The “Azalea Man’s” Modest Abode

Time set the record straight. After a WTOP story on “DC’s Million Dollar Kit Houses” ran earlier this year, and sometimes after we write about kit houses for sale that are priced even higher than that, we receive messages from unhappy readers reminding us that the majority of existing historic mail-order homes, even in our area, will not sell for a million dollars.

Of course, that’s true. We got emails from owners in Hyattsville and Anacostia, describing the pride they took in preserving their Sears homes. And perhaps we don’t venture off to other parts of town often enough. But the truth is, we’ve lately been focusing on the Chevy Chase kit houses for a reason, and ironically, it’s often easier to find well-preserved architectural features in historically higher priced neighborhoods.

So today, we’re taking you to DC’s Woodridge, where a sweet Sears “Windsor” from 1922 just hit the market for $399,000. The place could actually be a great deal for first-time buyers who want to stay close in. It’s about a mile from the Rhode Island (Red Line) Metro station, about 3 miles from downtown DC, close to parks, shopping and dining, and it has a WalkScore of 80 (“Very Walkable”). The price is 18% below the 3rd quarter median ($485,500) for the 20018 zip code, and the lot is large; it even has a well-groomed rose garden! [continued below the photos]

 

The Windsor was a popular bungalow-style house with Arts and Crafts elements, but it was one of the smaller of such models. How about the first owners? Were they end users who put the home together with friends and family in order to live in it like most of the purchasers of more modest kit houses? Or was it a developer who built the house on spec, according to what might have sold best in the neighborhood?

Turns out it was neither. The first owners were Benjamin Edwards, according to the 1930 census a Kentucky-born “Real Estate Operator,” and his wife Amanda. They owned and sold lots of properties in the 1920s. This particular home was built as an investment property, although it wasn’t rented out for too long. The Edwards financed the construction with an original 5-year mortgage from Sears of $3800, which wasn’t released until 1927 but which they simply passed on in the form of another mortgage to Evelyn and Joseph Gilmore, who bought the house in 1924. Yes, today, this would be considered fraudulent.

Joseph Gilmore, a young WW I vet, became the “Azalea Man,” a local celebrity who was widely credited with bringing the flowering bushes – which now color practically every corner of the city each April – to Washington. He cultivated Azaleas in his garden, and his customers won flower shows, but during the day he worked at the nearby railroad repair yard. In fact, his wife Evelyn, a clerk, made more money than he did. According to his Washington Post obituary, the couple lived in their “modest home” until Joseph died there of a heart attack in 1951.

We didn’t notice any azaleas, but there certainly are dozens of rose bushes lining the yard.

(For my collection of historic kit houses currently for sale in the DC area, click here.)

 

Launching the Chevy Chase Kit House Database

chevy chase mail-order houses - map
Click on the image for our interactive kit house map with house photos and catalog pages

It was exactly a year ago, during a talk we gave at Historic Chevy Chase DC, that the idea was born to somehow make our research public, not only to the local kit house owners, but also many other people who were fascinated with the unique concentration of larger mail-order homes here. After (not kidding here!) thousands of hours, we can now present the first results — a color-coded interactive map and a corresponding database of homes/models and historical information. We’re working on integrating the material into the Historic Chevy Chase DC website and hope to interlink it with much more house history, artifacts and oral history in the future.

Chevy Chase, DC (zip code 20015), has a unique (both in quality as well as density) collection of historic catalog houses. Nearly 100 existing homes and 61 different models have so far been authenticated, and there are several more suspects. The homes are from four different manufacturers (Sears Roebuck & Co.; Lewis Manufacturing Co.; International Mill and Lumber a.k.a. Sterling; and Gordon-Van Tine) and were built between 1915 and 1932.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the most popular models here were the Lewis “Chevy Chase,” the Sears “Americus” and the Sears “Martha Washington!” The following catalog homes show up more than once in Chevy Chase/DC:

One of Chevy Chase DC’s three picture-perfect Sears “Puritans,” decked out for Halloween

