Saturday, September 17, 2016

Three Aladdin Bungalows: Pomona, Detroit, and Sunshine

Cover of the Fall 1919 Aladdin Homes catalog
Aladdin Homes were pre-cut kit houses sold out of Bay City, Michigan, made by the Aladdin Company, who began their home-kit business in 1906 -- this pre-dates Sears catalog homes by a couple of years, as Sears first offered homes in their catalogs in 1908.  The 1908 Sears homes were not pre-cut kits... the lumber was sent in standard lengths, requiring that the home builder cut each piece to fit.  As I understand it, though, Aladdin homes, even as early as 1906, were sold as a pre-cut kit, and, in fact, Aladdin claimed to be the developer of the pre-cut system, which they called "Readi-cut". You can learn more about the history of the Aladdin Homes company in this informative and concise blog post by Lara Solonickne, at Sears Homes of Chicagoland, and read more here, on Wikipedia, or here, at the Clarke Historical Library of Central Michigan University (where you can also see pdf files of Aladdin catalogs from 1908 to 1954).
A page inside my 1918 Aladdin catalog.
In our research group, we have lately been working from a long spreadsheet listing thousands of 1919 through 1933 sales for Aladdin homes throughout the country. The list gives us the year, the name of the purchaser (often with only initials for the first name), the city, and the model name.  Andrew and Wendy Mutch (of Kit House Hunters) went to the Clarke Historical Library (mentioned above) and photographed hand-written sales records.  Wendy spent hours and hours and hours transcribing the list into a spreadsheet, and she and Andrew have graciously shared this amazing resource with our group.  

Speaks to Aladdin's history as the developer of the pre-cut system ("Readi-cut").
From my 1918 catalog.
Research Challenges
Many of the sales on the list are for garages, which we don't usually try to hunt down, and many are for summer cottages in coastal or vacation areas, and we assume that many of those are gone at this point... but, more to the point, they are almost impossible for us to find, because we use census and city-directory and newspaper resources to try to link the name of the purchaser to an address where we might find the house.  If the house was a vacation cottage, or a rental cottage, or a rental home, the primary-home address for the purchaser won't help us locate the structure.  

This is what our list looks like, showing, here, three garages of the model that Aladdin named Buick.
The Buick garage, as shown in the 1918 catalog.
Interesting description -- remember, automobiles were still a pretty new thing in 1918!
Another challenging issue is that, the older the home, the less likely it is for it to be still standing (the 1919 homes are a challenge, but we're finding many), and, homes built in the early 1930s were too-often lost by the purchaser during the Great Depression. As a result,  we often find that the address given for that purchaser, in the 1940 census, is not that of the home they had bought in, say, 1931, and hoped to live in for years to come. We often find that they are listed as renters by the 1940 census (the census is done only every 10 years).  City directories are usually updated every year or two, but many of these homes were built in rural small towns, and we usually mostly have access to city directories for cities and large towns. 

This is the Bay City, Michigan address given for Joseph Auer, in the 1920 census -- 140 Fillmore Place. Is this garage in the back yard the original 10 X 16 Buick by Aladdin? Hmm. Doubtful! If it is, it has new doors, that's for sure.
Purchases in rural communities present an additional challenge, as those communities often did not assign street numbers to houses back in the first half of the 1900s, so, both the census and the city directory might just give "Blake Street", or, worse still, "farm" (yikes!).  On top of that, we have to find these houses using Google or Bing maps streetview, and those rural areas are often not on street view.

aladdin plaza
Here, for example, is a barely-still-there Aladdin Plaza that I found via a sales record, but had no good address for in the small town of Lisman, Alabama. Sometimes, if the town is small enough, you land on the house just by Google-driving around the town.  Also, Google streetview is sometimes grainy and dark in these small towns, because they don't do it as often, and the images are from several years before this technology improved.

Three Houses From Our Sales List

Aladdin Pomona (1919)
612 Main Street • Greenfield, Illinois (backing to East street).
aladdin pomona 1918 catalog
I believe this is from my 1918 catalog.
aladdin pomona greenfield illinois
Authenticated 1919 Aladdin Pomona, Greenfield, Illinois
The house sits with its side to Pine Street, at 612 Main Street
(its rear driveway enters off of East Street).

