July 16, 2016

A Sunny Sears Sunbury

Some residents of Griffith, Indiana report that their house was originally from Sears. I believe this to be a Sears Sunbury model--with a different interior floor plan than what was shown in the catalogs.
 
417 S. Broad St., Griffith, IN. Photo from Realtor site.
Sears Sunbury from 1940.

Another angle from Google Streetview. You can see the unique roof line of the Sunbury in this shot. The attached garage appears to be original and that component was sold by Sears as an add-on. You can find it on other Sears houses throughout the area.
 
Sears sold the Sunbury from 1932 to about 1941, almost a decade, but for some reason, this is the only one that has been found to date. Sears said that the Sunbury was "an American development of the famous Cotswold cottages of England".

Now the Sunbury in Indiana has a reverse floor plan, which Sears would typically change at no cost. But the chimney has also moved locations which indicates a change to the interior layout.
 
The Sunbury normally has a pushed out front living room and a recessed front bedroom. The fireplace would be on the outside wall.

 
The living room is where the front bedroom is on the floor plan. The triple windows are on the left side of the house. The fireplace was moved because the living room was. Photo from Realtor site.


A dining room, which did not exist on the original floor plan, is now where the living room was supposed to be. Photo from Realtor site.

 

This Sunbury was built in the spring of 1941.  The original owners were Ervin A. and Clare Fiebelkorn. Ervin worked as an art teacher in the public schools. Ervin's brother was a carpenter, so he might have assisted with the home construction.





July 11, 2016

Why Did Sears Stop Selling Houses?

In this post I will re-examine another common “fact” about Sears homes that is frequently mentioned in the media, in books, and on internet sites. 

Why Did Sears Stop Selling Houses?

  • "Increasingly complex house designs, the Great Depression, and federally sponsored mortgage programs (FHA) were the three primary reasons that Sears closed their Modern Homes Department. "
  • "In the 1930s, during the Depression, the housing market took a sharp downturn, and by 1940, Sears stopped selling kit homes, as many people had lost their jobs and defaulted on their loans."

These two explanations are cited again and again as the reasons Sears stopped selling houses. Now let's take a closer look at the facts.

The State of the Sears Modern Homes Department in 1940
Sears actually stopped selling houses in 1942, not 1940. However, many websites and books state that the Modern Homes business was irreparably suffering and "dwindling" by 1940. That is patently false.

In 1940, residential construction in the United States was booming and re-approaching levels experienced during the 1920's.



I made this chart using data from the United States Department of Labor statistics. It doesn't look like the residential construction market was on the decline in 1940.





In 1940, the Sears Modern Homes department had 16 district sales offices and 120 salespeople. In 1939 Sears sold about $7 million in houses ($117 million in today's dollars). Those numbers mean that sales were not stalling or "dwindling".

Sears stopped offering home financing way back in 1933. Foreclosures from a decade earlier had nothing to do with Sears exiting the business in 1942. 


The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was created in 1934 and it set standards for new residential construction. The Sears models were "well within FHA requirements", according to Sears press releases, and meeting these supposedly "complex" housing standards clearly was not a problem for Sears.


Reassurances from the 1940 Sears Modern Homes catalog. "It's one thing to meet requirements, but it's a better thing to exceed them!" So much for the complexity.

 


These explanations for why Sears stopped selling houses are nonsense.

Why Did Sears Stop Selling Houses?
Hmm. Let me think. What was happening in 1942 that would affect the housing industry in the United States?





War preparations got underway in earnest in 1940 and the demand for lumber exploded. Lumber production increased in 1939, 1940 and 1941, but orders were in excess of output.

In 1941 the Supplies Priorities and Allocations Board issued the L-41 order curtailing ''nonessential" construction. This order meant that new residential construction was permitted only for workers in the defense industries like shipyards and tank, aircraft, and bomber plants. L-41 certainly crippled the Sears Modern Homes business.

Consequently, in late 1941 and early 1942, Sears mainly sold kit houses for worker housing developments in Ohio and New Jersey, among other places. 

675 S McKinley Ave., Kankakee. This is an authenticated Sears Yates built in early 1942.  Kankakee was home to the Kankakee Ordnance Works which produced TNT for the war and other chemicals. This Yates could have been classified as worker housing. Photo from Realtor site.


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In 1942, the government called the need for lumber "critical". In May of that year, the U.S. government took control of all lumber mill sales and deliveries. This would ensure that there would be an adequate supply of lumber for military purposes.

It's hard to sell houses when you can't get any lumber.

So our answer is simple: Sears stopped selling houses because of the government's regulation of resources during WWII and the national restrictions on construction materials. After the war, Sears re-entered the housing business in 1946 when they introduced Homart Homes.
















June 28, 2016

Why Are So Many People Wrong About Their "Sears" Houses?

The subject of Sears homes came up on Atlas Obscura a few weeks ago. Since that article was published, I have been inundated with emails telling me about Sears homes located in every area of the country--from California to New Jersey to Oklahoma to Florida and many places in between.

The vast majority of these reported Sears homes are not Sears homes at all.

So what is going on? Why do so many people insist their house (or their neighbor's house or their grandma's house) is from Sears when in reality they don't resemble any of the Sears models?

I don't have a definitive answer, but I have some possible reasons.

1. Misconception that a Craftsman bungalow is a Sears bungalow. The term "Craftsman house" has nothing to do with Sears although many people believe that any house in that style must be from Sears because of the name. Although Sears had a hardware line called Craftsman that started in 1927, Craftsman architecture refers to houses designed in the Arts and Crafts style, which came into vogue about 1910. Sears sold some Craftsman bungalows, but not all Craftsman bungalows are from Sears. In my experience, this misunderstanding of the term Craftsman results in many houses misidentified as Sears.


Chicago house reported to me as a Sears house. It's not Sears, but it is a Craftsman house, built in 1909. Photo from Curbed.

2. Just because the building materials were from Sears does not mean the house was a kit from Sears. Sears sold kit houses, which consisted of most of the materials you needed to build a house for one set price. The kit houses were standard models that were detailed in the Modern Homes catalogs. Sears also sold building materials separately to buyers. You may have purchased the lumber, doors, shingles, and windows for your house from Sears, but that doesn't make the house a kit house. This leads to confusion--when people learn that the building materials for their house were originally from Sears they assume the house is a kit model.

3. People assume their house was a Sears kit model that was "modified". Close enough isn't good enough in the kit house world. Sears did make changes to the exteriors of the standard models on occasion, but this practice was not as widespread as people assume. If your purported Sears house differs from the catalog illustrations, you need to find proof to back up your assertion. 


Sears Magnolia.




A supposed Sears Magnolia in Como, MS. There's no proof supporting this claim and the house does not match the catalog illustration. Sorta close is not good enough. 

4. All kit houses are not from Sears. Many other companies sold kit houses--Montgomery Ward, Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine, Harris Brothers... to name a few. Every kit house is not a Sears house; every chocolate bar is not a Hershey bar. Often houses misreported as Sears houses are actually kits from other companies.

340 Prospect Ave., Glen Ellyn. The owners believe this is a Sears kit house.


It's actually model No. 588 from Gordon-Van Tine.



Do you know of a Sears house? Feel free to email me.








June 14, 2016

A Tour of a Charming Sears Crescent

Reader Patty Farthing recently sent me photos of her aunt's Sears Crescent in Lake Station, Indiana. Martha Thompson is the third owner of the house, and has lived there about 55 years.

This Crescent is in largely original condition, so let's take a tour. (All photos courtesy of Patty Farthing.)

2417 Putnam St., Lake Station IN. 

Sears Crescent.



 


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