Lewis “Chevy Chase” (4 times)

Sears “Americus” (4 times)

Sears “Martha Washington” (4 times)

Sears “Rembrandt” (4 times)

Sears “Woodland” (4 times)

Lewis “Ardmore” (3 times)

Lewis “Cambridge” (3 times)

Lewis “Winthrop” (3 times)

Sears “Barrington” (3 times)

Sears “Kilbourne” (3 times)

Sears “Puritan” (3 times)

Sears “Walton” (3 times)

Lewis “Marengo” (2)

Sears “Alhambra” (2)

Sears “Lewiston” (2)

Sears “Priscilla” (2)

Sears “Rockford” (2)

Sears “Westly” (2)

The likely top runner, however, might be the Sears “Maywood” (5 times), although we don’t have full proof yet for the authenticity of those homes. (All 5 of them were built by a small builder who doesn’t name Sears Roebuck on the permits, but rather the original architect who published his rendition of the Maywood more than 10 years before Sears carried it in their catalogs!) We’re working on it, though, and will update you once we are a hundred percent sure.

In the meantime, we’d be happy for you to test-drive and explore our proud creation. Comments, questions and suggestions are always welcome!

Magnificent Malvern

1922 Lewis Mfg. Co. “Malvern” mail-order homes in DC’s AU Park neighborhood

This weekend, there’s a special treat available for fans of historic catalog homes in DC. A 1922 “Malvern” from the Lewis Manufacturing Co. just hit the market in DC’s AU Park neighborhood for $2,250,000. It’s listed by TTR Sotheby’s, and there will be an open house on Sunday from 1-3 pm.

Our kit house researcher friends in other parts of the U.S. will probably cringe a little. There’s the price point, of course, but some historic preservation purists will also dislike the fact that the home (a more stately model to begin with) was expanded by more than a hundred percent, and that the interior was pretty much completely gutted. (Although we were lucky enough to find a few marked original beams in the furnace  room toward the original front of the house!)

Comparing the old with the new floor plan that is given in the brochures, there is little overlap. The living room (now staged as the dining room) fireplace is still in the same place, of course, and so is the kitchen. But the entry has been moved to the side street (the address changed from 4312 Fessenden St NW to 4926 43rd Pl NW); the former front porch is a private side “terrace,” and the original front hall is now a “mud room.” In place of the original staircase are now a powder room and a pantry.

The same house in an MLS photo from 2005 before the renovation (photo courtesy of MRIS)

But… as far as I’m concerned, it’s also a really lovely home with a nice yard and in a super walkable city location. A sensitive architect tried to recreate many of the exterior elements for the back of the house, and while the side (aka current front) doesn’t look quite as balanced, the whole house gives off a very welcoming vibe.

Many of the materials and styles used are reminiscent of what used to be there. The living floor inlays, for instance, are matching the original ones I’ve seen in other Lewis houses. The expansion overall was made very thought- and respectfully. (And I admit: the magnificent red velvet movie theater in the basement of the addition doesn’t hurt.)

It’s a shame the virtual tour from the old 2005 listing no longer works — technology has certainly changed as well since then — but at least we get a glimpse at the exterior. And that’s a great match to the catalog image.

And while you’re there, if you want to see another one, go no further than the other end of the block on Fessenden. That’s because the Mandler-Brodt family, who put the house together in 1922 built two of them at the same time, both on corner lots. (See a picture of the other home here.)

 

 

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Are you Interested in Kit House History? We can help!

Cati and Marcie are Realtors by day and house history enthusiasts by night. We specialize in NW DC and close-in Montgomery County, MD, but cover the entire Washington metropolitan area. House History–the hidden stories behind the walls of the homes we sell or walk by every day–has long been a passion of ours (In fact, for Cati, a former journalist, it was what ultimately brought her to the world of DC real estate).

