Where The Phone Went

Mail-order home for sale in Chevy Chase
Mail-order home for sale in Chevy Chase
A 1930 Sears “Barrington” in Chevy Chase, Washington DC

The Sears “Barrington” was not a very rare or unusual model. In fact, the style was so popular in the late 1920s that several other companies, including Montgomery Wards, offered similar-looking mail-order houses.  This 1930 Sears “Barrington,” however, is just like we want to see them. We have so often complained about renovations that strip those dear old homes of their charm and character, add generic additions, or “modernize” in a way that violates the style of the house.

This house, however, which just hit the market (listed with our very own office for $1,049,000 ) is an absolutely beautiful example of how it can be done right. While there is a two-story addition in the back, it’s not out of proportion to the rest of the home. The whole design was inspired by the original part of the house, even the new window moldings are crafted to match the old ones in the front.

Just as nice is the fact that much of the historic Sears mail-order detail was preserved, even some quirky things that have long disappeared from our lifestyle. Take the built-in phone booth in the entry hall, for instance. According to the 1930 Sears catalog, it was supposed to “solve the problem” of “where will we place our phone?” That probably won’t be necessary for  2014 cordless handsets, but a great touch to respect it as part of the home’s integrity.

Phone booth in 1930 Sears catalog
Phone booth in 1930 Sears catalog

A similarly authentic piece is the corner cabinet in the dining room that came shipped with the houses neatly packed 1,000s of pieces as well. The catalog image (below) even shows the same lead glass panes.

Kitchen and baths are new, but they, too, work with the essence of the style. It certainly can be done, but it’s not usually what we get to see! And some changes to the layout might actually be practical improvements, like an arched break-through from the hall to the kitchen. Beats carrying groceries through the living room, at least in my book.

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The main stairs still sport the unique Sears-invented plinth blocks for the lay builder. There’s no doubt about the authenticity of this one!

You can see a Virtual Tour of the whole house here. And as always, if you’d like to see this historic kit house in person, just let us know and we’ll get you in!

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These plinth blocks were a unique feature only found in Sears homes. They made it easier for the amateur builder to join different kinds of molding.
These plinth blocks were a unique feature only found in Sears homes. They made it easier for the amateur builder to join different kinds of molding.

 

Do you think you live in a kit house? We’d love to hear about it:

The Fabulous Tale Of One Family’s Kit Home

History of a Sears Kit Home

History of a Sears Kit HomeAs Marcie and I have been chasing (and writing about) kit houses for a while, we’ve always been interested in their history, or better: their connection to history. sometimes, I have found an old ad in the Washington Post that advertised a house we identified, or that promoted the local mail-order offices from Sears and Lewis. Sometimes information about the people who lived there in the early years can be found, about their successes or their death.

Most of the time, however, there’s a blank. We can only speculate (and we often do!). More often than not, current kit house owners have no idea their home was built from a kit, and sometimes they have no idea what that even means. (We’ve been asked whether that meant it was “kind of manufactured” or “prefabricated.”) Other people, however, who have heard of kit homes and are excited about them, frequently have come to believe their house is a kit when in fact it’s not.

Rare House HistoryThat said, it’s always delightful to come across a real kit house history, like the one that’ so lovingly documented on this little website. The Troyers of Kansas are telling the almost 100-year old story of their Sears “Concord,” complete with lots of pictures. Gee, I love this. Really.

So Close, And Yet So Far…

Truth uncovered: a peek at the floor beams reveals that it's simply the "wrong" lumber for a Sears kit house

This is the first time I’ve written about a kit or catalog house.  Cati has a few years on me with this recent obsession, and on our drives around town names of kit houses flit off her lips like old multiplication tables… it’s no longer a novelty… rather, it’s ingrained.  “Oh, there’s an Alhambra. Oooo, look at that Americus.  Isn’t that a Vallonia?”  I have some catching up to do.  She’s also very descriptive in the way she writes about these homes, having been a former journalist.  I mean, how will I ever top a title like “A Sears Winona Kit House and a Gallon of Blood”?  It’s just not in my make up.  It’s sorta like having Springsteen be your warm up band.

