September 17, 2019

The Sears Berwyn Combines Comfort and Economy

4537 Central, Western Springs. Photo from Realtor site.

Sears Berwyn.

The Sears Berwyn was one of the top five most popular kit house models in Illinois. You will find at least one in most communities.

The architect of the Berwyn was David S. Betcone. He said of the Berwyn: "To relieve the monotony of the ordinary rectangular plan we placed an offset along the front wall of this home. Under this front gable a small entrance porch gives the front door necessary protection. The openings on this porch have semicircle arches at the top which add to its attractiveness."

That fireplace chimney is not original to the house. You can also see an addition off the right side. Photo from Realtor site.

The floors are oak. I love this room! Photo from Realtor site.

As delivered, the Berwyn had a plaster arch between the living room and dining room but the customer could opt to leave it open. Photo from Realtor site.

Photo from Realtor site.

Photo from Realtor site.

The dining room buffet was relocated. Photo from Realtor site.

Here's the rear addition. Photo from Realtor site.

This Sears Berwyn in Western Springs was built about 1929. The original owners were Edward and Vera Dickenson. The house cost about $7,000 to construct. Edward worked as a printer.

The Dickensons lived in the house until Vera's death in 1977.

September 5, 2019

Aladdin City: the “Town Where Homes Will Rise Almost Over Night”

The Aladdin Company of Bay City, Michigan was a competitor of Sears in the mail-order house business. The founders of the company, brothers Otto and William Sovereign, planned a city in Florida  in which every house would be manufactured by Aladdin. It would bear the name Aladdin City.

The Sovereigns and some other investors created The Aladdin City Sales Company in 1925 and purchased a large parcel of land located 20 miles south of Miami. And they began to build the Moorish-themed city in December of that year.

Cover of the sales brochure for Aladdin City. Scan courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library of Central Michigan University.

The Project
The sales brochure announced: "Because the inspiration for its name is derived from the wonderful Oriental story of Aladdin and because location, surroundings, climate, and vegetation so peculiarly fit it, the Persian style has been selected for the motif of Aladdin City."

The center of city was Ali Baba Circle. Inside the circle was to be Ali Baba Park, with a large pool in the middle.  Ali Cogia Circle surrounded Ali Baba Circle, and those circles would constitute the city's commercial district. Other streets in the city were named Sovereign Boulevard, Aladdin Boulevard, Damascus Street,  Cairo Street,  Hassan Street, Mustapha Avenue, Bagdad (sp.) Street, Sinbad Street, Cathay Street, Sahib Street, and Mecca Avenue.

Can you imagine an American developer today using those street names?

The plat for half of Aladdin City.

They planned to build a plant at Aladdin City that would manufacture the ready-cut houses for the estimated 10,000 people that would live in the city. Then the plant would be used to build houses for the Florida market, the West Indies, and South America. Advertising stated that: "Aladdin City is NOT a suburb--NOT a subdivision. It is a complete self-sustained city in the heart of the great Redland agricultural district--and with an INDUSTRIAL PAYROLL back of it."

Illustration of Aladdin City from the sales brochure. This was a big project! Scan courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library.

The Houses

The house models designed for Aladdin City were bungalows with "typical Persian detail". (All scans courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library.)

These models were some of the highest priced homes Aladdin sold. Aladdin offered these models for sale nationwide, not just in Aladdin City. The materials for the Aladdin City houses were shipped from Aladdin's plant in Wilmington, NC.

The Launch
On opening day, January 14, 1926, Aladdin built a "dawn-to-dusk" house. The company chartered six airplanes to bring in building materials from Fort Lauderdale. 

Hundreds of spectators witnessed 21 carpenters, plasters, electricians, plumbers, and cement workers put up the house, complete with landscaping. A local school let students out early so that they could watch too. A press release from Aladdin stated: "In the morning the sun rose on a vacant lot and by nightfall a house had been carried in sections by airplane, fitted up and completely furnished so a family was able to move in."

The Santiago model was shown in the ad, but I'm not certain that's what was actually built. Ad from the Miami News.

An advertisement in the Miami News announced that 874 home sites had been sold on opening day. $250 down would buy the home site (total cost $1000) and Aladdin would "aid you in planning your home, build it for you, and help you finance the entire transaction...."


The first 49 seconds of this video is the dedication of Aladdin City. The "house built in a day" is already completed. I believe those are the Sovereign brothers who are speaking--William first, then Otto.  The footage is housed at the Wolfson Archives of Miami Dade University.

A later advertisement in April 1926 invited people to "See a city unfolding before your eyes! Giant road crushers making beautiful 100-foot boulevards. A wonderful swimming pool and sunken gardens being created. Homes being rushed to completion. Business blocks being built."

The planned water tower for Aladdin City. There's no evidence that this was ever built. Scan courtesy of the Clarke Historical Library.