We have written about many house-stories in our individual blogs over the years, and we sometimes have surprised (and delighted!) clients with our research findings. When the time allows, we love digging in archives, city records and historic collections. What we find, is sometimes funny, sad or scary, but it’s always a part of the DC area’s story as well. And when it comes to history of any kind, there could not be a better place for that than the metropolitan area of the Nation’s Capital!

Our special interest is in the mail-order homes of the early 20th century. In many Washington, DC, neighborhoods and in the city’s older suburbs, we can find an abundance of those historic kit houses. (More often than not, the owners have no idea that some 90 or 100 years ago, their house arrived neatly packaged on a railroad car, in thousands of numbered pieces.)

You can learn more about catalog homes here, “like” our Facebook page for updates or email us with questions or suggestions for houses to write about.

Join the Mailing List for our Annual Kit House Newsletter:

*Catalog images provided courtesy of Internet Archive.

A Variety Of Vallonias

Sears house in Maryland
The Brookmont Sears & Roebuck “Vallonia” in 2012

Time to confess: we’re not always failproof when it comes to the authentication of historic kit houses. There’s the case of the “Vexing Vallonia” for instance, that Marcie called a possible “Sears knock-off.”  It wasn’t vexing for too long, though. A few years later, we found a Sears mortgage for the original purchase and construction of the mail-order home.

So this time around, as the house is on the market again, renovated five years ago and quite obviously cherished by the new owners since then, there’s no doubt the house is the real deal! And while the fake “brick” sheet asphalt siding might have been original, the vinyl siding that replaced it is actually a lot more becoming (hard to believe I just said that, isn’t it?). The kitchen has been opened up to include one of the first-floor bedrooms, there’s an airy “morning room” addition, and the house overall is bright and inviting. It just hit the market for $1,200,000, and the listing‘s 3-D tour (courtesy of Redfin) lets you take a closer look at a lot of the little details, old or new. (You can find a 1920s catalog image and floor plan for comparison here.)

 

The deceivingly spacious, 4-5-bedroom “Vallonia,” was one of the more popular models from the Sears catalog, at least in this area. As of today, there are six known Vallonias still standing in Washington, DC. Another seven, including the Ridge Drive one, are on our list for the DC suburbs. Incidentally, one of my weirdest real estate moments years back occurred when I was trying to show this Vallonia in College Park, MD.

Simon and Kathryn in front of their Langdon/Woodridge Vallonia

Of course, the puzzling Vallonia encounter also happened during the early years of this blog. The internet and lots of gadgets have brought researchers and resources much closer; we’ve learned so much more over the past five years. And the messages, emails, tips, and photos from our readers have educated us more, one house at a time. Just a couple of weeks ago, for instance, I got a message from a fellow Realtor, Simon Sarver, who told me he was the proud owner of a Vallonia in DC’s Langdon neighborhood. There was no mention of the home’s origins when he bought the house a couple of years ago. That it might be a kit house only dawned on him much later when he saw a similar house in a Pinterest post. There’s a lot of original detail in the house–hopefully, we’ll get to document it one day.

In the meantime, check out this  DC Vallonia which was listed for over $1M and just went under contract in the Foxhall neighborhood near Georgetown hospital. And here are a few more of our local Vallonias:

Sears house in Palisades DC
A Vallonia in DC’s Palisades
Vallonia in Bethesda
A Vallonia in East Bethesda

 

 

 

 

Vallonia in Takoma Park MD
A Vallonia in Takoma Park MD

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Are you Interested in Kit House History? We can help!

Cati and Marcie are Realtors by day and house history enthusiasts by night. We specialize in NW DC and close-in Montgomery County, MD, but cover the entire Washington metropolitan area. House History–the hidden stories behind the walls of the homes we sell or walk by every day–has long been a passion of ours (In fact, for Cati, a former journalist, it was what ultimately brought her to the world of DC real estate).

We have written about many house-stories in our individual blogs over the years, and we sometimes have surprised (and delighted!) clients with our research findings. When the time allows, we love digging in archives, city records and historic collections. What we find, is sometimes funny, sad or scary, but it’s always a part of the DC area’s story as well. And when it comes to history of any kind, there could not be a better place for that than the metropolitan area of the Nation’s Capital!