But, persevere I must.  Cati and I like to keep an eye out for the latest real estate listings that we think might have kit house “potential.”  Some weeks the listings are a plenty; others, we really have to scrape the the bottom of the barrel.  This was the case with a house we recently viewed on England Terrace in Rockville, MD. With a great deal of misplaced enthusiasm, we managed to talk ourselves into thinking that it was an original Sears “Winona.” After all, on paper it seemed to share many of the characteristics.  It appeared to have roughly the same (original) footprint, it was

Home-made or pre-cut? The trim often betrays the true origins of your supposed kit house

built during the right era, a dormer on the left side of the house appeared to be exactly where the dining room would fall, and it had this cool looking odd little door in the middle of the living room wall…once we spied that in the house photos, we were smitten.

Five panel door--purchased from Sears 80 years ago?
It's quite possible that this five-panel door was purchased from popular Sears Roebuck at the time--that it came as part of a kit is less likely

Tires screeching, we raced out to Rockville, took a few false turns, and eventually found the house.

Almost as soon as we entered the house, we knew it was a bust.  Why?  The trim–where it hadn’t been replaced–was all wrong.  And the dormer favored the front of the house, not the middle as in the Winona. The distances of the bedroom windows from the corners were wrong.  The odd little door in the middle of the dining room wall (which we had seen in interior photos of “real” Winonas) was still in place, but the similarities stopped there.  The basement entrance had been modified when the addition was put on, so there were no identifying marks near the stairs (where we’ve discovered them in the past).  And a good deal of the basement had been re-built, as evidenced by the newer beams & shiny metal plates at just about every corner.

The biggest revelation, however, were the darkened original beams: roughly finished and a crude kind of wood–nothing like the high-quality lumber that was the trademark of even the simplest Sears house.

The little door that accesses a storage cabinet above the basement stairs resembles the medicine cabinets Sears offered in the 1920s, but the trim looks too plain

It’s possible that someone built the house based loosely on the design of a Winona he’d seen somewhere.  That was done a lot in those times, that sort of “borrowing.”  It’s also possible that a builder bought the kit and modified it, though in this case the building materials didn’t point that way.  It could be a knock off from a competitive kit company that we just don’t know about.  The possibilities are endless.  All we can tell you, for sure, is that it’s not a Winona.

While the outcome was a disappointment, it got us away from our desks and computer screens, out into the brilliant blue afternoon, checking out houses, which is what we love.  Next!

 

(Click here for an authentic, though modified, Winona in Arlington, VA)

Sold in Five Days — How Much Is The Historic Sentiment Worth?

On my DC House Cat blog, I regularly introduce historic kit houses that are for sale in the Washington DC area. Many of them were once ordered from the (probably best-known) Sears catalog, others came from companies such as Aladdin and Lewis Manufacturing (a particular favorite of the in-town suburbs in the 1920s).
It’s virtually impossible to put a sticker price on the value of house history (although we frequently get that question). What we have found is that in neighborhoods which are highly aware, and often proud, of their history and significance it makes more of a difference. In other neighborhoods, where there’s more turnover, sometimes more privacy and less use of community facilities or organizations, owners seem less interested.

A lack of interest (or perhaps knowledge) leads to thoughtless renovations and modernization that strips the poor house of everything architectural history buffs and catalog house aficionados love it for. But when owners find a way to compromise between their need for comfort and updates and the one hand and the respect for the original materials and sensibilities of the home design on the other, it often pays out. My latest featured Kit House Of The Week, a 1925 Sears “Maywood” in Chevy Chase, is a good example  (check out the agent’s virtual tour). And guess what? It sold in just 5 days!