October 15, 2019

An "Unusual Spanish Type Home" from Montgomery Ward

Around 1929, Montgomery Ward began offering custom home design services.

If you could not find a standardized kit design that you liked, you could bring your house ideas to the Wards staff architects and they could create the blueprints for a custom design. Wards would provide all the materials needed to build the house.

There is a Montgomery Ward custom house in Winfield that was built in 1930.  It's unconventional and clearly influenced by the Spanish Revival craze of that time.  

27W320 Roosevelt Road, Winfield. The tower over the entrance mimics a bell tower. Many Spanish style houses have flat roofs (typically tile). Photo from Realtor site.

Stucco exterior--another Spanish feature. Photo from Realtor site.

A wrought iron light fixture inexplicably mounted on a corner. I have no idea what that tree branch thing is hanging off the second story. 


Hidden by bushes on the side of the house is a slightly recessed arched window.   Photo from Realtor site.

There's the arched window in the living room.  Photo from Realtor site.

The house was constructed with a fireplace. I assume this is the original?  Photo from Realtor site.

Dining room.  Photo from Realtor site.

 Photo from Realtor site.

A library with knotty pine walls. Pine-walled rooms were in vogue in the 1930's.  Photo from Realtor site.

I assume this is a first floor hallway.  Photo from Realtor site.

A pine kids bed?  Photo from Realtor site.

The house was built with two bathrooms, four bedrooms, library, breakfast nook, and a two-car garage.

The original owner was Ralph G. Phillips. Ralph was the owner of the Action Film Company, based in Chicago. It appears that the house in Winfield was intended to be an investment for Ralph and not a residence. 

Ralph never paid taxes on the property and apparently stopped making mortgage payments to Montgomery Ward by 1933.  

In early 1934, Ralph rented the house to George Chapellier for $45 per month. George had worked as an art dealer in London, moved to California and declared bankruptcy. Somehow he ended up in Winfield. 

In November 1934, George decided to move to New York and get back into the art business.

George  had quite a moving sale.

George went on to own the Chapellier Galleries on Park Avenue and would be considered the most prominent art dealer in the world.

Meanwhile, back in Winfield, Montgomery Ward took over ownership of the house. They put the house up for sale in 1936.

J. Harold Slingerland purchased the house in September of that year. Slingerland worked for Wards in their advertising department.

The house recently came up for sale in 2018. It was purchased by a house flipping company. It appears that they are merely adding a second story addition over the garage and keeping the rest of the house intact.

The saga of the unusual home from Montgomery Ward will be continued...

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.

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.