If you have followed us for even a short while, you probably know that one of our special interests are the mail-order homes of the early 20th century. In many Washington, DC, neighborhoods and in the city’s older suburbs, we can find an abundance of those historic kit houses. (More often than not, the owners have no idea that some 90 or 100 years ago, their house arrived neatly packaged on a railroad car, in thousands of numbered pieces.)

You can learn more about catalog homes here, “like” our Facebook page for updates or email or tweet us with questions or suggestions for houses to write about.

Join the Mailing List for our Annual Kit House Newsletter:

*Catalog images provided courtesy of Internet Archive.

A Favorite DC Kit House

Yes, it’s true — this Aladdin “Pomona” is still one of our favorites. It’s not too far from our office, and we’ve watched the current owners of 8 years renovate and expand it, in a beautiful and sensitive way. At least that’s what it looked like from the outside. We once knocked at the door and even left a note for the owner about the home’s history (built in 1921 by one Charlotte E. Haskell, it was another woman-owned DC kit house in its day), but we’d never seen the inside until now.

The “Pomona” hit the market for $1,399,000 yesterday, and it’s just as beautiful inside as out. The updates are sleek and have brought the home into the 21st century, but they don’t violate its core or completely sacrifice its architectural integrity, even though the floor plan and size have been significantly expanded. (Yes, some bungalow purists might disagree on this. But the reality is that in high price neighborhoods, the alternative might be a tear down. And we’d always take an awesome house over the destruction of history.)

You can find a listing summary here and the MLS photos here.

Catalog image courtesy of the Clarke Historic Library: Aladdin Pomona-1919_fall_annual_sales_catalog

How Not To Build Your Home

Something tells us this is not how it went with those Sears kit houses, at least not most of the time. Apart from the fact that the 1950s weren’t quite the right time for it either, we hope that most guys who asked their buddies or family for help with this were luckier (scene from Jean Shepherd’s 1976 movie “Phantom Of The Open Hearth“). Have fun!

A Kit House Tourist’s Dream Weekend in DC

This Aladdin catalog home, a 1922 “Pasadena” seen in an earlier photo, just hit the market. It can be found in the historic core of Takoma Park

Many thanks to all of you who emailed or called after last week’s WTOP segments! We got some exciting new kit house leads and will report about them in the near future. It seems like we have a bunch of new fans–motivation to keep up what many have been asking for: to alert them of new historic mail-order homes hitting the market. (And to those we haven’t responded to yet — we will do so very soon!)

As luck will have it, there are some great new kit house listings this week, from different catalog companies, in very different parts of town and in different price ranges.

Here we go:

A rare 1922 Aladdin “Pasadena” just hit the market in the Takoma Park, MD, Historic District. It’s rare because there are few Aladdin homes in the DC area, even though the Aladdin Company of Michigan was the original inventor of the mail-order home and is the only one of the kit house companies whose sales records are completely preserved. – This  “Pasadena” has 3 bedrooms and 2 full baths (the original foot print was expanded), is listed for $585,000 and will be open from 1-4 pm this Sunday. You can find lots of pictures here in the virtual tour.

1922 Sears “Roanoke” in the Palisades neighborhood of Washington DC

A 1922 Sears “Roanoke” was put up for sale today in the Palisades neighborhood of DC (at 5741 Sherier Pl NW) today for $1,325,000.  The 4-bedroom, 3.5 bath house retains a lot of original detail and is beautifully updated and expanded. It’s open on both Saturday and Sunday from 1-3 pm. Click here for the floor plan and interior pictures.

This Google Street View image shows the 1920 Sears “Marina” in DC’s Woodridge as it looked in 2014, before it’s renovation (and transformation). In the current shape, only the centered entrance and first floor outline hint at the origins.

