October 2, 2014

The Long, Strange Saga of Downers Grove and their Sears Homes

I am asked regularly about Downers Grove and their Sears houses. Many people are under the erroneous impression that Downers Grove is the town with the most Sears homes in the Chicago area. (Actually, it’s Elgin with about 212; Downers Grove has 68, based on last count.)

How did Downers Grove get this unwarranted reputation as the epicenter for Sears homes? 

Around 1990, a volunteer for the historic society took the book Houses by Mail and attempted to identify the Sears houses in town. After five years, the volunteer came up with 150 Sears homes. 

Since that initial estimate of 150, the numbers have varied wildly from year to year. 

Reported Number of Sears Homes in Downers Grove
November 1995
Daily Herald
150 Sears homes
Village survey
43 Sears homes and 18 possibles
October 1999
Chicago Tribune
65 Sears homes
March 2002
Chicago Tribune, quoting the Downers Grove Visitors Bureau
69 Sears Homes
January 2003
Naperville Sun
286 kit homes, made by Sears and other manufacturers. Also claim was made that Downers Grove had the largest collection of Sears homes in the country.
Downers Grove Revisited book

70 Sears homes
May 2004
Chicago Tribune, quoting the director of tourism and events for Downers Grove
150 Sears homes, 286 catalog homes
April 2006
Daily Herald

86 “confirmed” Sears houses, 286 catalog homes
November 2013
Village survey
168 Sears houses. The report did note that: “These efforts were informal and did not document and verify actual construction dates and model types.”
February 2014
MySuburbanLife/Shaw Media, quoting the Downers Grove Park District Museum Supervisor
More than 200 catalog homes
October 2014

As of this writing, the Downers Grove Visitors Bureau nor the Downers Grove Historical Society provides a firm number of Sears homes on their respective websites.

Obviously, there is some confusion with the research. I’m not sure how many different informal surveys were done or how many individuals were involved in the identifications. The good news is that Downers Grove is not quoting specific numbers on the internet anymore, nor are they claiming that Downers Grove has more Sears homes than any other place in the country. 

So what happened? Here are a couple critical problems with the research.
  • Unknowledgable volunteers conducting the surveys. According to the early articles listed above, volunteers classified houses as Sears homes simply because they had “arched doors, multi-paned windows, sloping roofs, and phone hutches built into walls.” Unfortunately, most houses built in the 1920’s and 1930’s had those features—whether they were kit homes or not. This lack of understanding might account for the inaccurately high count of Sears houses in Downers Grove.
  • If a house didn’t match a catalog illustration, the volunteers proclaimed that it was a “hybrid” Sears model. According to the early articles listed above, “We found 25 in one day, plus a lot of hybrids-- combinations of several models." I can tell you that true hybrid Sears models are rare. Typically, houses identified as a hybrid of two Sears models are not Sears homes at all. In my opinion, it seems that the volunteers doing the initial surveys had a clear goal of identifying as many Sears houses as possible—accuracy be damned.

Here are some examples of the houses identified as Sears houses by the surveyors in Downers Grove.

4832 Bryan, Downers Grove. Incorrectly identified as a Sears Crescent. Many houses share a similar style. Photo from Realtor site. 

The Sears Crescent.

A real Sears Crescent at 4916 Seeley, Downers Grove. This was correctly identified. Photo courtesy of Sue Smith.

704 Chicago, Downers Grove. Incorrectly identified as a Sears Van Dorn. The Van Dorn was a small Dutch Colonial that did not have a center entrance. This is not a “hybrid” Sears model—it was never sold by Sears at all. I believe the original volunteer surveyors classified most Dutch Colonial Revival houses as Sears houses. Photo courtesy of village architectural survey.

Sears Van Dorn.

601 Prairie, Downers Grove. Incorrectly identified as a Sears Cedars. This is a kit house from another manufacturer--the Hudson from Gordon-Van Tine. Gordon-Van Tine fulfilled the kit house orders for Montgomery Ward. The very first kit house sold by Montgomery Ward was built in Downers Grove (demolished a few years ago). Census records show that many Montgomery Ward executives and managers lived in Downers Grove. With that in mind, what would a proper architectural survey turn up? Photo courtesy of village architectural survey.

The Hudson from Gordon-Van Tine.

Untruths that linger on and on… and on
When reading the old news articles about Downers Grove and their purported Sears houses, there were a couple pieces of misinformation I saw mentioned repeatedly. Others have told me that these “facts” continue to be propagated today and mentioned on the Downers Grove trolley tours of Sears homes. Let’s address them.

Untruth #1
“In 1929, when the stock market crashed, Sears had a big decision to make, Jensen said. Thousands of folks who had taken out money for their homes were never going to be able to pay up. Sears decided to eat the losses and destroyed the loan records.”

I almost choked on my Diet Coke when I read this one. Beginning around 1932, hundreds of customers who financed their homes with mortgages from Sears were unable to make payments. Sears foreclosed on 396 properties just in 1932 alone. No, the company did not decide to “eat the losses”. Rather, Sears hired a full-time employee whose sole responsibility was to resell or rent the foreclosed properties. The mortgage loans were also insured so the losses were mitigated somewhat. Sears Roebuck was a public company with shareholders to which they were accountable. 