Things appeared to be moving forward.

A Doomed City
The Sovereign brothers' timing could not have been worse. Aladdin City was doomed due to factors outside their control.

First, there were logistical problems.  Florida, and particularly the Miami area, was in the middle of a housing boom in 1925. The railroads found that they could not handle the volume of freight due to the massive amounts of building materials being ordered. Trains took almost a week to get from Jacksonville to Miami because of the traffic, and when they reached their destination, there were already more than a thousand freight cars waiting to be unloaded. Consequently, the largest three railroads were forced to place an embargo on imperishable freight to ensure food, fuel, and perishables (like ice!) could be delivered.

The lack of available building materials greatly slowed the initial progress of Aladdin City. "Long delayed arrival of machinery and equipment for developments has interfered with our progress schedule....come and see the ten Spanish bungalows now under construction" said an ad from February 1926.

The final blow to Aladdin City was the real estate bubble in Florida.

In the early 1920's people across the United States began to see the Miami area as a tropical paradise. Property prices rose rapidly on speculation since credit was easy to obtain. City lots in Miami were bought and sold as many as ten times in a single day!

Otto Sovereign wrote in his autobiography, Fifty Million Dollars on a Shoestring, "I observed Aladdin City emerge from a raw forest with an urgency born of fear that the boom would be over before the lot selling campaign got underway."

By the summer of 1926, there were no more buyers for the overpriced land and properties, and prices began to come down. Investors started selling their properties to lock in their profits. Then panic selling ensued as there were few buyers, and the real estate market crashed. Investors went bankrupt under their crushing debt loads.

The Aladdin City development suffered. By mid-1926 no one was buying real estate. There was no mention of Aladdin City in the local newspapers and no advertising after spring of 1926. The Aladdin City Sales Co. was in receivership by August of 1926.

The Aladdin City Sales Co. was finally dissolved in November 1936. Through 1939 the Sovereigns continued to liquidate their land holdings at a major loss.

The Aftermath
Aladdin constructed about 8-10 homes in Aladdin City, as well as a town hall. The nicest home was purchased by a couple who were investors in the development. The house was on Sinbad Street and cost them $6,000. After the real estate crash, they sold it for $500.

The Aladdin City town hall was used as a polling place through the 1930's and then gradually crumbled. It was rubble by the 1960's.

The bank building was started but never completed. The streetlights were never turned on. The streets were dirt and never paved.

The Seaboard Air Line Railway built a train station in Aladdin City in 1927. By 
1936, the empty train station was leased and used as a potato packing house through the 1960's. Then it was reduced to rubble by a hurricane.

Aladdin City died a slow death. Reportedly one of the Aladdin houses was moved to nearby Goulds. By 1960 almost everyone had moved out. 

A man stands in front of an abandoned house in 1960. This looks like the side of the Santiago model (see below).

This 1960 photo was captioned: "E.A. Frasier stands in front of his house that was built in a day." I have no idea what model this is. This is the same house shown in the video above.

In 1960 the train station was used as potato-packing house. Later, the station was destroyed by a hurricane.

In 1963, Aladdin City drew the attention of author John Steinbeck. In observing Florida's real estate boom of the 1950's and 60's, Steinbeck wrote: 
"There is the extravagant talk, once again, of building whole new 'cities'. (For a 1920's version of a 'city' that was to be, consider a place called Aladdin City in South Dade County which consists of a single shack with, behind it, streets and sidewalks running through the woods.)"

In 1969, Eva Fletcher was still living in one of the original Aladdin City houses on Cairo Street. She purchased it in 1930 for $600 (the house originally cost $5,000). Photo courtesy of the Miami Herald.

By 1987, only a few of the original houses were standing. One of those was a house that was originally built on Sinbad Street (renamed SW 210 Terrace). It was the three-bedroom Bahama model.

16265 SW 210 Terrace, Miami Florida. Photo from the Metropolitan Dade County Historic Preservation Board. In 1987, the board designated the house as an individual historic site.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 hurricane with 165 mph winds, destroyed all remaining structures in Aladdin City. Much of the land originally platted by the Sovereigns is now used for farming. Some of the streets are still there, and most have been renamed.

Aladdin City today. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Aladdin City is largely forgotten and information is scarce. If you have old photos or anything else to share, please email me. I'd love to hear from you.

A reader named Jack miraculously located the Aladdin house that was moved to unincorporated Miami-Dade County sometime before 1960. Based on Google Streetview, it appears to be a Bahama model.

22215 SW 124th Ave. Goulds, FL. The house has a distinctive crenellated roofline. The porch has been partially enclosed. Image from Google Streetview.

Aladdin Bahama.

You can see the front door from this angle and the original arches on the sides which haven't morphed into rectangular windows. Image from Google Streetview.

