Saturday, January 16, 2021

Sears Houses In St. Louis, Missouri: What Is A Kit House?

 Sears, Roebuck and Co. 

"Are there any houses in St. Louis, built from a Sears house kit?"

This question was recently posed in a FaceBook group that focuses on St. Louis history. And, boy, did that post get some answers... 743 comments, last I saw (of course, probably 50 or more of those, are my comments, trying to clarify and correct some of the answers that were inaccurate). 

So, I thought... maybe it's time to do a definitive blog post about where, in fact, the Sears Modern Homes kit houses are, that have been located in the city of St. Louis, and the limits of St. Louis County (I threw in the two known Sears houses that exist in St. Charles County, for good measure). And, if you scroll down further, I've also addressed the larger questions, "What is a kit house?" and, "If my house is not a kit house, then what is it?" 

A few catalog covers (1918 through the 1920s) for Sears Honor Bilt Modern Homes catalogs.

Here are some good facts to keep in mind:
  • Sears Modern Homes kits were sold from 1908 through about 1942, and they were not "pre-fab". They were homes built with normal construction methods, of solid, strong, excellent materials. Before 1916, the framing lumber in a Sears kit was shipped in a standard length, requiring the home builder to measure and cut on site, just like normal construction. After 1916, Sears began pre-cutting the framing lumber, and ink stamping the boards with a letter/number combo, to help the homebuilder follow the instructions to construct the house. The letter in the letter/number combo indicated what dimension lumber the piece was (2 X 4, 4 X 6, etc.). The kits included absolutely everything you would need to have a finished product (even bathtubs and windows and shingles and faucets and lighting fixtures, for example). The only thing that Sears did not ship, was masonry products (like plaster and brick and stone veneer), but they would hook you up with a local supplier for that. For more information on lots of facts and figures about Sears Modern Homes kit houses, check out blog posts by researcher Andrew Mutch, at his blog, Kit House Hunters. There is also some good, basic information in the Wikipedia article about Sears Modern Homes, here, as well.
  • There were other major kit-house companies during the era when Sears sold kit houses: Aladdin, Bennett, Gordon-Van Tine, Wardway, Sterling, Lewis, and Harris, for example. You can read more about them, here, on Wikipedia.
  • Enameled Steel house kits were NOT Sears kits. Those were from a slightly later era (late 1940s), and were marketed by the Lustron Corporation (there were some other companies, as well, but most of any that you'd see, would have been from Lustron). These are NOT IN ANY WAY affiliated with Sears. Here is a Wikipedia article about them; here is a Wikipedia article with a list of addresses of known Lustron houses; here is a Google map made by someone, placing all of the Lustron houses that he knows of. There are a couple of Face Book groups for folks interested in learning more about them, as well (one here, and another one here).
  • Sears Homart Kits, were another brand of Sears kits, sold only for a short period, post WWII. I'm no expert on them, but I do know that they were very different from the homes sold by Sears in their long-lived Sears Modern Homes era, and they had only a small number of models.  Homart kits were pre-fabricated, and shipped in sections, that the homeowner bolted together. Often, people who find that they have one of these houses, refers to it as a Sears kit house. I guess they are kits, and they are from Sears, but they are not what most of us are referring to when we say, "Sears kit house". There are some of these in the St. Louis area. The Homart kits that Sears sold, were available from about 1946-1952 (depending on your source). You can read more about them here, here, here, and here.
  • Gunnison pre-fab kit homes. St. Louis is home to a small neighborhood of pre-fab kit homes made by the Gunnison homes company, in 1949. Gunnison began selling their home kits in 1936, and continued for decades after that. Again, this is not my area of expertise, but I do know that some people who are aware of houses in this neighborhood in St. Louis, think that they are Sears kit houses. They are not, and are in no way affiliated with Sears. These Gunnison homes are on some blocks of Wanda Avenue and Haven Street (this link will take you to a Google map of the neighborhood). I found them through this 1949 newspaper article in the St. Louis Globe- Democrat. This blog post by Cindy Catanzaro, who writes the blog, Sears Houses In Ohio, explains a good bit, and shows some interesting things about Gunnison pre-fab houses. Here is a 17-minute promotional video about the making of Gunnison pre-fab kit home parts, at the factory. Here is a 1950 catalog of Gunnison Homes, on Flickr.
  • Manchester Buildings Pre-Fab kit houses. There was also a St. Louis maker of pre-fabricated houses, who operated as "Manchester Buildings" (again, remember, pre-fab houses were shipped to the homebuilder with sections of the walls already fabricated, and they were, then, ready to be bolted together by the homebuilder. Sears Modern Homes kit houses were NOT pre-fab houses, though their Homart kits were). Manchester marketed the houses as "Permanent Sectional Portable Buildings". Manchester had a small booklet of pre-fab kit houses available, in the 1920s and at least as late as 1930, and they also sold garages, and probably chicken coops. Here is my blog post about their catalog-cover model, the Oakdale model, in Glendale, and three other models, all on the same street as a Sears Crescent, in Rock Hill, Missouri, St. Louis County.