Dupage County records clearly show that Sears Roebuck foreclosed on many houses in the 1930's. The statement about Sears eating the losses has not a grain of truth in it and I have no idea where someone could get that idea. 

Untruth #2
 “So why was Downers Grove blessed with so many Sears homes? Look to the railroad, Jensen said. Sears would ship a boxcar full of parts only if there was a place the car could sit for the seven to 10 days it would take to unload it. Downers Grove in those days was the end of the line for the Chicago commuter trains and boasted a roundhouse, where the old steamers could turn back toward the city. The excess tracks provided ample space to park a car or two.”

This myth is continually restated on the trolley tour. First, Sears shipped houses by rail to virtually every suburb. Sears did not withhold shipments to certain train depots or rate certain depots as unsuitable to receive shipments. 

Regardless of the “excess tracks”, boxcars did not sit on the Downers Grove team tracks for 7-10 days while the homeowners leisurely moved the building materials to their home sites. Here’s how rail shipments worked. There was a fee called demurrage. It was the charge the railroad assessed a railroad customer for the time a boxcar was on the track for unloading. The clock started when the car was placed on the team track and stopped when the customer notified the railroad they were done unloading.  All railroad stations in the Chicago area worked this way and Downers Grove was not unique.  

Additionally, I do not understand the logic behind the conclusion that people in Downers Grove would be more likely to order a kit home because Downers Grove had a roundhouse. The demurrage still applied and was an inconsequential amount compared to the cost of the house kit.


Rosemary Thornton said...

Very well done, Lara. Great explanations of the TRUE facts. Honest research takes months or years, and I've encountered too many "local historians" who are just not willing to make that kind of investment into discerning and discovering those true facts.

I also love the photos, showing "the boo-boos." Really demonstrates how sloppy they are with their comparisons.

Rosemary Thornton
author, The Sears Homes of Illinois

Laraine Shape said...

Great article, Lara. And excellent job of correcting the misinformation!

Sears Homes of Chicagoland said...

Rosemary, the compliment means a lot coming from you, considering your attempts to make Hopewell, Virginia "see the light" about their alleged Sears homes. Thanks for your kind words.

Laraine, thank you and there's a lot more correcting that needs to be done in DG as it pertains to their kit homes. According to the old articles, volunteers sent out letters to 200 homeowners at one point. I'd love to see those responses... I hope DG had the wherewithal to save all those initial lists and surveys. That would be a good starting point.

Why can't I reply to a comment directly?!

Dale Wolicki said...

HIstorians in Downers Grove also has a habit of infringing on copywritten materials without creditting the source, although the authors are clever enough to change proper names like "Gordon-VanTine" "Aladdin" and other housing companies to support their historical fabrication.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I used to think that Rosemary and Dale were historians to refer to on this subject as worthwhile educators on catalog homes, but I guess I was wrong after reading these condescending comments posted here. I was the Museum Supervisor at Downers Grove for three years and have a Masters Degree in Historic Preservation, my thesis was on Catalog Homes. I believe that while I worked at Downers Grove I educated people on the history of these homes and how they come to be and stand by the information that I gave the audiences on not only the trolley tours but also those that viewed the museum exhibit that was on display for six months earlier this year. I cannot take the credit that was done on the catalog homes in Downers Grove prior to my tenure, 2011-2014, but I know that Mr. Robert Jensen, may he rest in peace, did his best to authenticate the catalog homes in Downers Grove by researching using the tools he had (more than likely using Ms. Thorton and Mr. Wolicki's books) and physically going into homes to look for any markings evident. Sorry to see that you all have to be so judgmental of a "volunteers" efforts to further the history of the Downers Grove community. Julie Bunke

Sears Homes of Chicagoland said...

Julie, thanks for your comment. I'm a volunteer as well... no one pays me to maintain this website or get the photos. As a volunteer, I would never go to the media and claim vast numbers of Sears houses in my town (let alone more than anywhere in the country) unless I had someone with more experience take a second (and third) look at the houses.

My opinion is that the original volunteer researchers were biased and that they wanted a certain outcome from the architectural survey and were willing to call almost anything a Sears house or a hybrid model in order to achieve that outcome. That is my **opinion** based on everything I've read.

Downers Grove has many architecturally significant structures (Rinaldo house, Tivoli Theater, Avery Coonley etc.), landmarked homes, and a rich heritage. It's a lovely historic community and it seems so silly that people were adamant that it also be known as the Sears home capital of the United States regardless of what the facts were.

I know the DG trolley tours are very popular and I hope that the community continues their efforts to educate people about Sears homes. :)

Anonymous said...

Lara clearly points out errors in the identifications done in Downers Grove and the historical account shared with visitors. Instead of acknowledging the obvious errors, it appears that some in Downers Grove wants to continue to distort the historical record. Why? If I saw several of the leading voices on kit homes in the US raising questions about the homes in my community, that would give me pause. But not in Downers Grove.

George said...

We didn't sarcastically refer to it as "Uppers" Grove for nothing.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I collected the data here and made them into a google map so you can walk around the historic end of Downers Grove and get the same information in walking tour form


Sears Homes of Chicagoland said...

Hey Anon! You are missing a bunch of Sears houses in Downers Grove. If you want the complete list, please email me (see top right of page)

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