Hanging in the foyer, to the right of a doorway leading into Phil and Kathleen Vitale’s kitchen, two framed objects stand out against the off-white paint of the wall. Not the typical family photo or scenic snapshot, these frames contain something else entirely. Kathleen Vitale is more than happy to explain. She takes them down and brings them to the kitchen counter for a closer look. The first frame, she points out, holds a series of black-and-white photographs sent on a past Christmas holiday from the house’s former owner. The second holds a Sears catalogue advertisement for a house, dating almost a century ago. It’s her house – or at least her model. Built in 1910, Vitale’s home, located in Arlington’s Cherrydale neighborhood, is one of the first waves of Sears kit houses offered to the American public, or more specifically, model number 167 – the Maytown.
OFFERED BY SEARS, Roebuck and Company throughout the first half of the 20th century, models such as Vitale’s Maytown were a popular housing phenomenon in American culture – geared toward the growing number of middle-class families leaving urban areas in search of large spaces and inexpensive housing. And unlike today’s construction companies, assembly for a Sears’s kit house was “do-it-yourself.”
“First you get a catalogue and you choose the model,” said Kathy Holt Springston, an Arlington resident who has documented Sears’s kit houses in the region since the 1970s. Springston explained that the first installment of the house to ship featured material for building a foundation, arriving on railroad box cars.
“Second would be the interior walls,” she said. And so forth. “Sears provided houses for the average American,” she continued. “That was something we needed and still do. There wasn’t anything innovative about the designs – it was in the marketing and making it affordable.”
Complete with a set of instructions for self-assembly, this is how many American families made their homes between the years 1908-1940, when Sears’ “Modern Home” series was offered. According to Springston, by the end of World War I, the economic boom had a profound effect on the success of kit houses.
“The 1920s were such a period of growth,” said Springston. “Which was it? Optimism that fueled growth or growth that fueled optimism? Sears was there at the right time.”
But while Sears, as well as other companies such as Montgomery Ward, enjoyed an amount of success selling kit houses in the first half of the century – Springston claims that at one time there were nearly 500,000 nation-wide – it was the company’s method of transportation which caused its demise.
“The thing that killed them was the decline of the railways,” she said. “It was that decline that really put the kibosh on them.”
IN THE 1980s, “Houses By Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company,” written by Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandi, was published, breathing new life into the appreciation of kit houses – which, according to Springston, had grown passé by the 1960s. For Herndon resident Don Brumbaugh, the rediscovery of this piece of American culture captures the imagination. Brumbaugh remembers first learning about the dwellings from a real estate agent in the late 1980s after relocating from Orlando to Pittsburgh. Since then, he’s been hooked, searching out potential Sears models in Fairfax County.
An avid cyclist and member of the Reston Bike Club, Brumbaugh teamed up with Falls Church resident Tom McCready to document the potential kit houses along the W&OD trail, a railroad once used to deliver the materials to area families.
But due to a lack of historical documentation, such as building permits, it’s often impossible to discern the authentic models from imposters.
“One of the things you’ll find is that someone will order them and get the plans they need,” Brumbaugh said. “They might have a neighbor take those plans and build it themselves.”
Although Sears lumber — predominately derived from the timberland of Minnesota — was numbered sequentially to aide the assembly, these were often written in chalk or other temporary mediums.
Regardless, Brumbaugh continues to ride the trail, taking photographs of potential candidates for Tom McCready’s Web site on the W&OD trail. Brumbaugh has even geared a number of bike tours around his interest in kit houses. Utilizing the W&OD, groups of cyclists travel from Herndon to Arlington, pointing out the houses along the way for photo opportunities.
Tom McCready, also a cyclist, has compiled these documents to create an overview of area kit houses, pairing Brumbaugh’s photos with their respective illustrations in Sears catalogues.
“Quite a few people e-mail me to say they live in Sears houses,” said McCready. “I think it’s a fun thing that we have something like this in our area.”
Often accompanied by her husband Scott and son Dakota, Springston stresses a focus of historical awareness and preservation. This often places the team in dusty attics or snake infested basements, recording the measurements of structures and comparing them to the original plans.
“I love researching – it’s like detective work,” said Springston. “That’s how I feel about Sears houses, you have to do so much detective work.”
“The most frustrating thing now is it’s so popular, a lot of people claim they have kit houses but they’re not,” she said.
WITH THE CONTINUOUSLY growing popularity of original kit houses – not to mentioned their dwindling numbers with each passing year – homeowners and real estate agents, in order to verify the authenticity of a home for the market, often call upon Springston for help. And sometimes she’s the bearer of bad news – remembering years ago when she assessed a house in Herndon.
“I felt really badly we couldn’t authenticate it,” she said. “It was owned by the daughter of the guy who built it. She was just desperate for it to be a Sears’s house. It was actually a Sears wood house but not a kit house. Now its torn down and there’s a shopping center.”
While kit houses originally ranged in price from $500-$4,000 depending on the model or year, Springston claims that an authenticated Sears kit house today can bring a premium on the real estate market: especially one that stays true to its original form, applying to both the structural integrity and in-home furnishings, which Sears would sell along with the kits.
“Some people are so crazy about their Sears houses that they sought out the proper light fixtures and furnishings,” she said.
Regarding one house on the market in the 1970s, Springston remembers it initially going on the market for $79,000.
“It sold again in 1991 for $270,000,” she said. “Since that time it has sold four times. Last time, it sold at around $900,000.”