This Moorish Revival house was built in 1926 according to the county, which is the exact year the Aladdin City houses were constructed. The county believes it is being used as a church, which is interesting because it has no parking and no signage (and no windows).

Now take a look at the house next door, which resembles the Aladdin Havana. The county says it was built in 1930. Hmm.....

22295 SW 124th Ave. Goulds, FL.  Could it be? I know it's missing a fireplace, but maybe in South Florida the owners thought they didn't need one! Check out that unique roofline. Image from Google Streetview.

Aladdin Havana.

Feel free to post your thoughts in the Comments below.

September 3, 2019

How Common Are Sears Houses?

In this post I will re-examine another common misconception about Sears homes.

Were Sears Homes That Common?

"There are actually a number of communities in North Carolina where almost the entire town is Sears houses that were purchased through the catalog."

"I have an entire neighborhood of  [Sears homes] in my current city and I love them."

"I live in Santa Barbara and [Sears homes] are EVERYWHERE here."

"There's an entire neighborhood's worth of these Sears houses across from the old town library in my town. "

According to randos on the internet, there are many neighborhoods in the United States that consist primarily or exclusively of Sears houses. Could that possibly be true? Are Sears houses commonly found everywhere?

The short answer: no. Let's look at the facts.

Sears Houses are Rare.

Simply put, Sears houses are rare. 

Sears Roebuck sold houses from 1908 to 1942. During those years, there were 10,704,000 nonfarm single family houses built. That's almost 11 million houses built nationwide. (Source: 
Carney, Mary F. Nonfarm Housing Starts, 1889-1958 : Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 1260 , Washington, D.C: G.P.O., 1959.)

Guess how many Sears houses were built during that time?

About 65,000.

Of all houses built during that time, 0.61 percent were Sears houses.

Sears houses are not "everywhere". The numbers do not support that.

Sears Houses are Concentrated in Certain States.
Sears houses are not evenly distributed throughout the country.

The map illustrates how many Sears houses have been identified in each state. White means no houses have been identified. Red means very few. Yellow Ohio and Illinois have the most houses (over 2,000).


Notice how the preponderance of houses are in the Midwest and Northeast, specifically in Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan. There are a couple reasons for that.

Often, customers purchased their houses from a Modern Homes sales office.  A house was the biggest purchase a family could make, and working closely with a Sears sales representative was comforting to many people who didn't want to just drop a check in the mail and hope for the best.

The 1930 Modern Homes catalog listed the locations of the sales offices. All were located in the Midwest and Northeast. Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan had the most sales offices, and not coincidentally, those states are where the vast majority of the Sears houses were built.

Additionally, freight charges varied based on where the customer was located and how far they were from the Sears factories. The farther away, the more the freight. Those factories were located in New Jersey, Illinois, and Ohio. Occasionally materials would also be shipped from Michigan.

There is a reason that there are very few Sears houses in the Western states. The cost savings that a customer would gain from buying a kit house from Sears would be negated by the freight charges.

The Modern Homes catalogs clearly told customers where the materials would be shipped from. If you lived in Oregon, you knew the freight charges would be a fortune. This excerpt is from the 1918 Modern Homes catalog.

Sears provided a running total of the houses they sold in the 1917 Modern Homes catalog. See a pattern here? There were a concentration of houses in the Midwest and Northeast. By the way, we have located only 62 Sears houses in Iowa as of this writing. There are many more out there.

Some Neighborhoods Consist Primarily of Sears Houses. We Know Where They Are, Because Sears Told Us.
Sears sold homes to individual homeowners, but they also sold houses in bulk to corporations who wanted to construct housing for workers. These developments were typically near factories. Local examples of such developments were in Kankakee and downstate Carlinville.

Standard Oil wanted to ensure its workers had adequate housing and placed an order with Sears Roebuck for 156 houses to be built in Carlinville.  These are all Sears houses.


Sears also sold to developers who wanted to build many Sears houses in one neighborhood. A local example of this is LaPorte, Indiana, where Sears sold 50 houses in one subdivision.

415 Kenwood, LaPorte, IN. One of many Sears houses built in 1912 by a realty company. Capture from Google Streetview.

Sears Whitehall.

Sears heavily promoted these large sales in their advertising materials. They included location specifics and many photos. Additionally, Sears would often issue press releases to local newspapers promoting the developments.

Is it possible there are company towns or large collections of Sears houses that no one has yet discovered? I suppose it's possible, albeit unlikely.  We need to be dubious of claims of large numbers of Sears houses in certain areas.

Be Skeptical.

So next time you read that an entire neighborhood consists of Sears houses, or that they are everywhere in Santa Barbara, be skeptical. There were few mass purchases, few Sears houses built in the western United States, and few Sears houses built overall. Although we are fortunate to have a substantial number of Sears houses in Illinois, in most areas of the country, Sears houses are unicorns that are not always easy to find. 

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