restoration

Our home came in the mail! (Part II)

A long time ago, I posted Part I of this series, which chronicled the unusual history and charm of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Kit Houses. In this post, I’ve compiled some photos from our house and from historical ads as a comparison. Sorry about the ridiculous delay. Life happened and I haven’t had the time to update here, but I still wanted to put the info out there in case it helped anyone.

Our house is a Sears Van Dorn, which was available only in the 1926, 1928, and 1933 catalog (and actually isn’t fully documented on the Sears Archives for some reason). It’s quite similar to the Van Jean and the Puritan— both Dutch Colonial Revival styles. Rosemary Thornton talks a bit about the Van Dorn here. And that’s pretty much all the info/original photos I’ve found. Anyone else out there living in a Van Dorn?

Here are some of the original features we’ve found in ours (as compared to the Arts & Crafts Society’s checklist):

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Stamped lumber- this is basically the only definitive way to tell you have a Sears kit home. Technically some kit homes may not have stamped lumber, either because the buyer chose to locally source materials or because the materials and blueprints were purchased before they were all stamped. Some might have handwritten numbers and some might have nothing. But a huge majority of them do, so it’s a pretty quick and easy way to confirm a suspicion. Each original piece of lumber in the house should be stamped, but the easiest way to check is in the basement (assuming it’s still unfinished). Ours are along the center beam, not around the edges of the basement, so finding them was a little tricky (we also have blown-in insulation so I feared they had been covered up) but I found a note in The Houses that Sears Built that suggested they could face the center of the house instead of the outer walls, and Rosemary was correct!

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Shipping label– As I was searching our basement with a flashlight for the stamped lumber, I noticed something kind of strange. The back/underside of our basement stairs are held together by wood that is clearly different from the rest of the house. I always thought it was just scrap wood from some old crate, but as my flashlight passed, I noticed text on the wood. I had remembered seeing some of these shipping labels on various sites, and even though ours is too far gone to actually read most of the words, I can just barely make out “S. R. & Co” and some of the other text and stylistic features that are clearly the same as other examples.

Catalog number– As you can see above, the catalog number for the Van Dorn is C1234. I have a note that it’s written in grease pencil in the basement but can’t seem to find my photo of it. Will update if I do :/

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Blocks of shoe molding– these interesting transitions were designed for unskilled carpenters so that every awkward corner and joint wouldn’t have to be perfect. Instead of many angular cuts, irregular joins all have this detail, which is common throughout Sears homes. Our stairway between the first and second floors uses these blocks, but the basement stairs have a much simpler molding that wouldn’t have required as unusual cuts.

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Doors and doorknobs– we have confirmed that one of the Sears hardware options for a house of this year (1928) would have been the Narcissus (below), which is consistent to both interior and exterior doors of the house. Our back patio doors are not original, so if I see another set of these at a salvage yard (fingers and toes crossed it will be a french door set!) I will swap them out and make them all match.

Some hinges and latches– I outlined in this post some of the trials of getting the original bathroom hardware back into shape (and here, some of the dining room). The notable thing about the bathroom fixtures was that, under all the paint and rust, the latches were nickel plated brass, which is noted on the original catalog page (above). We also have all the original ball tipped door hinges, although that isn’t really a defining characteristic of a Sears house– they were very common.

Attic windows– we actually haven’t been up here since we bought the house, but are planning on turning it into living space this spring/summer. One thing I did notice immediately was the original semi-circle mirrors on both sides, which is consistent with the original images in the catalog. We have one basement window and one stairway window that are original as well, but they are less distinctive. These windows don’t prove it is a Sears house, but comparing our house to the catalog sketch, they are a quick reference that helps us match it up.

