern Homes. Hunter loves the houses, but is skeptical that the earlier successes of the program could be replicated today.

But Timberlake noted that improvements in the quantity, beauty, and sustainability of composite materials, along with the precision enabled by 3D modeling programs, suggest that a new generation of high-quality prefabricated houses could find a broad market, just as the Modern Homes catalog did a century ago.

“Affordability is still an issue for the vast majority of people who want to own their own home,” he said.

Chabot said her blog draws frequent comments along the lines of I wish Sears still offered houses like these. “So there still is interest,” she said. “Because housing prices are crazy.”