Across town, in Woodridge, there’s a totally gutted and rebuilt Sears house on the market that you wouldn’t recognize unless you consulted some old images: a 1920 Sears “Marina” that now sports a brand-new second floor and looks more like a smaller foursquare. 2209 Franklin NE; listed at $799,000; no open houses announced thus far. Across the street from Langdon Park, close to new Rhode Island Ave development and an easy commute away from downtown offices, this is a convenient location. The price nevertheless seems a bit steep. The picture here is a Google shot from a couple of years ago, but a slideshow of the house as it looks now can be found here. Quite a contrast.

This 1925 bungalow by the Lewis Mfg Co. on Alabama Avenue was completely renovated but maintains the exterior architectural integrity

In Hill Crest, in the SE quadrant of Washington, another renovated kit house is offered for$549,000 — a 1925 “San Fernando” by the Lewis Manufacturing Company. (3008 Alabama Ave SE; 4 bedrooms, 3 full baths, a separate kitchenette on the lower level. No open house here, either.) The MLS virtual tour can be found here.

Lewis Mfg Co. “Cambridge” model on Western Ave – one of the statelier homes from Lewis’ Guy Zepp era in DC.

Back in the northwest, on the Maryland side of Western Avenue in Chevy Chase, another, more upscale, Lewis house is available for rent. It’s a 1923 Lewis “Cambridge” that has been expanded with a family room off the kitchen and a master suite above that. But it also retains some interesting original detail such as the unusual box casement windows in the living room. I remember the house well from when it was for sale nearly ten years ago, and a major draw was the property itself: in addition to a large pool, it has a huge, deep, park-like backyard. The MLS slide show contains floor plan drawings, so you can compare to the catalog original. You might notice that the double window in the “den or sewing room” above the entrance was replaced by a smaller single window–the room now contains a bath. The unusual, almost barrel-roofed portico is probably not original to the house, either.  6506 Western Ave Chevy Chase, MD; available for lease beginning June 15th, 2017 for $4,250.

All in all, it’s quite the lineup for mail-order house lovers right now! As always, let us know if you’re interested in seeing any of these.

 

On Maps And Numbers — A Word Of Clarification

Lewis kit houses in DC
Washington DC-area homes by the Lewis Manufacturing Co. from the 1910s and 1920s
Earlier this week, Rachel Nania from WTOP ran an awesome story about the historic DC kit houses and our research over the past few years. In the interview itself, we focused on a project for Historic Chevy Chase DC that we’ve been working on over the past few months, and that we hope to make publicly available very soon: cataloging the catalog homes in Chevy Chase. The neighborhood is a unique playground for exploration because many of the homes are particularly well preserved and protected, and because there is a large number of models that were considered more luxurious at the time. Many of them were built on spec by developers.

Since the story ran, we got about half a dozen emails from kit house owners in other parts of the city, a couple of whom felt left out or felt the numbers we were talking about were incorrect. So, perhaps it’s time for some  clarification.

  • The number of roughly a hundred kit houses mentioned referred to Chevy Chase DC alone. And even there, it’s only the number of homes that we actually have authenticated, either via historic building permits, mortgage data, or other certain proof such as specifically marked lumber, blue prints found in attics, etc.  More than half of those houses came from Sears. The second largest number–including many of the larger, more stately homes–came from the Lewis Manufacturing Co. in Bay City, Michigan.
  • All over DC, we had about 300 homes whose owners received original financing from Sears Roebuck. Michigan researcher Andrew Mutch mapped those homes (and we added a few from other sources). This great image shows how they were mostly located along train or street car lines:

The majority of the houses actually still exist, although many have been stripped of much of their original detail and do not retain a lot that anchors them to the time they were built. Of course, most of the homes are not selling for a million dollars!! We’re sorry if we created that impression. As mentioned before, neighborhoods like Chevy Chase, the Palisades, Cleveland Park or Observatory Circle are unique in that respect as well.

We will publish more specific numbers in the near future, but for now, may it be enough to point out that we are aware of at least a couple of hundred other kit homes in DC and the close-in suburbs, apart from those with Sears mortgages. There are other Sears houses that didn’t have mortgages, but also some from other kit houses companies such as Lewis, Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine, or the Harris Bros.

