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.


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.)

A Once Beloved Westly Worth Saving

Westly catalog house

Kit House of the Week 3/4/2016

Sears Westly Kit house in chevy chase
A Sears “Westly” with a stormy history in Chevy Chase, DC

Facts & Figures:

Manufacturer: Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Model Number or Name: The Westly

Year Built: 1926

Neighborhood: Chevy Chase, DC

Authenticated:  Yes. Sears mortgage for $6,000 recorded on 1/19/1926.

To see the original Sears Catalog Page, click here. For photos of other DC area Westlys, click here. (For more photos of the house, scroll down to the gallery)

House History

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.

September 1930 ad from the Washington Evening Star
September 1930 ad from the Washington Evening Star

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.

Join the Mailing List for our Annual Kit House Newsletter:

*Catalog images provided courtesy of Internet Archive.

Developer Kite’s Darling Kit Houses (Part 2)

Macomb Kite houseSince we talked about the earliest known kit houses in DC earlier this fall, we heard from two of the owners! If there had been any doubts left that developer Harry Kite actually purchased the spacious Cleveland Park bungalows as pre-packaged kits from Sears Roebuck rather than “replicating” the Sears model he had seen at the Illinois State Fair locally, we’re now certain that he purchased them from Sears.

The first of the owners who had come across our post wrote to the CP Historic Society and pointed out that the supposed “architect” named on the original building permits was a teenager:

” (…) I loved the post about the Macomb Street kit houses.  I’m attaching the obituary of Albert E. Landvoight, who was the “architect” of our house, (…) Macomb St., a bungalow built in 1911 by Harry A. Kite.  Landvoight was frequently listed as the architect for Kite.  What really supports the theory of these bungalows being kit house[s] is the fact that Albert was the ripe old age of 19 when he was allegedly the architect of these homes! (…)”

21398755821_451dc86218_o Balustrade detail-1911 Sears No. 151-IMG_4319
Landvoight, who in later decades did become a successful architect, might have been some kind of apprentice or intern in Kite’s business at the time. (Really going out on a limb here, but perhaps he was entrusted with the filing of those permits in 1910.) In fact, according to the Capital Hill Restoration Society’s list of legacy architects and builders, “Albert E. Landvoight, architect (1892-1955) […] was born in Washington and attended McKinley High School. He began working for Harry Kite in 1913, served in World War I, and afterward continued to work as an architect. He designed residences and apartments for Kite and for Boss & Phelps.”

Scannable Document on Dec 3, 2015, 13_45_23 1911 Sears Avalon-No 151. Fireplace-IMG_4313 (2)

He certainly didn’t design the Sears kit house model of “Modern Home No. 151” which was first exhibited in 1908 or 1909 in Springfield, IL (brochure photo courtesy of Rachel Shoemaker). Kite himself had told the Evening Standard that the Sears model was the one he had chosen for his parcels on Macomb St. The houses all have the same modifications from the published plans (namely, fewer and larger windows in the front, a modified door placement as well as shorter porch overhangs–measures likely intended to make the interior brighter). It was not unusual for Sears to accommodate such special wishes. In fact, the company marketed heavily to builders with the idea that it would be most cost-effective to build whole batches of houses and that different exteriors could give houses with the same floor plan a less uniform look.Screenshot 2015-11-18 21.42.21 Sears built-in leaded glass bookshelf-kit house-IMG_4311 (1)
1912 Sears catalog bookcase hingeThe pictures in this post are from 1910 and 1913 Sears catalogs along with yet another one of the Macomb St. “No. 151” houses, whose owners have lived in the house for a couple of decades. They were delighted to learn of their home’s interesting history and generously invited us in to document many of the well preserved original details. Such surviving details are important in their sum, as in the early years (between about 1908 and 1914) the packaged lumber for the kit wasn’t precut and stamped as in later years. This is what makes the older homes much harder to authenticate, especially in the absence of deed documentation and mortgage records which are more readily available for those homes built in the 1920s and ’30s.A slideshow of the (somewhat more remodeled) No.151 that was recently sold can be seen here.

Sears Roebuck Homes CCA98234_0128 1911 Sears-mosaic bath tile--IMG_4318








To read about what kind of people in DC would buy kit houses in the 1910s and 1920s, click here.

If you think you live in a kit house and would like to share some details or pictures with us, or if you would like assistance in authenticating your historic mail-order home, feel free to get in touch with us via the form below or shoot us an email: kithouse@dchousesmarts.com

A Perfect “Reproduction” (Part 1)

3929 Macomb St NW, one of the oldest known kit houses in DC
2939 Macomb St NW, one of the oldest known kit houses in DC

It’s been a summer of fabulous new catalog house discoveries for us, although we have a lot of catching up to do to present here. Since my talk at the Cleveland Park Historic Society in May, we also came across what so far are the oldest authenticated catalog houses in DC–and they’re on Macomb Street, right in the Cleveland Park Historic District!

It’s a persistent myth that the historic kit houses (like those from Aladdin, Sears or Lewis) were all built by Harry Homeowners and their handy families. The testimonials in old Sears catalogs might make it sound that way, and it was certainly the case for many of them, especially for smaller models and perhaps more so in the later years. But in here in DC, a town full of government employees, lawyers and office workers, quite the opposite is true. Many of the catalog houses we have identified were erected by builders, often on spec.

That’s also what happened to 2937 to 2941 Macomb St NW — the lots were developed by some Harry A. Kite who built the first “four small detached houses” at “reasonable prices” from “perfect plans” in 1911. He did not mention that they were “Avondales” (at the time still known as “No.151”) and “Matokas” (a.k.a. “Modern Home No. 168”), offered by Sears, Roebuck and Co.

We almost didn’t recognize them, as each model had some modification to porch design and facade fenestration made–in the Avondale, the door moved to the middle and some smaller windows were combined in to one large one. This customization–common on developer’s orders–might have been done to make the look fit better into the neighborhood. More likely, though, it was intended to distinguish the home from catalog images, should any buyer ever come across them!

How do we know? When 2939 Macomb St NW recently came on the market, I got a peak and shared my thrilling discovery with Cleveland Park historian Carin Ruff. She didn’t know it was a kit house but knew about the developer and promised to search her permitting database (which will likely show Sears Roebuck as the “architect” of the house. The very same day, a kit house enthusiast from Oklahoma published a Sears’ iconic “Avondale” bungalow, which she says was the kit house model Sears built for the 1909 Springfield Illinois state fair.  She also was the one who found a December 1910 article from the Evening Star, in which developer  Kite described what he wanted to build on his Macomb St lots: “exact reproductions of the model bungalow dwelling on exhibition on the Illinois state fair grounds.”

You guessed it: Sears (or house catalogs) were not mentioned at all, only that the plans had been chosen from “among hundreds submitted.”

(Click here for part 2 with floor plans and more photos of the Macomb Street bungalows.)

To read more about what kind of people in DC would buy kit houses in the 1910s and 1920s, click here.