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 suburbs?

Let's compare Chicago to first place Elgin.
  • Chicago comprises 234 square miles, while Elgin comprises about 38.
  • Chicago has 490,973 housing units built before 1939 and Elgin has 7,504 (source: American Community Survey from the US Census Bureau). 
  • Elgin has 210 Sears houses and Chicago has only 47 citywide?! 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 47--a picture-perfect Sears Berwyn at 11227 S. Drake. In Chicago (Mount Greenwood) and not in Berwyn! The house was built in 1931 and is authenticated. 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 authenticated Sears house was built in 1932. It is frame construction with a brick veneer.

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. This Sears Windsor was built in 1930 and is authenticated. 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 almost 550 Sears homes. 

In Conclusion
I can guarantee that there are more than 47 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.


Unknown said...

Is there a list with all of the addresses of the Sears homes in the suburbs of Chicago somewhere? Thank you.

Sears Homes of Chicagoland said...

Yes, our research group has a list. If you go to my website, on the right side is a drop-down list where you can pick your community to see a sampling of Sears houses. If you need a complete list, just email me and I can pull that data for you.

Architectural Observer said...

That's fascinating! I had known that Chicago had banned frame structures after the Great Fire, but had not put two and two together regarding the impact the law would necessarily have on the number of kit houses which could be constructed there. Thanks for the explanation!

The Berwyn and Hillsboro models shown remain attractive today... the Windsor, not so much. It provides a good object lesson as to how vinyl replacement siding and replacement porch components can really alter the appearance of a house in a radical way.

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