We have a few other original touches, like the medicine cabinet, hardwood floors, and stairs, but they would be hard to identify vs. a non-kit home from the same era. An interesting note is that our floors do follow the same pattern as the catalog says they should– oak in the living and dining rooms and the entryway, maple in the kitchen and bathroom, and yellow pine everywhere else. When we first moved in I thought it was fascinating that every room, even the bathroom, had hardwoods– but they weren’t all the same. I assumed that they had been changed at some point in the home’s history. But looking back it seems that they are all totally original (except in our 1/2 bath downstairs which was made by combining a coat closet and space for an ice box in the kitchen– the floors in there are clearly different which makes sense since it was a combination of two different rooms)

Do you have a Sears house? Is anything fun still left in original condition? I’d love to see photos!

Cheers,

 v

As a disclaimer,  just because I truly care about the history of this house and want to see how it was originally built, in all its glory, does not make me a professional nor a preservationist. I want to maintain charm in my house but don’t necessarily feel like I need to stick 100% to period for things like furnishings and paint colors. This blog is primarily about our tales of renovating/decorating, and sometimes I don’t choose to go with what’s traditional. I will never take something original OUT of the house, but when it comes to bringing IN new things, sometimes I want to put my own stamp on it since, after all, it is my house. Just in case you stumbled here by Google search and are looking to see a full to-period restoration of a 1928 house, I’m sorry but I can’t promise that. I do mostly shop vintage but sometimes will choose a mid-century or victorian piece to mix in with the deco and dutch colonial stylings of the rest of the house.

Our home came in the mail! (Part I)

When I tell people that we live in a Sears kit home, I get mixed responses. About 75% of the time it’s a blank stare. A what? Another few will say they have heard of kit homes and know some basic info about them, but the real house geeks– the historians and preservationists and even a few contractors– are floored by this information. Once I mention it, a huge grin appears and they start rattling off facts about how these quality kit homes transformed the market, and what a joy it is to see or work on one in person. This brings a smile to my face as well… I could talk about the history of our house forever. But for the first two groups, here’s a 5 minute history lesson on Sears, Roebuck & Co kit houses.

The alternate purpose of this set of posts is for anyone searching for interior original features of kit homes. In my search, I’ve only been able to find three other houses of our model (the Van Dorn), and only two (kind of uninformative) interior photos. Many Sears homes have similar interior features, so maybe by adding ours to the directory I can help someone else who is hoping to restore theirs. I love seeing the interiors of other kit homes– how they’ve changed over the years and what has been kept original, so if you are in the same boat, I’d love to see your photos too!

Anyways, the history of Sears homes… as promised!

Between 1908 and 1940, Sears, Roebuck & Co. offered 447 (some say 370) different styles of mail order, pre-cut, build-it-yourself kit homes. They sent out regular catalogs and customers could arrange to have an entire house– everything from the plans and lumber to the paint and nails– delivered via rail to their town. Although detailed records were destroyed when the department finally closed, it’s estimated that about 75,000 “Modern Homes” were sold. They’re often compared to Ikea, in that they were to be assembled by the purchaser in small parts from a sheet of directions, but this comparison leaves out the ridiculously high-quality materials that were included with a Sears kit. For example, our 1928 Van Dorn still has the original floors, and not only do they still look brand new, but they actually look higher quality than the hardwood that is put in houses today. Rosemary Thornton explains in The Houses that Sears Built that the location of the company’s Illinois mill was well-positioned for top-of-the-line wood, and their choice to pre-cut allowed them to trim around imperfections and knots to get the most usable wood from each piece. A comparable hardwood floor today would be made from lower quality, newer growth trees. It’s pretty unbelievable for such a behemoth of a company to pay attention to the little details, but they did.

