In the not-so-terribly-distant past, people actually bought stuff — bicycles, matronly brasseries, motor buggies, bridal gowns, you name it — from the Sears catalog, a well-thumbed staple of suburban homes — and rural outhouses — across America. And, from 1908 to 1940, the one-time mail order titan also sold ready-to-assemble kit homes via the widely circulated “Consumer’s Bible” first published in 1888.
Today, locating and identifying an authentic Sears Modern Home — in the ballpark of 70,000 to 75,000 homes available in over 400 unique designs were sold and shipped to buyers across the country via railway boxcar during the 32-year history of the program — is somewhat of a sport for historic house-hunters, preservationists, and proto-prefab enthusiasts given that sales records were destroyed by the company in the mid-1940s and scant documentation on the existing homes remain.
In other words, properly IDing one of the homes outside of well-established Sears Modern Home enclaves such as Elgin and Carlinville, Ill. is like spotting a unicorn. It requires skill, finesse, research, and, often, dumb luck to find and identify one of these increasingly rare and elusive beauties that came equipped with one hell of an instruction manual. Today, many homeowners may live in one of these historically significant homes and not realize it, which is why those in the greater Chicago area shouldn’t be too alarmed if a stranger shows up on your front porch brandishing yellowed floor plans and asks to examine your eave brackets or take a look around your basement. With some models, the front columns can be a dead giveaway.
Although Sears itself doesn’t consider the catalog-ordered abodes, which for some years were offered with financing options, as innovative in the home design or construction departments, the company does recognize that the homes did popularize emerging home technology — Indoor plumbing! Electricity! — in the early part of the 20th century:
Central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity were all new developments in home design that Modern Homes incorporated, although not all of the homes were designed with these conveniences. Central heating not only improved the livability of homes with little insulation but it also improved fire safety, always a worry in an era where open flames threatened houses and whole cities, in the case of the Chicago Fire. Indoor plumbing and homes wired for electricity were the first steps to modern kitchens and bathrooms. Sears Modern Homes program stayed abreast of any technology that could ease the lives of its homebuyers and gave them the option to design their homes with modern convenience in mind.
As things go, many Sears Modern Homes have been demolished over the years and many more are under threat, including one 1920s-era Wellington model home in Arlington, Va. which is actually being given away for free with one not-so-minor stipulation: Whoever acquires the home must move it —and pay for said relocation — to a new location.
NPR recently shared the interesting preservation tale of this “little house looking for a home,” a story that involves a pair of Italian architects vying to save the 960-square-foot bungalow from the wrecking ball. The two-bedroom home was purchased this past September for $750,000 by a new owner who ultimately decided that, with remodeling and expanding out of the question, it simply wasn't large enough for her family and an entirely new structure would have to take its place — an unfortunate but not an unusual story by any means. Upon discovering the historical significance of the home,the aforementioned architects hired by the new owner, Paola Lugli and Paola Amodeo, decided it needed some saving.
The new owner, apparently, was very much on the same page.
Lugli elaborates to Preservation Arlington, which is helping the architects spread word about the well-preserved Wellington at 3010 7th St. N.:
When we got the project, we spoke with our client, and we all agreed that the house should not be demolished. Unfortunately, given its positioning on the very narrow lot and the programmatic requirements of the client, we cannot integrate it in our project. The Sears bungalows are part of Arlington’s historic heritage and boast great proportions, hard-to-find craftsmanship, and attention to detail. We would love for someone to move it somewhere where it can be used. As architects, we prefer saving well-built historic homes. It is a better choice for the character of the city and it is also truly eco-friendly.
Amodeo explains to NPR that relocating the “free” Sears Modern Home won’t necessarily come cheaply or easily. “Just to put it on a truck and move it locally, it's about $30,000," she explains of the process that would involve lifting the home (minus its two porches) from its foundation and safely getting onto a truck. The utilities would also need to be capped and disconnected. Adds Lugli: “"Obviously there's a little work involved. Just a tad."
The $30,000 relocation estimate does not include site work, including foundation, that needs to be performed at the home’s new site wherever that may be — the architects think the home could also serve well in a non-residential context.
Eric Dobson with Preservation Arlington estimates that there are between 100 and 200 existing Sears Modern Homes in Arlington County although many are under threat. Cynthia Liccese-Torres, historic preservation coordinator for Arlington County, believes the homes to be an important link to the county’s past: “This typifies the types of homes that were originally built here and being able to reuse it just shows how they are still viable, even in the 21st century."
Thus far, Amodeo and Lugli have received 150 email inquiries about the unique "moving sale."
Related on MNN
- When saving an endangered Wright home requires relocating it ... to Italy
- To protect and preserve
- Sears Mail-Order Home From 1925 Was a Prefab Pioneer [TreeHugger]