LIST OF SEARS MODERN HOMES In St. Louis City & St. Louis County
Here, then, is a list of all of the Sears Modern Homes kit houses that we have found, in the broad area of the city of St. Louis, and St. Louis County (and those two examples in St. Charles County).  Some people like to mention the huge collection of Sears Modern Homes in Carlinville, Illinois, when they speak of Sears Houses in the St. Louis area, but, given that Carlinville is a 90-minute drive from St. Louis County, in a different state, I don't include them in my list. Nor do I include the collection of homes in Wood River, Illinois (both towns had neighborhoods of Sears Modern Homes kits built by the Standard Oil Company, around 1918). Here is a good resource to see most of the Wood River Sears houses, and Rosemary Thornton has written several times about the Carlinville "Standard Addition" (here is one of those posts).

The list, below, gives you model names and addresses of 80 houses that we have located in the St. Louis area. There is no list of homes sold by Sears, as all of their records were discarded. I work with a group that maintains the national database of Sears Modern Homes found, to date, around the United States. I believe we're up to over 13,000 now. Our list, like the one I'm showing here of homes in the St. Louis area, are of homes that we have found, and that others have told us about. There are definitely more out there. We do a good bit of research trying to authenticate homes through mortgage records (Sears offered mortgages for many years of their Modern Homes program -- more info here, and here-- and that last link shows you a cool Sears Osborn in a small town in Missouri), and many of these St. Louis area homes have been authenticated by mortgage research that I have done, though some of them are not authenticated. 

Each house has a link that you can click on, that takes you to a resource to see the house (blog post, real estate listing, or Google map). Those in bold are ones that I have written blog posts about, and the link takes you to the blog post:

