May 31, 2022

A Storybook Cottage in an English Village

Imagine an idyllic suburb based on a traditional English village. A $90M (in 1925 dollars!) model community planned for 40,000 residents. Street names like Canterbury, Downing, Buckingham, and Kensington. It was marketed as a "dream city".

The developers christened the 2,600-acre suburb "Westchester" in 1925. 

Ad in the Chicago Tribune from February 1926. 

 Unfortunately, this vision of Westchester never manifested due to the Great Depression. 

The infrastructure was built--71 miles of storm/sanitary sewer system, 41 miles of water mains, 40 miles of sidewalks, 20 miles of paved streets, a street lighting system with 40 miles of underground cable, and 15,000 tree saplings planted.

But time had run out for Westchester. Only 121 single-family homes were built before the economy tanked. The 1930 population totaled 358. 

A couple of the OG English houses built by developers in Westchester prior to the crash of the housing market. 825 Portsmouth (top) and 1653 Stratford (bottom). 

As residential building in the Chicago area slowed beginning in 1930, the real estate companies abandoned the plan of building English Tudor houses in Westchester and started selling off their lots to anyone who would buy them. Over 5,000 parcels were available, but buyers were scarce.

One of those buyers was Frank Simek. He and his wife Libbie constructed a lovely Gordon-Van Tine English cottage that is one of the few relics of Westchester's origin that remain today. (All photos courtesy of Maureen Woods.)

1608 Stratford Avenue, Westchester.

Gordon-Van Tine Harmony.

The Harmony was built between 1930 and 1935. Clearly the Simeks wanted their kit house to blend in with the other Tudors in the community. At the time the house was built, there were only three other houses on Stratford Avenue (Stratford-Upon-Avon was Shakespeare's birthplace), so there was a lot of open space.

The second story addition was added sometime after 1957. Gordon-Van Tine did offer another design of the Harmony that had a finished second floor but the Simeks did not avail themselves of that option.

The arched garden entrance.

Some old flagstones in the front of the house. I wonder if there was originally a flagstone patio.

Half-timbered entrance with a batten door.


The door hardware is the original Monarch-Beverly style sold by Gordon-Van Tine.

A super-detailed floor plan of the Harmony (later called the Vernon) from the 1936 Gordon-Van Tine catalog of homes.

The dining room faces the front of the house.

The house still has its original interior doors.

Besides this Harmony in Westchester, only one other example of this model has been identified in the U.S.

The Simeks lived in the house until late 1949.

Westchester did rebound after World War II, and building continued, but the idea of the English village was gone. Most houses that were built during this time were ranches and split levels. All fairytales come to an end.

April 26, 2022

Did Sears Houses Come with Plaques?

In this post I will re-examine another “fact” about Sears kit homes that is consistently mentioned on the internet.

Many people claim that Sears houses came with plaques that signified that the materials were from Sears Roebuck.

  • "My neighbor's house is definitely Sears. He even has the Sears plaque mounted in the utility room."
  • "I found a Sears plaque in a basement of a house I lived in once. "
  • "I am not sure what model I own, but there is a Sears plaque on the stairwell to the basement."
  • "The Realtor saw a plaque in the attic that said it is a Sears house."

Purportedly plaques are found everywhere in Sears houses--in utility rooms, basements, stairwells, and attics. Is this true? And if it is not the case, why are there all these reports of plaque sightings?

Let's take these questions one at a time.

Did Sears Houses Come with Plaques?
If all Sears houses came with plaques, identifying them would be easy!

I personally have never seen a plaque inside a Sears house. I have never had a homeowner tell me that their Sears house had a plaque. I have never once seen a photograph of a plaque. The Sears Modern Homes catalogs never once mentioned that a plaque that would be issued.

However, I have seen plaques on the outside of Sears houses that were issued by local historical societies, but I don't think that is what the people on the internet are talking about.

162 Rosedale, Crystal Lake.

Sears Willard.

The house plaque that clearly did not originate from Sears Roebuck.

Without any evidence to support the claim of plaques being issued by Sears Roebuck, we must presume that the people who think they saw one are mistaken.

Which brings us to our next question...

Why are There Many Reports of Plaque Sightings?
I consulted with a couple of other Sears house researchers. The best explanation we could come up with is that people saw the plaques found on prefabricated homes sold after WWII and erroneously attributed them to Sears.

For instance, the Lustron Corporation and the Gunnison Housing Corporation did have plaques on their houses. (Neither of these companies was affiliated with Sears Roebuck.)

A metal plaque on a Lustron house. It designates the model and serial number.

A Lustron in Lombard.

A metal registration plate signifying a Gunnison Home.  It says "Registered" and a bunch of numbers I can't read.

A Gunnison house in Kenosha.

March 22, 2022

Boulderstrewn, a Sears Verona with a Booby-Trapped Wine Cellar

2114 Cedar Rd., Homewood. Photo from Realtor site.

Sears Verona from 1923.

The Sears Verona is a Modern Dutch Revival that Sears sold from 1918 to 1928. The early Veronas (1918-1923) had a bay window on the second floor. 

The Verona's floor plan is traditional, with a formal reception hall, large rooms, and bay windows.  Sears said in its catalog that the Verona was "built many times in exclusive suburbs of New York, Chicago, Washington, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and other large cities. This proves it is no experiment."

The Verona came with an enclosed back porch on the first floor and a second floor balcony on top of the porch. Today both levels have been enclosed. The enclosed back porch is another distinguishing feature of the Sears Verona. Photo from

Today, the Verona in Homewood is an airbnb owned by Peter, a Sears Homes of Chicagoland reader. Let's take a look inside! Unless otherwise noted, all photos are publicly available on airbnb.


The huge living room is about 13'x26'. 



Photo from Realtor site. 

The sunny eat-in area is in the enclosed porch.

There are stairs all over the second floor of the Verona. There are four bedrooms and a bathroom at the front of the house. 

A representative bedroom in the Verona. The house still has its original doors.


Another bedroom, but this one has the Sears "triple unit clothes closet".

The second-floor bathroom has a bay window as well.

J. Harlen Bretz built the Sears Verona in Homewood in 1921. He died in the home at age 98. Bretz was a world-renowned geologist at University of Chicago, where he also received his PhD.
J. Harlen Bretz.

Bretz named his property "Boulderstrewn" because of all the rocks and minerals he placed in the gardens. 
Bretz had quite a rock collection in the yard, although he donated the bulk of his extensive collection to Albion College upon his death. Photo from

Photo from

Bretz hosted many parties at Boulderstrewn for University of Chicago students and also students from his alma mater, Albion College. 

Bretz and Albion College students at Boulderstrewn in 1977.


Bretz would make party guests find his secret wine cellar. He would hand the guests a set of keys and challenged them to get inside the trick door. The door to the wine cellar was made of heavy iron grill, and to open it, you had to insert the keys in a certain sequence.  

According to the book An Airplane Was My Burro: The Memoirs of a Venturesome Geologist, Bretz booby-trapped some of the holes in the door. "The wrong holes could ring a bell, set off a blank cartridge pistol, give an electric shock, or even trigger a horse laugh." 

Students exploring Bretz's basement.


Bretz Drive in Homewood is named in his honor.