The idea behind the homes wasn’t to revolutionize the style of the quintessential American home. Most catalog styles were appropriate to period (the post-Victorian aesthetic was mainly simple bungalows and colonial revival) but tend to look very similar to architect-built houses, which makes actually identifying a kit house pretty difficult. The Arts & Crafts Society has a quick checklist to identifying Sears kit houses, in case you’re wondering if you’re in possession of one. One of the ideas behind the kit homes was just to sell simple blueprints for stylish homes that “a man of average abilities” could assemble in 90 days. This removed the need for pricey contractors, architects, or carpenters, and took the guesswork out of assembly, while guaranteeing a quality home. Perhaps even more valuable was the way that it enhanced the “American Dream”– not only could a new class of people own a home, but they could pour their own labor into it, making it truly one of a kind and special. Can you even imagine the modern-day liability of telling the “average” person he could build his own house? It definitely wasn’t the world we live in today.

The kind of surprising thing to keep in mind, in contrast to the idea that these were the Ikea of houses, they actually weren’t that inexpensive or basic. At the time, it was a small luxury (depending on the model) to have a house like this sent to you. Ornaments like moldings and millwork were standard in many plans and the materials were extremely high quality. The houses still saved customers many architect and skilled contractor fees, and helped lower income workers with easy payment plans (yes, Sears did pre-FHA private mortgages), allowing many people to buy houses that they wouldn’t been able to afford otherwise, but that didn’t make them slummy or cheap. I’ve traced back the origins of our house, and it was originally built by a large auto shop owner and commissioner of the nearby airport. Not a poor man, but not a millionaire either. Sears offered smaller, simpler cottages as well, but where they actually succeeded the most was bringing new, modern amenities to those outside of big cities. Around the turn of the century, that was water-tight roofs and solid (non-dirt) floors. Then, electricity and indoor plumbing (I love the ad below: Consider the advantages of plumbing in your home! Why, I don’t mind if I do). The Sears architects and designers would also alter any home at no charge, which allowed custom projects like additions, built-ins, and nicer finishes for wealthier clients. They also offered furnishing solutions from the Sears catalog (pretty genius marketing there, huh?)

Sears home parts were pre-cut near Chicago and shipped around the country via rail. So the most common places to find these homes are elsewhere in Illinois, around the midwest, or somewhere along a convenient rail line, usually in suburban or smaller urban neighborhoods that developed between the turn of the century and the 1930s (although many rail lines have been torn out since then, and some houses were shipped by other methods, so there are exceptions). Sometimes, in bustling company-driven towns, an employer would even buy dozens of kit homes and build an entire community for their workforce! I can’t say I’d mind that perk.

Sears homes could be outfitted with the newest technologies– indoor plumbing, central heat, and electricity. Of course, the earliest models weren’t, and later models could be ordered with or without (with a $23 outhouse being an optional add-on for rural customers). Luxury amenities like this were nice for homebuilders, but are just as nice now. Whereas a slightly older c.1900 Victorian would have been retrofitted with plumbing and electricity (and possibly done shoddily or resulting in a bizarre layout), the “Modern” kit homes still feel perfectly up-to-date with decent wiring and well-planned room flow. Our house still has the original 1928 wiring but we’ve been told by our inspector and a trusted electrician that it currently poses no danger and is still in good shape. [sidenote: a previous owner did update the main electrical box in the basement at some point, and some grounding wires have been put in, but the basic room-to-room wiring is original– cloth covered Greenfield, not knob-and-tube. But those details would depend on the era and who was building the house.] The houses were also built with a drywall product (Goodwall sheet plaster), which was easy to install and inexpensive. When we have contractors in our home, they try to convince me that the house was originally plaster and lathe, because of the age. The TV installer, in particular, assured me that he would need a complicated wiring and mounting rig for the wall-mount, and was shocked when he cut into 80 year old drywall. He tried to cover by claiming it must have been added on recently. Maybe I should send him a book 🙂

Houses ranged from ~$200-$8,000 and could even be customized or even totally reversed to suit the customer’s preference. So finding your house in an old catalog isn’t always as easy as finding the identical picture. Especially when 100 years of owners have put their own touches, extensions, renovations, and damages on top of it. In the next post I’ll talk about some of the original touches we’ve found helpful in identifying ours, but if you are looking for a more comprehensive guide, check out Houses By Mail.