Clyde (bungalow)5119 WaldoAfftonNo
Somers8525 RosemaryAfftonYes
Winona5060 Lakewood AveAfftonYes
Hampton (Grant)2611 Rockford AveBrentwoodYes
Crescent (possible)825 N. ElizabethFergusonNo
Custom - Lexington style933 N ElizabethFergusonYes
Lebanon401 EstelleFergusonNo
Marina (2024)219 RobertaFergusonNo
Walton237 LouisaFergusonYes
No. 126 (only a "possible"...very likely NOT Sears, but a "lookalike"--possibly an Aladdin)905 N Jefferson StFlorissantNo
Hammond262 EdwinGlendaleNo
Lexington (five window)1380 N SappingtonGlendaleYes
Maplewood19 Elm AvenueGlendaleYes
Milford296 EdwinGlendaleYes
Parkside8837 BlewettJenningsYes
Sunlight7060 Emma AvJenningsYes
Adeline (now gone)215 E WoodbineKirkwoodYes
Brookwood (now gone)639 E. Jefferson AveKirkwoodYes
Cedars625 EvansKirkwoodYes
Crescent (possible & expanded)910 BerniceKirkwoodNo
Elsmore1350 Forest AveKirkwoodYes
Fairy318 W Rose HillKirkwoodYes
Fairy936 SimmonsKirkwoodYes
Hazelton?322 Central PlaceKirkwoodNo
Custom-Kenfield elements425 Parkwoods AveKirkwoodYes
Lexington (five window-customized)1308 S Geyer RdKirkwoodYes
Mayfield (now gone)557 S. HarrisonKirkwoodNo
Jewell (Wilmore)-customized922 Evans AveKirkwoodYes
Custom5 Berkley LaneLadueYes
Cornell4108 Telegraph RdMehlvilleNo
Elsmore8804 OldenOverlandYes
Mansfield (brick Dover)8613 Forest AveOverlandNo
Willard9410 LibertyOverlandNo
Worchester (brick Newark)7812 Rosedale DrPasadena ParkYes
Galewood (brick Berwyn)7435 WarnerRichmond HeightsYes
Hazelton?7206 DeltaRichmond HeightsNo
Berwyn1050 Charleville AveRock HillYes
Crescent1030 N. Rock Hill RoadRock HillNo
Custom brick7506 Arlington AveShrewsburyYes
Custom12145 Lavida AveSpanish LakeYes
Walton622 Jackson StSt. Charles city (St. Charles County)Yes
Custom or supplies2817 Walton RdSt. JohnYes
Roanoke2913 KincaidSt. JohnNo
Crafton, customized7030 SutherlandSt. LouisYes
Crafton-F, no porch?4222 Schiller PlaceSt. LouisYes
Custom5651 Neosho AvenueSt. LouisYes
Custom5900 Marwinette AvenueSt. LouisYes
Custom5715 Neosho AvenueSt. LouisYes
Custom6203 Walsh AveSt. LouisYes
Custom5827 Riverview AveSt. LouisYes
Custom4434 OsceolaSt. LouisYes
Galewood (entry modified)2121 NebraskaSt. LouisYes
Maplewood (customized)6513 BradleySt. LouisYes
Rodessa8425 PennsylvaniaSt. LouisYes
custom small, or supplies4412 WabashSt. LouisYes
Custom6245 Itaska StreetSt. LouisYes
Fairy3470 MacklindSt. LouisYes
Galewood (entry modified)1610 McCausland Ave.St. LouisNo
Galewood 5705 Itaska StreetSt. LouisYes
Hillsboro6225 Itaska StreetSt. LouisYes
Olivia7072 OleathaSt. LouisYes
Rodessa6423 OdellSt. LouisNo
Rodessa4353 Oleatha AveSt. LouisNo
Windsor4350 Fairview AveSt. LouisNo
Custom - Lewiston elements9341 Lincoln DriveSunset HillsYes
Fairy or small custom1234 Fairview AveUniversity CityYes
Avondale7532 Liberty AveUniversity CityNo
Brookwood7240 CornellUniversity CityYes
Custom - Lynnhaven style412 Alta Dena CtUniversity CityYes
Elmhurst1320 Midland DriveUniversity CityNo
Elmhurst7260 NorthmoorUniversity CityYes
Hudson6540 CorbittUniversity CityYes
Avondale8215 Madison AveVinita ParkNo
No. 1268201 Madison AveVinita ParkNo
Alhambra (modified)331 S. Old OrchardWebster GrovesYes
Clifton660 Oakland AveWebster GrovesYes
Crescent (possible)847 Atalanta AveWebster GrovesNo
Custom623 Westborough PlaceWebster GrovesYes
Elmwood450 S. Old OrchardWebster GrovesNo
Lewiston976 Greeley AveWebster GrovesYes
No. 126745 AtalantaWebster GrovesNo
Randolph651 W. FriscoWebster GrovesYes
Stanford654 OaklandWebster GrovesYes
Starlight260 Mintert RdWest Alton (St. Charles County)No

Kirkwood Homes That Are Actually Not Sears Houses
A few years ago, author Rosemary Thornton published a blog post about the Sears houses in Kirkwood, Missouri. The houses in that blog post were ones that she had found in her early years of extensive research into Sears houses. Unfortunately, we have now come to realize that five of those houses are not actually Sears houses. In 2021, we now have access to electronic resources that allow us greater insight than ever before, and some errors have been discovered.  Early on, researchers were not aware that there were so many "lookalike" models, and they did not have access to the several online resources to catalogs from other kit and non-kit companies, that we now do. Nor were there online real estate listings to peruse.

