Saturday, May 16, 2009
A Day With the Sears Homes
On the way home from Bedford, Christina and I were looking at old houses, wondering "what's under that facade?" Rosemary Thornton planted the question during her talk on the Sears kit homes today--before a surprising packed house. It was so full that the lecture had to be moved to a nearby elementary school gymnasium.
Ms. Thornton, an expert on the turn of the 20th Century kit homes (there were several manufacturers, Sears the most prominent), mentioned that most of the 70,000 Sears homes that were build were altered in one way or another on the way to today. Some were modified by the original builders, others getting needed or wanted alterations along the way. Many, many survive in middle and lower income sections of most cities and even some rural areas.
One observation I found fascinating is that Sears homes were made available to women, minorities and immigrants who could afford them (prices ranged from $500 to about $3,000 at the beginning in 1908) and most went in the $1,000 to $1,500 range. They came equipped with most of what you'd need, but there were no plumbing, electrical or masonry components. they were shipped in train box cars and had to be unloaded and taken to the building site in 24 to 48 hours. the homes had 30,000 or so pieces, so moving them was not a cinch.
Sears promised at the time that a "man with average ability" with tools could build a home in 90 days. The wood for the homes was yard yellow pine for the interior and first-growth cyprus for the exterior. The first-growth woods were considerably harder than pine and cypress of today because they grew slowly and more densely. I tore off a porch on our 85-year-old arts and crafts house last summer and replaced it with wood that was probably half as hard.
Thornton, who has written a couple of books on these homes, travels the country talking and looking for examples. She says she often literally dances in the street (to some strange looks on occasion) when she finds a good, little-altered example.