November 29, 2022

The Unpopular Multi-Family Houses Sold by Sears Roebuck

Sears Roebuck sold multi-family houses. 

In the 11 years of writing this blog, I have featured Sears multi-family models only three times. They are uncommon in the Chicago area, and, honestly, they are uncommon everywhere. The multi-family units never sold well for Sears.

Beginning in 1909, Sears sold two-family houses and four-family houses. More two-family houses were sold than the "apartment houses" with more units. Throughout the decades that Sears sold houses, about 15 multi-family models were offered, the majority of these before 1920. 

It almost seems counter-intuitive that middle-class buyers would prefer to buy a single family home rather than an income property that did not cost much more. However, there was a stigma against multi-family housing, and buyers pursuing the American dream certainly wanted a home of their own.

1926 advertisement for Sears Modern Homes.

Ad in the Chicago Tribune from 1937 that explicitly states nobody wants to live in a multi-family dwelling.

Additionally, there were nationwide changes to zoning laws starting in the 1920's where city planners encouraged the construction of single-family homes and would not allow multi-family housing in many areas. In 1926, the Supreme Court's landmark Euclid v. Ambler decision upheld single family-only zoning. Because of this, by the 1920's, Sears had phased out most of their multi-family offerings.

After 1932 Sears never offered a multi-family model again. One reason for that is that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), established in 1934,  favored single-family projects. The FHA discouraged multifamily units by offering unfavorable loan terms for that type of housing. 

There are a few rare Sears multi-family houses in the Chicago area. Here are some examples.

Sears Garfield

The Sears Garfield was likely the biggest multi-family seller for Sears, and it was featured in the Modern Homes catalogs for the most years. Researchers have located more Garfields than any of the other Sears apartment houses.

390 Prairie, Elgin. Built 1927. Capture from Google Streetview.

Sears Garfield from the 1929 Modern Homes catalog.

The Garfield is a two-flat. There were two private entrances.

The entrance to the first floor unit is in the middle of the building, and the entrance to the second floor unit is on the right side.

The second floor unit. Both the upstairs and downstairs units had five rooms. There was also a rear staircase that led to both kitchens.

Only three Sears Garfields have been found in Illinois--this one in Elgin, one in Morton Grove, and one in Barrington.

Sears Manchester

1503 Hamilton Court, Waukegan. Capture from Google Streetview.

Sears Manchester. Scan courtesy of

The Sears Manchester was a two-family home. Sears called it an "income bungalow". It was sold from 1926-1929. There are five in Illinois, including this one in Waukegan.

There is one front door on the right side of the building. Inside, a door on the left leads to the first-floor unit, and stairs lead to the second-floor unit.

This Manchester in Waukegan is authenticated. The owners got their financing from Sears Roebuck in 1926.

Sears Calumet

312 E. Locust, Bloomington. Capture from Google Streetview. 

Sears Calumet from 1918.

The four-apartment Sears Calumet was sold only in 1918, and only this one in Bloomington has been identified to date.   I wonder why nobody wanted this model? Let's look at the floor plan.

Sears recommended that the customer use wall beds to transform the living and dining rooms into comfortable bedrooms.  And Sears didn't sell the wall beds--the customer would have to source those on their own. Sure, OK. 

Sears Oakdale 

528 S. Prospect, Park Ridge.

Sears Oakdale, from the 1918 Modern Homes catalog.

The Sears Oakdale (also known as Modern Home No. 149) is a Colonial style two-family house that was offered from 1909-1918.

The house in Park Ridge was demolished in 2013. It was the only Oakdale in Illinois, and, as of this date, there are only four standing nationwide.

Sears La Salle

1912 Elim, Zion. Photo from Realtor site.

The Sears La Salle from the 1930 Modern Homes catalog.

The Sears La Salle two-flat was the last multifamily unit Sears sold (along with the Sears Dexter which no one has ever seen in real life). The other models were phased out years earlier. The La Salle did not sell well, as you might suspect, and there is only one in Illinois. Sears sold the La Salle from 1926-1932.

This La Salle in Zion is authenticated. The owner got financing from Sears Roebuck in 1928.


Architectural Observer said...

That was a fun tour! The La Salle and the Manchester appear to be the most successful in "passing" for a single-family house on the exterior; the others all read more easily as multi-family from the street. I have several old plan books from various publishers illustrating duplex designs from this time period. In them, maintaining the illusion of a single-family structure seems to have been a goal. I'm really surprised that these designs by Sears were not more popular.

Anonymous said...

Thought you might be interested in an older post, from Larraine Shape's blog about a specific model of Sears apartment building in Ohio.

Sears Homes of Chicagoland said...

I remember that post. Isn't it crazy how some models were built in certain geographic areas and are not found in others? I'm still looking for an Atlanta.

Shari D said...

I know what you mean. I've thought about that before. After giving it considerable thought, I think I might have a possibility.

My most logical choice I think is that in each of those certain areas lived a contractor, a builder, or even a local carpenter who had the "building bug," or discovered that he could make a decent profit building multi-family housing units from a kit home supplier which provides all the lumber cut and ready to nail up without even trimming with a saw. And all the doors and windows ready to install, at a considerable savings over all, up to 40% off his normal labor charges, and in an area where there was a real need for such housing at the time. Build a few in the same area, that can house four small families at a time, where land was relatively cheap, and where he could live in one unit of his own for a while if he wanted to, and collect the rents off all the other units, pay off any small mortgages he might have on them in a few years, and being a builder/contractor/carpenter, any maintenance issues he could take care of on his own, and still make a tidy profit.

Just a personal theory of my own, but it kinda makes some sense. Especially in the case of Larraine's blog post, where so many of the same style showed up on lots so close together. That's very unlikely to happen where more than one individual of similar leanings is to be around in the same place. Each person would have their own preferences regarding the building style, the location, etc.

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