I can tell you, definitively, that the following five houses from that blog post, are not, in fact, Sears houses. As I live in this part of St. Louis, I have been inside some of these houses, have spoken to owners of some of these houses, and have been able to notice details, from the exterior, that show elements on the house that are from other companies. For example, Sears sold only one style of decorative iron strapping for their front doors... there is always a tell-tale curlicue at the hinge edge ... and two of the houses shown in Rose's blog post (the house thought to be a Chatham, and the house thought to be a Lynnhaven) have iron strapping that is not of Sears design. Inside several of these houses, we've been able, now, to see the original door handle hardware throughout the house, and it is not from Sears, on any of these houses. The family that originally had the suspected Barrington built, verified that they did not build it from a Sears kit (additionally, the original door handle hardware is still in place throughout the house, and it is not from Sears, and there are aspects of the floor plan that do not work for the Sears model). The suspected Montrose model actually differs from the Sears model, in a few key ways... which we know now, having had access to online historic catalog companies from the plans-only company that offered the "lookalike" model that this Kirkwood home most likely is (read more about the Montrose vs that lookalike model, here).  The suspected Mitchell is also "off", and has door handle hardware throughout, that is not from Sears. There are other aspects that don't work for the Mitchell, as well,  in the floorplan and window layout. There are just so many "lookalikes" to the Mitchell, by other kit companies and several plans-only companies. There is another Mitchell lookalike on Peeke Avenue, at N. Clay (here ) in Kirkwood, as well as a very pretty Lynnhaven lookalike from some other company, here, on Peeke Avenue.

Kirkwood homes that were originally thought to be Sears houses, but are not.

Rose and I have communicated recently about these houses, and she very graciously agreed to update her blog post to reflect that we now know that these are not actually Sears houses, as she is a strong believer in the importance of the accuracy of historic records (click here to see what Rose has been busy with of late, as she has moved away from the world of Sears houses, and may be publishing another book, soon). However, she has not yet done so.

Other Kit Houses In St. Louis, Missouri
Though we don't search for them as diligently as we do Sears Modern Homes kit houses, we have found some kits from other kit-house companies of the same era, in the St. Louis area. Here are those we know of from Lewis Homes, Gordon-Van Tine, Wardway (Montgomery Ward), and Aladdin:

Lewis Homes ModelAddressCity in Missouri
Ardmore441 LeeWebster Groves
Marlboro498 W. LockwoodWebster Groves
Winthrop24 Miller PlaceFerguson

Gordon-Van Tine or Wardway ModelAddressLocation in Missouri
GVT Diana8419 Mathilda AveAffton
GVT Gilmore     Catalog image6511 Old Lemay Ferry RdImperial
GVT Gilmore     Catalog image5458 Hodiamont AveJennings
GVT Glencoe6154 Simpson PlSaint Louis
GVT No. 536/GVT No. 560604 Houston StreetSt. Charles City
Wardway Florence5624 NottinghamSt. Louis City
GVT No 539/Wardway Girard • catalog6527 Corbitt AvenueUniversity City
GVT No. 535207 Oakwood AvenueWebster Groves
(Note that Imperial is in Jefferson County, and St. Charles City is in St. Charles County)

Aladdin ModelStreet AddressCity in MissouriAuth?
Lamberton712 Jefferson StSt. CharlesNo
Sunshine6506 Emma Ave.JenningsYes
Capitol6033 Odell St.St. LouisYes

