February 18, 2020

Aladdin Kit Houses Travel the Globe

Logistically it would not have been complicated for the U.S. kit home manufacturers to ship their products abroad. We have ample evidence that kit homes were sold outside the U.S.

The Aladdin Company of Bay City, Michigan, was the king of international sales. In its advertising, the company said, "Aladdin houses stand in every part of the world...". Aladdin customers built houses in Canada, England, France, Switzerland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Liberia, Iceland, Venezuela, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Mexico, Hawaii, Philippines, Japan (for the American Red Cross), Australia, and Tahiti.

And... in the Falkland Islands at the end of the earth.

Illustration from the Falkland Islands Development Corporation.

The Falkland Islands are a remote British territory, and have a population of 3,354 (as of 2016). Fishing is the largest industry.

In 1925, the Aladdin Company received orders for houses to be shipped to the Falkland Islands. It is unknown who placed the order--possibly a government agency.

The plan was to ship the houses from Aladdin's plant in Portland, OR. The houses would go through the Panama Canal and back north to Liverpool, England!


From there, the houses would be transferred to a British ship that would cross the Atlantic to the Falkland Islands. A British ship delivered supplies to the islands every two months.

"We are confident this is the longest shipment of houses ever made, and we feel confident there are few shipments of any kind that travel a greater distance to get to [their] destination," said W.J. Sovereign, the president of the Aladdin Company.

I believe that! Portland to Liverpool through the Panama Canal is 8,870 miles. Liverpool to the Falkland Islands is 7,976 miles, for a grand total of 16,846 miles! Was this really the most cost-effective route?

Today there are 930 homes on Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands.

Stanley today. Do you think any of those Aladdin houses are still standing?  Photo from Wikipedia.

February 4, 2020

Why Does Chicago Have So Few Sears Homes?

As of the date of this writing, here are the highest Sears house totals for the Chicago metro area. Notice anything surprising?

How can the city of Chicago have fewer houses than a bunch of Western suburbs?

Let's compare Chicago to first place Elgin.

Chicago comprises 234 square miles, while Elgin comprises 37.94.   Chicago has 1,201,732 housing units (as of 2015) and Elgin has 39,927.  Out of 1.2 million residences in Chicago, we can account for only 35 Sears houses?! What is going on?

There are a few reasons for the low number of Sears houses in Chicago. Let's break it down.

One of the 35--a picture-perfect Sears Berwyn at 11227 S. Drake. In Chicago and not in Berwyn! Photo from Realtor site.

Sears Berwyn.

Fire Limits
The fire limits are one of the reasons Chicago has so few kit homes.

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, frame homes were outlawed in much of Chicago. The city banned new wood construction and major repairs or improvements to extant wood buildings. Within the fire limits, city building codes mandated masonry construction.  People could still build frame houses in areas of the city outside the fire limits (such as Edison Park, Beverly, West Lawn among others). Because kit houses were always frame construction,  the areas of Chicago in which they could be constructed was restricted. As a result, in most of the city, we will not find any Sears houses.

1934 article from the Chicago Tribune. The city council hoped to include Edison Park and Norwood Park in the fire limits.

6654 N. Oshkosh, in the Edison Park neighborhood. This house was built in 1932.

Lack of Mortgage Records
Sears Roebuck offered financing to home buyers. In most counties, you can search by "grantee" names and look for the transactions where homebuyers transferred the security interest of their houses to the Sears trustees when they got mortgages. These records also include the legal descriptions of the houses Sears financed.  VoilĂ , a quick and efficient way to locate kit houses using the Sears trustee names.

This technique does not work in Cook County.

Cook County uses a geographic index, and does not track transactions by grantee name.  This means that, using the legal description, you look up a particular house in a tract book. In the tract book, you can see each transaction for a certain parcel of land.  (Actually, you just find transaction numbers--you must conduct a whole other search to find the deeds that correspond to the transaction numbers.) Unlike other counties, in Cook there is not a fast way to search transactions by Sears trustee name and find all the houses that Sears financed. 

Because we cannot do this kind of search in Chicago, it makes finding Sears houses exponentially more difficult.

 Sheer Size
At 234 square miles, Chicago is huge. It is impossible to wade through all the real estate listings or conduct a windshield survey (a quick reconnaissance of the area done from a car).  It makes finding Sears houses a hit-or-miss affair.

9246 S. Perry in Washington Heights. Photo from Cook County Assessor.

Sears Windsor.

Author Rebecca Hunter believes that the lack of Sears houses in Chicago is because of the influence of strong local labor unions who resisted kit homes because they made house construction easier for non-professionals. There is evidence to support that Sears had trouble with labor unions once they began offering home construction services in the 1930's.

The union theory does not explain why a city like Pittsburgh, the cradle of the American labor movement, can account for over 500 Sears homes. 

In Conclusion
I can guarantee that there are more than 35 Sears houses within the Chicago city limits. Finding them will be a long process, with a significant amount of luck involved.

If you know of a Sears house in Chicago, please email me.

January 21, 2020

How is This Sears Corona Connected to Pee-wee's Playhouse?

2301 Jefferson, Gary. Capture from Google Streetview.

Sears Corona from the 1918 Modern Homes catalog.

The Sears Corona is a Craftsman bungalow that Sears sold in the early 1920's.

The left side of the house. Capture from Google Streetview.

Rear view. Is that an original Sears garage? Capture from Google Streetview.

This Sears Corona was built by contractors the in spring of 1920 for Dr. Vereen M. Marshall. The total cost of the house was $14,000--a large sum at the time. The Corona was a spacious 1.5 story house.

Vereen married Thelma Edwards in June of that year. Vereen was the only black dentist in Gary and Thelma was a public school teacher. In 1924, baby William was born.

Vereen's entry in Who's Who in Colored America.

The Marshalls divorced in 1934, but Thelma continued to live in the Corona. She went back to school and ultimately became a leading social worker in the area. After her retirement in 1970,  she sold the house and moved to California.

William Marshall became an acclaimed actor with a long career. You might be familiar with his work.

"The Ultimate Computer" episode from Star Trek (1968).

William played Thomas Bowers on Bonanza.

Blacula (1972).

He also played the King of Cartoons on Pee-wee's Playhouse. William said he took the role for his grandchildren.

William died in 2003 of Alzheimer's disease.

The House Today
After Thelma sold the Corona in 1970, the Midtown neighborhood, and Gary as a whole, continued to decline.  In 2017, the City of Gary Redevelopment Commission auctioned off the house for $330. The new owner replaced the roof and apparently is investing in the property.