Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Linda Hopper’s grandparents lived in a Sears home no matter where they moved. In 1985, Mrs. Hopper bought her own Alpha Bungalow Sears home at 4770 N. 25th St. in Arlington. She says it was built in 1925 for about $3,000. Today, homes in her neighborhood sell for $600,000 to $800,000.

“When I think of home, I see a Sears Craftsman of some shape or sort,” Mrs. Hopper says. “Now I see my house. This house had everything I was looking for in a house.”

From 1908 to 1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co., offered 446 styles of homes for sale via mail order. Railroad lines offered easy access to Arlington County and the District for the transportation of the products.



On Sept. 23, the Smithsonian Associates will offer a tour, Sears Houses of Arlington. The cost for Smithsonian resident members and Clarendon Adult Education Center members is $50; general admission is $67.

There are more than 1,000 kit homes in Arlington County, says tour leader Kathryn Holt Springston. The popularity of the pre-made homes fluctuated in the 1950s and 1960s, but by the 1980s, they began to boom in popularity.

“There is no such thing as the typical Sears house,” Mrs. Springston says. “They have different finishings, floor models and paint.”

The options for paint included white, canary yellow, dove gray, emerald green and barn red. Many of the Sears homes had closets, though they weren’t built into most new houses until the 1940s.

In 1908, the average kit cost $296, but by 1941, it cost $5,000, Mrs. Springston says. Sears also ran a mortgage company that offered low interest rates.

“By allowing these houses to be purchased through the mail, it made it easier for everyone to own a home,” Mrs. Springston says. “It furthered the American dream.”

After the home was ordered, the first railroad boxcar shipment brought foundation materials, floor plans and walls, she says.

Next came finishing materials, such as doors, windows, plaster and plasterboard. The third load included the fireplace, roof materials, extra trim, oak floors and stained-glass windows, she says. Customers also could order extra fixtures.

Sears numbered every piece of wood for construction purposes. Usually the homeowners would build the home themselves, sometimes with the help of friends, family or neighbors, or a local contractor would be hired, Mrs. Springston says.

In 1924, Charles and Ethel Taylor received $500 for a wedding present. They bought a lot at 1815 Stafford St. in Arlington for $250. Then they paid $250 for a Sunlight model Sears home and built it themselves.

“They lived there until they passed away,” Mrs. Springston says. “It’s been sold many times. Last time it was sold, it went for about $700,000.”

Mrs. Springston has been asked through the years to authenticate Sears homes. The only way to distinguish them accurately from other kit homes of the era is to measure them. She compares the measurements against the floor plan for the model.

“They tend to have a front porch with pillars in groups of three,” Mrs. Springston says. “They tend to have six panes over one pane of glass in the windows.”

The Americus model owned by Margaret and Bob Quinn of 1903 N. Quebec St. has three bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, dining room and kitchen from the original home built in 1925. The original price was $2,600. The home is part of the bus tour.

“Sears homes have a lot of personality and character,” Mr. Quinn says. “New houses today are sterile and boring.”

Additions to the home had been completed before the Quinns bought the house in 1980. After purchasing it, they renovated the home and built a cottage in the back yard. Many original doors and moldings still exist in the house, as well as exposed brick. It is for sale for $1.35 million.

“Sears homes had a reputation for building a high-quality home,” Mr. Quinn says. “If it was built right, it would stay together for a long time. They prided themselves on the wood that they used. They used dried wood that didn’t shrink, and the floors don’t squeak as much.”

Another Sears home on the tour is a Walton model built in 1920 by U.S. Navy Capt. P.T. Wright, a submarine commander, at 2436 N. Glebe Road. Maureen Tankersley, the owner since 1994, suspects that Capt. Wright lived in the house until the 1970s.

“If I were going to build a new house, I would build the same model that I have, with maybe a little larger kitchen,” Mrs. Tankersley says. “I love it. It’s a great layout.”

Buying a house through the mail at the turn of the century was almost the same as buying books through Amazon.com today, says Robert Schweitzer, owner of Historic Color Consulting (www.historichousecolors.com) in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the co-author with Michael Davis of “America’s Favorite Homes.”

“There hadn’t been kit houses before,” Mr. Schweitzer says. “It was a new, innovative way of doing things.”

If a person lived in rural Virginia, the mail-order catalog gave him more options than the local builder that created the same home for everyone, Mr. Schweitzer says. It proved to be cheaper and more convenient to order a home by mail.

Sears says it produced 100,000 homes across the country, Mr. Schweitzer says. The houses are scattered nationwide, with concentrations in New England, New Jersey, Virginia and the Washington area. Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and the Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., areas of the Northwest coast also have groups of the houses, he says.

The homes usually are popular today because of their ready-made history. It brings a connection to another time and place that doesn’t come with subdivision homes, Mr. Schweitzer says.

“In many places, as much as 10 years ago, where I live, if you identify it as a Sears house, the real estate people said it added at least $10,000 to the price,” Mr. Schweitzer says. “It’s like any oceanfront property. There isn’t any more. There is only so much. If you want a specialty item, you have to pay for it. It’s like owning a ‘68 Camaro. It’s that kind of rarity item.”

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