Stay tuned for more.

The Starlight’s Siblings

Sears Starlight with slightly modified entry

Last week, we put a 1922 Sears “Starlight” catalog home on the market. It’s one of five known “Starlights” in DC (which have been authenticated mainly via the Sears Roebuck mortgages extended to the original owners). The Starlight was one of the simpler and less costly homes that the mail-order company offered in the 1920s, but this affordability was likely the reason for its success as well. The company branded it as one of their “top 20” bestselling models. At only 24 feet wide, it’s easy to see how the bungalow would have been a popular option for narrower city lots.

You can read about the home’s history here, but we thought it would be fun to show you the other ones, all in different parts of town, all near rail road tracks (where the “kit” with the house materials would be dropped off), and all in very different shape or state of updates.

This one was built in 1926 and is not too far away on 3rd St NW in Brightwood:

1926 Sears Starlight in Brightwood

Two more Starlights, in which later owners had made the front porch a part of the interior, can be found in nearby Takoma Park, Maryland:

Sears Starlight on Flower Ave
Sears Starlight on Cedar Ave in the Takoma Park Historic District

The other three DC Starlights can be found on Evarts St NE, and on 31st Place and Brothers Place in SE (images courtesy of Google Streetview and MRIS):

Sears offered an upgraded, more luxury version of the Starlight at the same time: the Hamilton, which featured nearly the same floor plan, but extended the living room into the porch, allowing it to have a fireplace. They also added a bay window to the dining room and a breakfast room to the back.

To show you what this looks like, here’s a pretty, night-blue Hamilton near the District line in Silver Spring MD:

Authenticated 1926 Sears “Hamilton” in Silver Spring

What We Are Grateful For

Sears Woodland Nevada Avenue
One of Chevy Chase DC’s stately 1920s “Woodlands” from the Sears mail-order catalog

Well, first off, there are so many things we are grateful for here at the DC HouseSmarts — our loved ones, our health, our diverse, interesting and energizing clientele, our supportive bunch of colleagues at Evers & Co., and to live in a place that has always valued social responsibility and freedom of speech and expression, and–of course–our homes.

But since a great part of our day (or let’s say, many of our days) is devoted to city history and historic  homes, we’re ever so grateful to live and work in a place where this history is valued and preserved.

Last week, we were lucky enough to give a talk about kit houses and the state of our research at the Chevy Chase Community center. It was not only well-attended, but we also counted a total of 10 actual Chevy Chase kit house owners on the guest sign-in! Several others called or emailed in advance of the event, telling us they were sorry they couldn’t attend but they would still be interested in participating in Historic Chevy Chase’s kit house project. In the latter, we will cooperate in documenting, authenticating and cataloging (!) Chevy Chase’s catalog homes.

(Built in 1925)
A 1925 Lewis “Marlboro” on Military Road

Chevy Chase, especially the part on the DC side, is unique in terms of its collection of well-preserved kit houses, most of which are from the government expansion years in the 1920s and many of which were larger, more stately models. To date, we have identified about 20 homes from the Lewis Manufacturing Co., nearly 50 from Sears Roebuck and four from Gordon-Van Tine. The majority of those have been authenticated either via mortgage records, original building permits or unmistakable brand identifiers. (We have to thank kit house historians from other parts of the US, such as Michigan researcher Andrew Mutch for much of this work.) We’re also sure there are a bunch we haven’t discovered yet.

Before the talk, we had sent out letters to almost all of those owners we could track down, and the response was amazing. Some had no idea their home once came in a box car by rail but were intrigued to find out more.  Others provided anecdotes, letters and pictures, all of which we will eventually scan and make available as part of the project. But almost everybody we heard from is interested in helping us assemble and preserve this amazing piece of DC and national history. It’s definitely something that goes on our list of things to be grateful for. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you, and stay tuned for more!

(You can find many more posts about the area’s mail-order houses here and here.)