 

I can get lost for hours looking at photos online. I can’t post them all here, but for your own searching pleasure, here are my favorite resources:

Daily Bungalow Flickr Page [most of the photos in this post came from here, but since Flickr is so bad about linking directly to an image, I had to grab them and upload them to my Pinterest]

SearsHomes.org 

Sears Archive

The Arts & Crafts Society

In the next post, I’ll compile and write about some photos of the original touches in our house. Do you have a Sears house? Is anything fun still left in original condition? I’d love to see photos!

Cheers,

❤ v

As a disclaimer,  just because I truly care about the history of this house and want to see how it was originally built, in all its glory, does not make me a professional nor a preservationist. I want to maintain charm in my house but don’t necessarily feel like I need to stick 100% to period for things like furnishings and paint colors. This blog is primarily about our tales of renovating/decorating, and sometimes I don’t choose to go with what’s traditional. I will never take something original OUT of the house, but when it comes to bringing IN new things, sometimes I want to put my own stamp on it since, after all, it is my house. Just in case you stumbled here by Google search and are looking to see a full to-period restoration of a 1928 house, I’m sorry but I can’t promise that. I do mostly shop vintage but sometimes will choose a mid-century piece to mix in with the deco and dutch colonial stylings of the rest of the house.

Master Bedroom Inspiration Board

One of the reasons I initially dragged M to this open house was this closet. In older houses, closet space is like gold, and most of what’s out there looks more suited to a torture chamber than a nice home. Sure, we could add Elfa components like we did in Sutton, but the fact that these closets were already rehabbed meant that a previous owner had put some extra time and thought into their living arrangement, so I convinced him it was worth a look. (Previous owner’s belongings in photos below)

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Skip forward three months and we still love the master closet. The sliding barn door is so much more space efficient than having a door that swings out into the (small) room, and the combination of double rods and lots of drawers means we can actually share a closet without mangling each other’s belongings (when the door is closed, there are two more rows of tall drawers). The rest of the room kind of lays itself out. If you don’t want to block a window, you have to put the bed exactly where they did, and for us the dog crate fills the remainder of the room, where the previous owners kept a small dresser.

But the room still felt kind of un-homey, so here’s what I’m thinking for customizing and warming it up it a little:

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1. Paint it blue! This is basically my default for any bedroom. We had a red brick bedroom years ago and, while it was very nice for about a month, began to drive us crazy. It just wasn’t calming and made both of us feel anxious– something that you don’t really need in the bedroom. This ocean-y shade (Behr Provence Blue #HDC-AC-23) is a bit darker than our Sutton bedroom, but the idea is the same.

2. Add a tufted headboard! Actually, this one is kind of fake since we already have this headboard from Overstock. If you’re considering ordering it, beware– it really needs to be on a carpeted surface or else it won’t stay steady (lots of creaking and cracking in both rooms we’ve put it in). We also replaced the flimsy slats that the mattress sits on with a solid piece of plywood from Home Depot. (photo is of the similar Grid Tufted Headboard from West Elm)

3. Fun curtains! You can’t really tell in the photo above, but this room is the only one in the house to come with built in blinds. They’re the cheapy kind but still do the job. Kinda. Lots of light gets through which is normally ok, but I always like to have the option to darken a bedroom (other migraine sufferers will understand this plight), and I can’t resist adding a nice pattern to a simple room. These dotted chevron curtains are from West Elm.

4. A mirror! Normally, the place for this would be inside the closet door… but that doesn’t work in this space. This one from CB2 is ok, but I might keep my eye out for something vintage instead.

5. Reading lights! We have an outlet behind the bed, so I thought these Ikea sconces would be the perfect custom-looking additions. No need for any electrical work, but the bottoms of the cords will still be hidden by the bedside tables and the bed itself. With a super low-wattage bulb, M will be able to read in bed without me yelling at him. I hope.

