Midtown Raleigh News

‘Made to Order’ exhibit celebrates Raleigh’s kit homes

For many families early in the 20th century, the American Dream of homeownership was realized through the U.S. mail.

Ready-to-assemble kits sold through catalogs by Sears Roebuck and other companies gave hundreds of thousands of families the opportunity to own homes, and many of these houses are still homes today.

Raleigh, it turns out, was very much part of the kit home craze, which peaked after World War I. Rosemary Thornton, author of “The Houses That Sears Built,” said Raleigh has more surviving kit homes per capita than about 75 percent of the cities she’s researched in the Southeast.

Thornton has identified more than 40 kit homes in such neighborhoods as Boylan Heights, Cameron Park, Five Points, Mordecai Place and Glenwood-Brooklyn. There are probably many more, she said.

“I’ve seen kit homes (models) in Raleigh that I haven’t seen anywhere else.”

The Raleigh Historic Development Commission and the Raleigh City Museum are spotlighting Thornton’s work Friday and Saturday with a new exhibit, “Made to Order: Kit Homes in Raleigh,” and a free lecture and book signing by Thornton.

Kit homes, which became available in the late 1800s, presaged the idea of prefabricated homes, said architect Fred Belledin, historic commission chairman. As they flourished, they popularized the architectural styles they represented, including the Bungalow, an evolution of a compact building type from late 19th century, as well as the Foursquare and Cape Cod.

Kits also led to modern building practices, such as the use of drywall instead of traditional lath and plaster, and asphalt shingles in lieu of tin or wood. They also contributed to the transition from custom work for every piece of a home to the manufacture of stock pieces, like doors, windows and cabinets, and made available systems like central heating, indoor plumbing and electrical wiring, which were still new at the time, Belledin said.

But kit homes also represent a slice of Americana and the spirit of growth and possibilities that enveloped the country in the early 20th century. The trend took off as more than 1 million men returned from World War I, and owning a house was promoted as a patriotic duty, Thornton said.

Companies like Sears, Montgomery Ward, Aladdin and Harris Brothers shipped about 350,000 kits containing upwards of 30,000 pieces, including the kitchen sink, on the premise that anyone who could follow directions could build their own house at about a 50 percent savings. Each piece of lumber was stamped with a letter and numbers to guide assembly.

Sears’ first Modern Homes catalog came out in 1908 with more than 40 designs priced from $49 to $4,115, according to Thornton. Sales fell in the 1930s as housing codes made requirements for wiring, plumbing and mechanical systems too complex for the layman. Sears discontinued home sales in 1940.

An estimated 70,000 Sears kit homes survive nationwide, she said.

‘A lot of character’

Joshua and Christine Dittmer live in a Craftsman-style kit home on Vance Street in Five Points. Joshua Dittmer said he has doubts about whether their home really is a kit, and he looks forward to Thornton’s lecture and explanation of how she identifies kit homes.

“They tell me it is,” he said. “She must know, she’s the expert. It’s hard to imagine any house coming in a kit.”

The Dittmers’ home has four bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths, and was built in 1922, probably with one bathroom added later, he said. It originally had 2,400 or 2,800 square feet, but they built an addition that makes it a 3,800-square-foot home.

“It’s pretty and it stands out,” Dittmer said. “It has a nice front porch and a porte-cochère. It just seems to have a lot of character.”

Before they bought it in January 2009, the house belonged for two generations to the family of local historian Edgar M. Wyatt, author of “Growing Up in Raleigh: Childhood Memories of Life in the Capital City During the Great Depression.”

Matthew Brown, a historian who said he’s researched the title of every house in historic Oakwood, was surprised when Thornton identified his Mordecai Drive house as a Sears Sunbeam (aka The Elmwood) built from a kit in 1925.

The two-floor, five-room Craftsman-style bungalow sold for $1,740, according to a catalog page on Thornton’s Sears Modern Homes blog (searshomes.org).

“They were beautiful houses compared to what we have now,” Brown said. “And the people who designed those catalog houses were great architects. Some of the nicest homes from the ’20s were Sears houses. They weren’t the biggest or the grandest, they were just nice designs.”

The City Museum exhibit will show current photos of 17 kit homes still occupied in Raleigh along with the catalog pages that advertised them, exhibit coordinator Jennifer Carpenter said.

The exhibit will also explain the architectural styles popularized through kit homes and tell the story of companies that sold houses through the mail. The exhibit opens with a reception at 6 p.m. Friday and runs through September.

Thornton was a freelance writer who enjoyed architecture when she discovered “The Comfortable House,” by Alan Gowans, a book about kit homes, in 1987. She was immediately enamored with the do-it-yourself housing concept. Two years later, she began researching the 150-plus Sears homes in Carlinville, Ill., and her fascination deepened.

“I only got into this because I fell in love with the topic,” she said. “I wrote the book that I wanted to read.”

Thornton said she’ll also put the kit home trend into historical context during her presentation.

“About 90 percent of the people living in these homes don’t know what they have,” she said. “They don’t realize the historic significance, and that their home came from a 12,000-piece kit.”