October 1, 2019

The Top-Selling Sears Kit House

The search for Sears Roebuck houses nationwide was launched in the mid-1970's when the Wall Street Journal published an article about them. Prior to that article, the few people who knew about Sears houses often were the people who owned them and long-time employees of Sears.

This was a case of unfortunate timing. Had the Wall Street Journal article come out a few years earlier, we could have had access to a wealth of information about the Sears Modern Homes department. In 1973 when Sears moved into its new headquarters in the Sears Tower, the Modern Homes sales records and almost all related materials were thrown out. (This recollection comes from a Sears employee at the time who saw the boxes and asked why they were being discarded.) I guess no one thought they were important enough to keep around any longer.

The Sears Tower is nearly finished. Really, they couldn't find any space in there for the Modern Homes records?

This means that information about the Modern Homes department is scarce. Sometimes researchers get lucky and find facts and figures in old company newsletters, personal papers of Sears managers and executives, historical newspapers, and archival interviews conducted with people who worked in the department in the 1930's and 1940's.

A Big Question We Couldn't Answer
One of the biggest questions that researchers have been wanting to answer is:

What is the Top-Selling Sears House of All Time?

Without facts and sales records, we can make an educated guess. We have a database of all the models that have been identified nationwide to date. We could make the assumption that the model we have located the most was, in fact, the top seller.

I don't feel comfortable making that assumption. We have not surveyed all areas of the country equally. Many of the smaller models are regularly torn down. Some of the models are easier to identify visually and their counts may be disproportionately high. The models we have identified today may not reflect what was actually sold.

The Truth is Out There
In late 1930, sales of Sears homes were starting to tank. Residential construction was drastically down nationwide due to the Great Depression.

To drum up business, Sears issued a press release to newspapers across the United States. In it, they included excerpts from an interview with David S. Betcone, who was the chief architect for Sears at the time. Betcone spoke of how housing styles were drastically changing and how many customers wanted more efficient, streamlined designs.

There was one snippet in the press release that only a couple newspapers reprinted:
"Following twelve years of usefulness, one old design was removed from the home catalogue in 1928, as antiquated after having been constructed more than 1700 times, which probably constitutes the world's record for any construction duplication from a single house plan, he [Betcone] says."

So Betcone gave us a huge clue as to what the top seller for Sears was. Sold for 12 years and discontinued in 1928.

That house was the Sears Argyle.


The Sears Argyle was named after Argyle Street in Chicago.  Argyles can still be found throughout the Chicago area.  

Sears licensed the plans for the Argyle from a real estate builder/developer named Jud Yoho.

The house that would soon become the Argyle in one of Yoho's magazines, 1913.

306 Highland, Madison, WI. Photo from Realtor site.

How do we know another house didn't outsell the Argyle after 1931?  We cannot be absolutely certain, but the numbers do not support it. From 1931-1942 Sears sold about 5,000 houses altogether.  New models were introduced every year, and some only stuck around for a couple years. It's highly improbable that any model could hit the 1,700 mark. According to Betcone, the two models that were the top sellers for Sears in 1930 totaled just over 100 houses a year. If those were the top sellers, no model could catch the Argyle at that rate.

4120 Adams St., Gary, IN. Photo from Realtor site.

The Sears Argyle was a small house, about 1,000 square feet, and many of them have been demolished. This was the case with most of the compact pre-1920 Sears houses. I think teardowns are the reason that Argyles are not positioned higher in our national database of Sears homes (the Argyle comes in at number 20). 

Argyles also have a tendency to hide. Here is one at 17 Hill Street, Villa Park. It was built in 1917. Capture from Google Streetview.

Argyles also tend to get messed up and hard to recognize like this one at 6818 N. Oriole, Chicago...

...or this one at 1302 Edgewood, Lake Forest. Photo from Lake County Assessor.

Without complete sales records, we cannot say definitively that the Sears Argyle was the top seller. But David Betcone told us what model was in first place as of 1931. Because of the economics after 1931, I can say I am very very certain that the Argyle is the top seller of all time (but not 100%).

This phrase is trademarked and cannot be used without permission of Ricky Bobby, Inc.


Architectural Observer said...

The truth is out there, and I think you've found it! I'm not surprised that the Argyle is likely the best seller; it had a long run and was as good-looking as it was practical. Sadly, surviving Argyles do tend to be heavily altered... there are probably lots more hiding in plain sight.

Jud Yoho may also have been the designer behind the popular Sears model called the Hollywood. He published the design as #466 in his 1912 "Craftsman Bungalows" catalog. It's likely that other Sears models can be traced to him as well. Thanks for giving me a new appreciation for the Argyle!

Architectural Observer said...

Ooops... I see you posted about the origins of Hollywood three years ago! Looks like Yoho probably bought plan #466 from H. L. Wilson, the actual designer. I learn all kinds of interesting stuff here; thanks!

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