The funny thing about finding this house, is that I found it by chance, and before I knew of it being on our sales list.  Greenfield, Illinois, is a small town about an hour and a half from St. Louis.  My husband needed to go there one day this spring, and I was trying to find where the town square was, using Google streetview, so that I could give him directions.  Even though it's a small town, it has lots of streets to drive around when you have no idea where the town square is, and just by chance, I came upon this house!  Then, I noticed on the sales list, that there was a Pomona sale to someone in  Greenfield, Illinois.  This is it!

This house was bought by Frank J. Meng, and his wife, Bessie.  They were only 26 and 28 when they had this great little bungalow built, and it might have been the impending birth of their first child, Marie, that spurred them on to build.  Their second child, William, was born about three years later. Frank is listed on the census as a merchant in a general store, and it says that he worked "on his own account", so I'm assuming that he ran the general store in town.

Floor Plans
The Pomona had two floor plan options. Pomona #1 was a single-story layout. Pomona #2 had a small second floor added, to add on two bedrooms. To accommodate access to an upper floor, the layout of the first floor was given a little tweaking, and things are arranged a bit differently. You can see the two versions, below:

aladdin pomona floor plan 1st floor
The catalog shows this great 3-D version of what the 1st floor looks like, of Pomona #1 (single floor only).

The catalog also shows what the Pomona's dining room and living room might look like:

aladdin pomona dining room 1918
Pomona #2 floor plan had the addition of two upstairs bedrooms,
but, also a few changes were made to the layout of the first floor.
aladdin pomona living room
And this shows the living room as it might look in someone's Pomona.
The Pomona looks like a pretty spacious bungalow. Here are a few more views of the Meng's home, thanks to Google streetview-- it looks like those are the original windows, the same ones with the ornamental lead design, as shown in the catalog image:
aladdin pomona in greenfield illinois

aladdin pomona in greenfield illinois

aladdin pomona in greenfield illinois
It looks like the house had an enclosed porch extension put on behind the kitchen, as the Pomona doesn't usually extend back this far.

Aladdin Detroit (1919)
1441 Washington Street • Northampton, Pennsylvania
Home of William and Ellen Brown
aladdin detroit
Aladdin Detroit • 1918 catalog
aladdin detroit
This authenticated Detroit in Northampton, Pennsylvania, was bought by William and Ellen Brown.  William worked as an engineer in a cement factory, according to the 1930 census.

The Detroit's floor plan, as shown in, I believe, the 1918 catalog.
Once again, the catalog shows a depiction of what the Detroit's living and dining room might look like.

aladdin detroit
I believe that the Aladdin Detroit doesn't normally have that small extension off of the back like this, so that must be added. 
aladdin detroit

Aladdin Sunshine (1919)
6506 Emma Avenue, Jennings, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis)
Ordered by Charles and Hilda Toennies
The Aladdin Sunshine, as shown in the 1917 catalog
Authenticated Aladdin Sunshine • 1919. It looks like Mr. and Mrs. Toennies chose to reverse the floor plan,
since the dining room bump out is on this side.They chose to forego the fireplace, as well.

aladdin sunshine st louis mo

aladdin sunshine catalog cover

Charles Toennies was a shirt cutter, in a shirt factory, and he and his wife Hilda lived here, with their son, Charles H.

Options Shown Inside The Aladdin Catalog
Inside the 1917 catalog, you can see the choices in colonnades, arches, buffets, and mantle bookcases, that Aladdin offered.  Any of these might have been bought for inside of our Pomona, Detroit, or Sunshine:

I love the Aladdin door knob and surround! I believe that every Aladdin home shipped with hardware like this. I love that leaf pattern.

If you know of any other Aladdin homes -- or anything about any kit home -- please leave a comment, or contact me via the "contact me" spot on the side column of the blog.  I'll be posting more of my Aladdin finds, soon.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

L. J. Steffens: St. Louis Architect for Sears

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 15, 1931, p.39
Sears-Roebuck began heavily advertising their home construction division in St. Louis, around 1930, and, in 1931, they named St. Louis architect Lawrence J. Steffens as their division architect.