The Back Story Of Kit Houses vs Non-Kit Houses 

What About The Train's Role In All Of This?
While it's absolutely true that Sears Modern Homes house kits were shipped by train, in several box-car loads, by rail, I think that the whole concept of the railroad being part of the story, has been greatly misunderstood. The fact that there was a railroad in the town, or running behind a house, does not really make it any more likely to have Sears houses in the town. When people say, "Oh, well, there's a railroad through town, so there are probably Sears houses here ", that's just not really part of the equation. There are towns all over America that have railroads running through them, but in which we don't find any Sears houses.... sometimes we do find Sears houses in those towns, but also, absolutely, in other towns far away from the railroad line. Sometimes, people will say, "The railroad ran right behind the house, so that makes me think my house is a Sears house ", but, the point is not rail lines, but the rail depot... the trains didn't stop at the homeowner's lot, and let them unload, there, just because their lot happened to have rail lines near it, or behind it. The kit was dropped at a depot, not at a lot. No matter where the depot was, to which the kit was delivered, homeowners found a way to haul the materials to their lot. We know of authenticated Sears houses that were built miles and miles from the location of the depot, and we know that the family hauled the kit supplies to their lot, nonetheless.

Can We Really Say, "This looks like a kit!"
There are two truths to understand about Sears kit houses:

1) They are actually pretty rare, making up only about 2% of the homes constructed during their era

2) Unless you can recognize the many models offered in the Sears Modern Homes catalogs, houses built from kits are indistinguishable from those built through the standard process using a construction company. (See below for clarification on that concept.)

So, if you come upon a neighborhood full of wonderful bungalows, or full of Craftsman-style houses, or full of Dutch Colonials, don’t jump to the conclusion that they are Sears houses (some people, we’ve noticed, confuse the name of the Sears tool line – Craftsman – with the architectural style by that name, and think that a Craftsman style house is what we mean when we say Sears house). Unless you have developed a really good eye for recognizing the several-hundred models offered by Sears, for example, you’d never know what house on a block with a kit house mixed in with other 1920s or 30s houses, was from a kit from Sears. All of the house designs of the era of kit homes, were of similar styles – Sears, and the other kit companies, were not offering anything unique. They were hoping to meet the needs and desires of the same folks who were buying from the lumber companies. And, like all of the companies, Sears offered homes of many sizes and styles.

If My House Is Not A Kit, Then Where Did It Come From??
In the 19-teens, 1920s, and 1930s, American suburban neighborhoods were growing. As the need for suburban housing grew, construction of neighborhoods of modest homes was needed. Only the very wealthy would have hired their own architect to design their home. Most folks turned to their local lumberyard or a local contractor, who would have offered booklets of modest-to-elaborate house plans for American home buyers to choose from (we call these, simply, Plan Books… books of plans only, not the plans-and-supplies bundled kits that Sears supplied-- and, no, Sears absolutely did NOT sell their blueprints separately from supplies... you bought the whole kit, or you didn't buy from Sears). Lot owners then left the rest to the construction company. The construction company ordered standard-length lumber through the lumber yards, measured, cut, and constructed the house. That was the way our American towns were built. This was the norm in the era of kit houses – kit houses were not the norm.

Here are two examples of plans-only books, available through lumber yards and construction companies:

color images of covers of two plans-only books, from Daily Bungalow
Here is the link to see the Modern Homes book of plans • Here is the link to see the A Home of Your Own book of plans -- both made available, thanks to Daily Bungalow and AntiqueHome

Nonetheless, We're Always Looking For More Sears Modern Homes Kit Houses!
If you know of any very likely Sears Houses, please contact me via my "Contact Me" spot on the blog side bar (please be sure to include the address of the house, and email contact information for you, or I won't be able to get in touch with you). Thanks in advance!

I'll leave you with a photo of one of my very favorite finds in St. Louis, a Sears Elsmore in Overland! This house was also written about in a newspaper article in 1992, which I included in my blog post. 
front view color image of Sears Elsmore
Read about this house, here, on my blog.

And, here is a nice little 7-minute news story (from the 1980s or 1990s, I'd say, in the Chicago area) that really gives some good information:

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  1. This is a fantastic post! Thank you for the resources. They are always welcome. Ssrah

  2. Thank you so much. As an amateur historian and NOCO Realtor, this list will be most helpful.

  3. This is a great resource for people in the St. Louis area. It's also helpful that you clarified what a not-a-Sears-house could be.

    I love the video from Chicago. Some of those houses are still around, and the custom houses shown in the photos from the Sears archives we have located. I wonder what else is in those archives! I hope Sears has the common sense to donate those materials rather than throw them away.

    Thanks for this!


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