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.
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.)
Every now and then, we still come across a kit house that really makes us happy. Because something about it is just perfect. Either perfectly preserved or perfectly balanced for the 21st century, perhaps in a great neighborhood or a in great setting, or several of the above. Such is the case for the Gordon-Van Tine No. 542 at 3714 Livingston Street NW in historic Chevy Chase, DC. After discovering the almost 100 year old original sales deeds for the house just a few weeks ago, we were thrilled to see it come on the market this month. (It’s listed with Long & Foster for $1,139,000, and you can see floor plans and lots of pictures in the virtual tourhere.) For details relevant to the mail-order history, scroll down to the gallery below.
The home, once erected by local builder Ellsworth Tessier on spec and financed with a Gordon-Van Tine mortgage, has been expanded over the years, possibly in stages, but not in out-of-proportion ways. It’s neither pretentious nor super-sleek, but has a generous and warm feel-good appeal all over. (Hey, I’m not the listing agent here; I mean it!) What was once the living room now functions as a spacious entry hall with built-ins, the formerly pretty small kitchen has given way to a hall with powder room and closet. And the cedar deck we had already admired from afar in the spring looks just as comfy and inviting close-up.
There are many original GVT details, such as the strong and simple lines of the woodwork or an interesting inlay pattern of the oak floors that we don’t get to see very often in DC (there are, as of now, only 4 documented existing GVT houses here), and that’s always a reason to get excited. So, there you have it.
This Sears “Westly” right across the street from Lafayette Elementary is not technically on the market. But since it was last year (and has been vacant for years), it’s probably still for sale. Or not. But we’ll get to that.
The house was originally bought in 1926 by Elmer and Eula Sours. Elmer was a carpenter by trade, so we can assume that he was one of the few Chevy Chase kit house owners who actually put the house together by himself. This makes it even stranger that the mortgage was so high; the catalog price for the house was only $2,614 in 1926, and there was a second deed of trust over $3,600 for the land purchase at one of DC’s new prime suburban addresses on Broad Branch Road. The garage and plumbing or foundation cost could hardly make up the difference.
And the problems started soon: the Sours and their daughter, Margaret, only lived in the house for a year before an equity suit from a family member (more debt?! Perhaps there were gambling or other problems at play?) forced them to sell the property back to the land developer and pay off the Sears mortgage. They moved back to Virginia.
The house stayed on the books as a rental ($110 in 1930!) with Fulton Gordon.
It wasn’t until 1943 when a loving family of musical foreigners, Denise and Conrad Bernier, finally bought it and moved in with their two young sons, Claude and Jacques. The Berniers, “aliens” in the 1940 census would own the house for 66 long years. Conrad was a French Canadian organist, composer and music professor who played many concerts in DC and elsewhere. Denise was the daughter of a Spanish opera singer and a French woman. She taught both Spanish and French at Holton Arms for many years. Denise lived to be 107; she died in 2012, only a few years after selling the house to the current owner.
What happened after that, is a bit of a mystery. It seems the house was lived in from about 2009-2011, but for the past 5 years, the started renovation has come to a standstill. (I took some of the pictures here in 2012.) It is quite apparent, that the owner made great effort to preserve some of the details. According to neighbors, he did much of it by himself but must have run out of money and time. He never moved back into the house. Last year, it was on the market for a while, but at a price that didn’t reflect the current state. Local historians were concerned with the fact that the Realtor advertised the listing as a potential teardown. We suspect that, deep in his heart, the owner doesn’t really want to let go of his “Westly.”
A savior is needed here, and as we know, it probably all comes down to the price. Doesn’t it?
More Photos (click thumbnails to enlarge)
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 the Washington, DC 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.
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