Though Sears had been offering their pre-cut catalog homes via mail order since the 19-teens (and before that, for non pre-cut), and though , before 1930, there were Sears catalog homes built in the St. Louis area, with mortgages through Sears, the big advertising push really began in earnest in 1930. In fact, I didn't find one single newspaper advertisement for Sears Modern Homes before 1930, in any St. Louis newspapers, but the ads are there regularly in the early 1930s.  And, one of the things that Sears heavily advertised in local St. Louis papers (like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Star and Times), was their new (as of 1930) service of helping the homeowner build whatever home they had their heart set on-- not limited to designs offered in the Sears Modern Homes catalog -- and, that included providing the services of a Sears-employed architect to help them put together the design that suited their fancy. In St. Louis, that architect was often L. J. Steffens.

This ad appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 17, 1931, page 48
The ad above is the first I have ever seen, touting "solid brick" as an option for a home built by Sears. We researchers have steadfastly insisted on reminding each other, and our readers, that Sears homes are never of solid brick.... but, this changes that statement. Let's amend that to say: Sears stock catalog mail-order homes were never of solid brick (because Sears did not supply or ship brick... even homes of brick veneer had their brick out-sourced from a supplier local to the homeowner's building site), but there are, apparently, solid brick homes that are Sears-(custom) designed, Sears-financed, and Sears-built.  The home pictured below, is one that I featured in a blog post about St. Louis homes that had Sears mortgages, but that did not look like homes from the catalog. Recognize it? It is very similar to the one pictured in the ad, above.  It's probable that it was designed by a Sears-employed architect, and it was definitely built and financed through Sears.
5715 Neosho, St. Louis, Missouri
This house was built in 1932,  for Mr. & Mrs. E. H. Layton, financed with a $6, 000 mortgage through Sears.
Another ad, in the "BUILDERS" section of the St. Louis Star and Times, March 27, 1931, advertised these services in the classified section of the paper:

The May 17, 1931 ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch continued, in its bottom half, to emphasize that Sears would plan, finance, build, and guarantee any home -- "regardless of size or cost", and that "one single order ... brings you the services of experienced architects...." The architect that I saw, time and again, linked to Sears-built, and sometimes Sears-financed homes shown in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the early 1930s, was L. J. Steffens.  

Here is the bottom half of that May 1931 ad.

St. Louis Sears Homes Designed By Sears Architect L. J. Steffens
Let's take a look at some of the St. Louis area homes that I found advertised in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, throughout the early 1930s, as Sears-financed, Sears-built, and designed by Sears-employed architect L. J. Steffens.  Several of them are actually homes that I featured in my earlier blog post about Sears-financed homes in St. Louis that were not from the catalog.  I wondered, then, which of them were also designed by a Sears architect, and now I have the answer.

425 Parkwoods, Kirkwood, Missouri
Financed, designed, and built by Sears, with $12,500 of financing over two mortgages, built in 1932 for Mr. & Mrs. Dallas M. Smith.
Architect: L. J. Steffens
Sears Catalog Model that has similar elements: Kenfield
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 5, 1932, page 37
More photos can be seen in my earlier blog post, here.
One of the things that we have noticed about homes designed by Steffens, for Sears customers, is that they often look like enlarged and customized versions of smaller houses offered in the catalog. The Dallas Smith house, above, has many similarities to the Sears Kenfield:

933 N. Elizabeth, Ferguson, Missouri
Partially financed in 1933 with a $6,000 Sears mortgage, by Mr. & Mrs. Frank J. and Mathilda B. Winter, completed in 1934.
Architect: L. J. Steffens
Sears Catalog Model that has similar elements: 5-window Lexington
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 3, 1934, page 19

This was probably my most surprising, and most rewarding find.  I had written about this house in a blog post about a Sears Lebanon in Ferguson, Missouri.  A good way into the blog, I wrote about the fact that this house had been previously identified, by Rosemary Thornton, as a Sears Lexington. I , and other researchers, were completely puzzled as to why she would be sure that this was a Lexington, when it is 8 feet deeper, two feet wider, had much bigger windows in the front, had many more windows than it should on each side (in a much different configuration than it should) and had eyebrow dormers (which not a single Sears catalog home has).  At best, we thought it might be a customized home based loosely on the Lexington, but Rose hadn't put it forth with any explanation like that. 

