Join Date: Apr 2007
Sears mail order homes
The article includes a photo of the house, today (much modified) as well as a page from the original Sears' catalog.
IN a 1926 advertisement in its Modern Homes catalog, Sears, Roebuck ballyhooed a mail-order home called the Verona as follows:
?Dutch Colonial with four bedrooms, one full bath and a lavatory; up-to-date kitchen with folding ironing board that disappears into the wall and other amenities for the housewife; vegetable and fruit storage rooms in basement; welcoming reception hall, front portico of colonial red brick; ?a high-class home.? Asking price, $4,347.?
Today, an advertisement for the same house ? for instance the one owned by Alexis and David Downs here in the Riverview Manor section of Hastings-on-Hudson ? would not mention a folding ironing board, let alone a housewife. Instead of vegetable and fruit storage rooms, it might write temptingly of a ?large finished basement, perfect for a home theater.?
But in several ways ? notably curb appeal ? the house has retained its original character.
Naturally, the same cannot be said of the price. ?If it were on the market now,? said Arthur G. Riolo, a co-owner of Peter J. Riolo Real Estate in Hastings, ?I?d list it at between $1.4 million and $1.5 million. But then everything?s gone up over the years. Gas used to be 27 cents a gallon, a candy bar 5 cents.?
But what is especially notable about Sears houses, said Amy R. Pappas, co-curator of the New Castle Historical Society?s current exhibit on them, is how well they have withstood 80 years? worth of shifts in architectural styles and tastes.
Nine houses are featured in the society?s show, but Sears, which sold them from 1908 to 1940, offered 447 architect-designed models ? from ?a modest little home to a mansion,? according to an ad in one catalog. Most of them were priced from about $725 to $2,500, although some of the larger models like the Verona sold for more than $4,000.
It is estimated that more than 100,000 Sears homes were sold in the United States, said Norman T. MacDonald, the president of the historical society in Ossining, which so far has documented 115. They were especially popular in the Northeast and Northern Midwest states, areas that were undergoing suburban growth at the time, according to Gray Williams, New Castle?s historian.
The houses were shipped via railroad boxcar in pieces ? some 30,000 of them, not including nails and screws ? then assembled on site. Often the new homeowners did the building, with help from friends and neighbors, although some hired local workers, said Nancy O?Neil, the other curator for the exhibit.
Sears employed what was called ?balloon style? framing, which used precut timber and fitted pieces, and did not require a team of skilled carpenters. In addition to financing, Sears sold furnishings and provided home-decorating advice.
?If you look at the layout in the catalog,? said Ms. Downs, the Hastings homeowner, ?it?s still essentially the same today, and it still works, because it?s just a great family house.? She and her husband, a television executive, who have two children, have lived there for 15 years.
?It?s a substantial house, not ostentatious and very welcoming in a basic American kind of way,? added Ms. Downs, a college English instructor.
Over the years, the house has undergone a series of renovations, as many kit houses have, said Jackie Wilke, who lived in the Hastings house for 22 years with her husband, Hubert, and also raised two children there.
For a before-and-after article in the 1950s, Ladies? Home Journal renovated the kitchen, combining the maid?s room, a half bath, the previous kitchen and the butler?s pantry into what it called ?a three-generation kitchen where mom could cook, grandma could arrange flowers at a special sink and the kids could do their homework,? said Mrs. Wilke, a former member of the Hastings Historical Society.
She and her husband, the third owners, bought the house in 1969 for about $60,000, but not through a real estate broker. Instead, one afternoon while visiting a friend?s home, Mr. Wilke admired the Sears house across the way and decided to knock on the front door to see if the owners, whose children were grown, might consider selling it. (Retired from their work as communications consultants, Mr. and Mrs. Wilke now live at Kendal on Hudson, a continuing-care retirement community in Sleepy Hollow.)
They sold the house to Mr. and Mrs. Downs for about $600,000 in the early 1990s.
In the 1930s, during the Depression, the housing market took a sharp downturn, and by 1940, Sears stopped selling kit homes, as many people had lost their jobs and defaulted on their loans. In 1934, Sears liquidated more than $11 million in mortgages and stopped financing kit purchases.
?Because Sears did not want to be known as a heartless corporation that took people?s homes from them,? said Ms. Pappas, the curator in New Castle, ?it absorbed most of the losses.?
In Ossining, as elsewhere these days, Sears house price increases have generally kept pace with the times, said Greg Kane, an owner-broker at Kane & Associates. One, a model called the Dundee, with four rooms and a front porch, sold for $733 to $1,400 in the 1920s; these days it would get at least $430,000, Mr. Kane said. (It now has two extra bedrooms, an expanded kitchen and a two-car detached garage.)
According to Mr. MacDonald, Ossining had ?a lot of working-class people here who were employed in factories along the Hudson River, and Sears offered these houses with loans, so they were very easy to obtain.? He added, ?You don?t find as many of them in more affluent communities like Scarsdale and Rye.?
Ms. Pappas said her society had been unable to determine how many Sears houses exist in Westchester ? possibly, she theorized, because some residents may not want admit that they live in a catalog house.
Source: Hastings-on-Hudson / Sears House - It arrived in an awfully big kit
- By Elsa Brenner, The New York Times