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.)


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.)




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.

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*Catalog images provided courtesy of Internet Archive.

Citizen Kane and the Vexing Vallonia

We’ve got a new listing in town, and it’s a Sears Kit House… a Vallonia.. perhaps.  “1928 Sears Bungalow” proclaimed the listing description. I was a little puzzled when I first spied it on the MLS because it appeared to be brick, and I’ve only ever seen Vallonias with wood siding.  Lo and behold, when I got a closer look, I discovered that the “brick” was, in fact, fake brick– more like asphalt siding. Sears actually sold brick veneer, then called “face brick” since the 1910s.  It’s also possible the surface was added later and that, as a national kit house expert likes to say, “some siding salesman had his way with it.”

Still, the charm of the house was able to shine through.  The distinctive exterior posts have endured, along with some original windows and doors, and the interior remains pretty true to the catalog drawings. Things started to fall apart when I pulled out the old tape measure.  Room sizes were off an inch here, a foot there.  And while I could explain away the dip in the rear roof to an addition, the second double window at the front should have been my first clue.  I am vexed.

According to the public record, this house was built in 1928.  Back in the day all 12,000 pieces of the Vallonia (give or take) could be had for $2,071.  As always, options were available for improvement (heat, electricity).  An addition has been put on the back of the house, and they modified the stairway to the 2nd floor and basement somewhere along the way.  I didn’t come across any grease pencil marks or identifying stamps on the exposed beams, though there was some writing on one of them… it appeared to be stained.  And if I had my guess at what it said (upside down, of course) it would be:  651 FALLIED.  What the heck does that mean?  Might this be the kit house equivalent of “Rosebud”? We may never know.










This lovely house resides in Brookmont– one of the prettier riverside communities in Bethesda and home to a lot of kayak enthusiasts.  Erich Cabe of Coldwell Banker is the listing agent.  This Sears Catalog House/Sears knock-off boasts views of the Potomac (if you can see through all of the trees!).  It’s got 2 bedrooms and a full bath on the main floor (like the original) and 3 bedrooms and a half bath on the second floor.  The basement is walk-out, and has a few finished rooms, but needs a little more work.  Also to be found: pretty hardwood floors, original trim work in most rooms, and a couple of decks.  Available for $849,000.

As always, let us know if you would like help authenticating your mail-order home or if you like to live in an authentic kit house (or a close copy)!  We would be happy to help you find one.

(September 2017 update: After the discovery of a Sears & Roebuck mortgage for the original construction, we are now 100% certain that the house is indeed the real deal! You can see pictures of other authenticated Vallonias in the DC area here.)