Then, there it was, on the pages of the 1934 St. Louis Post-Dispatch! And, not only is it, as we thought, not a true Lexington at all, but a customized home designed by L. J. Steffens, based somewhat on the front elevation look of a Lexington, but... it was the house that I had a mortgage for, for Mathilda B. Winter.  In that previous blog post, I explained that I had finally linked the Winters to a house at 1000 N. Elizabeth (thanks to a 1936 St. Louis County directory), but that there was no longer any house at that address... the address does not exist.  But, the Post-Dispatch photo's caption gave this house the address of 1000 N. Elizabeth. It now sits at 933 N. Elizabeth.
St. Louis County directory for N. Elizabeth Avenue, Ferguson, Missouri
Circa 1936

412 Alta Dena Court, University City, Missouri
Built in 1933 for Mr. & Mrs. L. H. Riley.
Architect: L. J. Steffens
Sears Catalog Model that has similar elements: Lynnhaven

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 22, 1933, page 19
412 Alta Dena Court, University City, Missouri
This home is not authenticated as a Sears home, because Sears was not mentioned in the newspaper as being the supplier of the financing or design, it only mentions L. J. Steffens as architect.  However, it is clearly a take on the Sears Lynnhaven (or Belmont, as the brick version is called). The Alta Dena Court home differs in that the Lynnhaven is never shown with half-timber accents, and the Lynnhaven does not have the attached garage area.  This home is also 5 feet wider than a standard Lynnhaven, and 3 feet deeper (see floor plan comparison, below).  So, either L. J. Steffens designed this for the Rileys in his capacity as a Sears-employed architect, or... he just boldly used the Sears Lynnhaven design as the basis for the design of the Riley's home, without Sears' knowledge or permission, after he had left the employ of Sears (I don't know when that was).
Definitely the same window configuration on this side.

6225 Itaska Street, St. Louis, Missouri
Financed, designed, and built by Sears, with $9,600 mortgage, built in 1932 for C. L. Brennaaun
Architect: L. J. Steffens
Sears Catalog Model that is the same: Hillsboro
This is the authenticated Hillsboro that I blogged about here.
This home doesn't appear to be customized in any way, but L. J. Steffens must have been the architect of record on the building plans, as a Sears-employed architect.

5651 Neosho Street, St. Louis, Missouri
Financed, designed, and built by Sears, with 2 mortgages totaling $6,150.00, for Mr. & Mrs. L. J. Walz.
Architect: L. J. Steffens
Sears Catalog Model that has similar elements(None)
From the November 29, 1931 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, page 37.   I also have the records for a mortgage for L. J. Walz, lot 16 of this block, and he lived at this address on Neosho.

brick house with front chimney with two windows on either side and door set back from the front
5651 Neosho St, St. Louis (City), Missouri (lot 16, block 5695)
Home of Leon J. Walz and wife Sara
Leon worked for the railroad.

6245 Itaska Street, St. Louis, Missouri
Financed, designed, and built by Sears, with $9,600 mortgage, built in 1932 for Eugene M. Hahnel
Architect: L. J. Steffens
Sears Catalog Model that has similar elements(None) (UPDATE 2022: This home was earlier shown in this January 2016 blog post of mine, about custom houses sold by Sears.)

newspaper story showing home of eugene hahnel custom design by sears
Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 10, 1932, page 23

front view of brick veneer home with center entrance with four sets of double windows on either side and a single window above
6245 Itaska Street, St. Louis, Missouri, St. Louis Hills neighborhood
(updated photo from May 2022 Google Streetview)
This house doesn't resemble any of the catalog homes that Sears offered.