6. Custom drawer pulls! As much as I love our custom full-wall closet, I hate the pulls. Between all three bedrooms, there are nearly three dozen massive ugly Ikea pulls and knobs. Since part of my goal is to bring this house back to it’s 1928 glory, brushed stainless modern pulls are not going to suffice. But pulls this large are fantastically expensive– the ones in the bedroom are 7″ and 16″ center to center, and most decent looking pulls that size are in the $50-200 range. That’s ~$2000-7000 to replace something most people won’t even notice. Yeah, no thanks. So this past weekend I tested spray painting one of the extra SNEJD pulls with black Krylon Duo, to try and give it a powder coated look. It’s actually pretty sweet. The black-on-white look is becoming a theme (this room is right next to the bathroom) and is an easy, nearly free, weekend project.

7. Artwork! As a (former) screenprinter, I love putting handmade work anywhere that I can. Especially epic handmade work from a studio in Brooklyn that embraces M’s love of New York’s Dutch past (oh hey, we live in a Dutch Colonial, isn’t that cute?). I first saw this Pop Chart Lab piece in Anna’s bathroom over at Door Sixteen, and snagged one of the last remaining ones on their Etsy page.

I’m liking this mood board thing and might do a few more for other rooms, but I promise we’re making actual progress and I’ll have updated photos soon. Yay!

❤ v

Kitchen Inspiration

Like the other rooms, the kitchen in the new house isn’t particularly gross or terrible. It’s a kitchen. It was done probably in the 90’s and the cabinets were painted white relatively recently (probably when the appliances were updated). It’s fine. I can cook a meal there. The light is good. Otherwise, it’s kind of a yawn.

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When I look in, all I can think are the obnoxious couples on House Hunters exclaiming “stainless steel appliances! granite counters! … love the white cabinets!”… while I sit on my TV at home grumbling that they are the problem.

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Every kitchen in America doesn’t need to be identical. There is no reason for stainless in here– it honestly looks kind of cheap and already outdated. It just screams “default choice!”… I actually dig the black dishwasher and wish the other appliances matched that. Also, the cabinets are 2” from reaching the ceiling which drives.me.nuts. As soon as I can get a carpenter in here (or just some 2x2s and a hand saw), these babies will extend to the ceiling. No reason at all for that terrible dust-catching gap.

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Meanwhile, the fridge wall is just kind of awkward. I guess they couldn’t find a matching upper cabinet, so somebody had the genius idea to mount this particleboard open shelf from Ikea. Once again– does not fit the house at all. Does not reach the ceiling. Does not allow for space above to actually be used for things. Can you tell this has been peeving me since we first walked in the house??

I’d really like to restore this back to a dutch colonial revival vibe, so here’s my plan/inspiration:

All pulls and knobs switched out. Cast iron or oil rubbed bronze bin pulls? Or something equally rustic. Leaded glass seems to be traditional for a house this age (we have some in the dining room), but I’m not sold yet.

Rip out that Ikea corner shelf and add some open shelving– perhaps with rustic wood and dark metal.

Add some beadboard. The bathrooms already have it, and I don’t feel like dealing with a tile backsplash (nor do I think it’s period appropriate).

Rip out the laminate-topped peninsula and find some rustic/recycled wood to make it a real usable island. Would also love to find a cabinet to fit under the kitchen side, for extra storage.

Paint the cabinets? White just bugs me. I honestly wish they were a wood tone. But since they’re already painted, maybe a light blue, gray, or black.

M likes the light fixtures, I think they look cheap. If I had my way, they would be brass and black enamel, like these:

In my dream world I’d love to also replace the sink (the enamel has worn off and it’s a bizarre bisque color that doesn’t match anything, plus it’s tiny), but that sounds like something I have to wait a while for.

I think that’s it! Wish me luck 🙂

❤ v