Eugene M. Hahnel was the music supervisor for the St. Louis Public Schools, where he had worked since 1913. In 1932, he married Nellie Boswell, a music teacher in one of the St. Louis Public Schools, whom he had known many years earlier, as a student. Sadly, they separated in October of 1939, and she sued for divorce in February of 1940.
newspaper snippet of engagement announcement eugene m hahnel and nellie boswell st louis 1932
St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 17 1932, page 11

newspaper image of bride Nellie Boswell announcing marriage to Eugene M Hahnel
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 26, 1932, page 17

newspaper article february 1940 nellie boswell sues for divorce from eugene m. hahnel
St. Louis Globe-Democrat, February 18, 1940, page 6

The Story Of A Faux Elmhurst
I recently learned of another St. Louis area Elmhurst, thanks to a real estate listing that was brought to my attention, so I went by and snapped a few photos of the exterior:
1320 Midland Drive, University City, Missouri
Probable Sears Elmhurst

This is the expected look of the doorway and stairs area
(although we don't usually see it in sponge-painted teal).
•Photo courtesy of Realtor's photos
EDIT: March 27, 2017
The Elmhurst above has had a little bit of a facelift, including exterior paint, and fresh, neutral paint inside:

Now, on to the story of the faux Elmhurst:
Along with mention of that house that is most surely an Elmhurst (and a nice find), I understand that it was suggested that this 1926 house on another street in University City is thought to be a custom Elmhurst:
7219 Cornell Avenue, University City, Missouri • 1926
Not a customized Sears Elmhurst.  Not a Sears house.  
Here's another house in the neighborhood... look familiar?

7112 Northmoor, University City, Missouri • 1926
Also not a customized Sears Elmhurst. Not a Sears house.

These two houses are similar to each other, because they were both offered by the same company, in 1926... almost four years before the Elmhurst (designed by THE chief Sears architect in Chicago, David S. Betcone) was presented in catalogs:
"Just being completed...."... on October 17, 1926.
The Elmhurst was first presented in the brick supplement catalog of 1929.
And, here is the same company, right around the same time, offering up the house at 7219 Cornell:
Again, "Just being completed....", in November of 1926.
And, just to reinforce that these houses were not just being built in 1929, here are two newspaper mentions of them being bought, one in 1926, and one in 1927:

So, while that is all that we need to know to discount these two houses as custom versions of the Elmhurst, it's also important to note the following, just in general, about the concept of seeing a house that has major design element differences from a Sears model, and thinking it is just a different version of a catalog model from Sears:

Newspaper accounts state that, before 1930, Sears was only selling stock homes from the catalogs. That's not exactly true, as the 1918 and 1919 catalogs did offer to have the Sears architectural team draw up real plans from your dreams and wishes, but it does seem to apply to the 1920s. 
From Page 4 of the 1918 Sears Modern Homes catalog.
From the St. Louis Star and Times, March 27, 1930, page 23.
The advertisements for selling homes that Sears would custom design for you, did not appear in any newspaper in St. Louis before 1930, nor was there any mention of this service in the 1920s catalogs. Of course, Sears had long provided the service of supplying building materials (only) for customers who brought their own plans to Sears (and that began before Sears even began offering house plans in 1908), but we do not consider that a Sears house, in any way... it's just building materials shipped from Sears. Still kind of cool, but not considered a Sears house.

Here is the 1925 Sears Modern Homes catalog. If you take a look through it, you'll see that there is no mention of Sears offering to design a custom house for you (however, we do know of instances where they may have allowed the customer to select different windows, or slightly enlarge a home, or make small tweaks like that-- that is much different than designing a house with a very different exterior, or whole additional wings, or extra rooms, or the bathroom in a different spot, etc.).  If you have access to a 1921, 1923, 1926, 1927, 1928 or 1929 catalog, look through it... you'll see that nowhere, do they mention that they will work with you to design a custom house for you. That all comes back again--with gusto-- in the 1930 catalog. But, you wouldn't expect to see a middle-class 1920s house that is a custom design through a Sears architect.

I am not the first to point out that 1930 was the real start of pushing the custom homes concept:
From Lara Solonickne's Sears Homes of Chicagoland blog post from May 28, 2013.

We researchers try to avoid jumping to conclusions about houses that maybe share some characteristics of a Sears model. We are always pointing out to people that all of the houses of this era, by all of the companies, shared very similar design features. Most of us would never make the statement that a house is probably a custom Sears model, without concrete evidence documenting that the house was designed by a Sears employee.  We would never say that our "gut" tells us that it is one... or use some phrase like, "trust me, I'm sure it is" when all we have to go on, is similar design elements.  If someone tells you that about a house, without a shred of evidence... well... what do you think? 

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