Editor's note: RosemaryThornton is one of the country's leading experts on Sears catalog homes. She'salso the author of a new book, "TheHouses That Sears Built: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About SearsCatalogue Homes," published in 2002 by GentleBeam Publications.
Text and photos by Rosemary Thornton
How do you find Sears houses? It's not easy. Thus far, I've found and positively identified more than 120Sears homes in Southwest Illinois, largely by cruising early-1900s neighborhoodsand studying individual houses. Here are some of the practical tips I've founduseful in searching for Sears homes in my corner of the country.
1) Do your homework
Start your search with a reference work, such as "Houses byMail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company," or DoverPublishing's reprint of the 1926 Sears Modern Homes catalogue. Both of these areavailable at on-line bookstores. After studying these books and other SearsModern Homes catalogs for about two years, I've memorized many of thedifferent designs. That makes the search process easier (for me, anyway!). Studythe photos and drawings in Houses by Mail. What makes Sears homes different?Look closely at the different houses and get a "feel" for some oftheir more unique homes, like The Savoy or The Sherburne.
2) Do your field work
Identifying Sears houses is something you learn by doing. Drive around age-appropriate neighborhoods.Once you spotyour first "Sunbeam" or "Arlington," you'll never missanother one.
Study front porches and roof lines. Original front porches can haveseveral easy-to-spot clues. Look at the stick-work on the front porch columnsand the interesting millwork on the 3-part front porch columns. Note the smallblock of wood, centered on the front porch roof's trim. The roof line of theSunbeam and Windsor extends much further on the front of the house than theback. This is not a feature unique to Sears homes, but making a note of wherethe roof-line falls will help you compare catalog photos to existing houses.
Check out the chimney. Floor plans change, but chimneys stay put. Ifthe chimney in your suspected Sears house is in the wrong place, it's probablynot a Sears house. But keep in mind that floor plans were reversible.
Subtle nuances can be the distinguishingfeatures of a Sears home. The San Jose front door (see picture below) is also a clue,as this was a Sears product. However, keep in mind that Sears also sold millionsof dollars worth of building materials. A San Jose front door is no more proofthat a house is a Sears Home than a Lowe's steel entry door is proof of a Lowe'shome. But it's another visual clue that tells you to slow down and look closer.
In Southwestern Illinois, where limestone was the primary building materialfor house foundations, I keep my eyes opened for cinder block foundations. Searskit houses were often built by homeowners. A natural stone, like limestone,required a skilled stone mason. Cinder block was much simpler to work with.
Sears homes had five-piece eave brackets. Unfortunately, theseare often covered up by contemporary siding materials. And, a few MontgomeryWards homes had this same eave bracket. But again, it's a visual clue thatsuggests you might have a mail order home.
3) Check your "find" against the catalog
Once you have a Sears home "suspect," search through Housesby Mail and try to find a house design and floor plan that matches yourhome. But remember also, Sears offered customization of their basic designs.Alterations in floor plans and even roof lines were not uncommon.
Sears opened Modern Homes sales centers in several cities, including two inMissouri - one in St. Louis and one in Kansas City. At these sales centers,sales agents helped home buyers design just the home they wanted. Minor andmajor changes - from adding a few more windows to changing from a hip roof to agabled roof - were suggested and encouraged. This, coupled with the passage of a few decades, makes identificationchallenging, to say the least.
The simpler the house, the harder it is to positively identify it. Mycommunity probably has a couple dozen "Starlights" but because theyare so modest and unpretentious, singling them out as Sears homes is nearlyimpossible.
4) Go to court
You might try searching old grantor records at the county courthouse, becauseSears held mortgages on so many of their houses.
In Illinois, I've had success looking under each of these names: WalkerO. Lewis (up to 1929/30), Nicholas Wieland, sometimes misspelled asWeiland (1929 - on), or E. Harrison Powell or John Higgins.All of these men signed mortgage documents for Sears and you'll find their nameslisted under "Grantor's Indexes." I also found one mortgagelisted under "Sears Roebuck." (Thanks to Dale PatrickWolicki, Architectural Historian, Bay County [Michigan Historical Society] forthe names of Walker O. Lewis, Nicholas Wieland and E. Harrison Powell.Lewis and Wieland were the names that I found most frequently in SouthwesternIllinois -- RT.)
Finding the listings is only half the battle. Most of the warrantydeeds and mortgage documents I examined contained no addresses, only legaldescriptions without even the city's name mentioned. Converting sometimes vague 70+year old legal descriptions into tangible addresses is challenging. InIllinois, we went to the Maps and Plan Office in the county courthouse and were able toget the house addresses. But each search took about 10 minutesand the clerk was only willing to do three per visit.
The one Sears house I did find in the grantor record was in Granite City,about 20 minutes from my home in Alton, Illinois. I could hardly wait to seewhat the house looked like! What style would it be? Had I finally located my"Magnolia"? An "Ivanhoe?" (These were two of Sears fanciesthomes.) When I arrived at the house address given in the mortgage document, Iwas crestfallen. It was a 600-square foot box with 8 little windows and a tinyfront porch. Never in a million years would I have guessed that non-descriptframe house to be a Sears home.
5) Look inside
Interior hardware can also provide some clues, but this is not conclusive,either. Ornamental, scalloped, face mount hinges on doors andcabinets often catch my eye.
You may also find stamped lumber inside a Sears home. Lumber was stamped witha letter and a number, which was then referenced in the 75-80 page instructionbook. The letters and numbers helped homeowners figure out how to assemble thelumber. The problem is, the stamp is located on the end of the lumber, which ishard to find on a house that is still standing.
Interior clues to a Sears home include hinges and lumbermarks. Click on any picture for a larger view.
The absence of stamped lumber is not proof that you do not have a Searshome. In the early years (prior to 1912-13), Sears homes were sold andshipped sans framing members. The bill of materials list wouldadvise customers, in detail, how many 2 x4s, 2x6s, 2x8s, etc., they'd need topurchase at their local lumber yard for their Sears Modern Home.
I've also learned that Sears competitors (Aladdin, Gordon Van Tine, etc)bundled same-size framing members and put one tag on the whole bundle (such as"this bundle contains floor joists for first floor"). Isuspect Sears did some of this as well. And there were times that demandoutpaced supply and Sears turned to local lumber yards to produce needed lumber.
6) Think outside the box
Don't put too much stock in front porches. You may find a perfect match for aSears house, but then discover that the front porch doesn't match the catalogphoto. This is common. Perusing old Sears homes catalogs, I've found the frontporches on the same models changed frequently through the years. And frontporches were often the first thing to get "customized" whenthe house was designed, built or remodeled. A drive through Carlinville,Illinois, which has the largest collection of Sears Homes in the country, provesthis point conclusively. These homes sport a wide variety of front porches. (Carlinville has 152 Searshomes in a 12-block area of the "StandardAddition.")
To find Sears homes, you'll also need to learn to "think out of thebox." Look at these photos of Sears homes from my corner of Illinois(below). See how contemporary siding materials have altered the homes'appearances? The Sears houses you find on your neighborhood streets are notgoing to match the old catalogue photos.
The Roanoke originally had distinctive wooden awnings over the front windows,but in most cases, those old awnings were taken down many decades ago. Deepeaves became shallower as siding materials and exterior insulation were added.Wooden front porches got torn down and rebuilt. You've got to learn how tovisualize a 1920s house dressed up in 1970s-1990s garments.
Sears homes, as depicted in the catalog, and in recent photos.
7) Tap local resources
To do a proper and thorough survey of the Sears homes in your community,you're going to need some help. Contact the local historical society and tellthem what you're doing. These folks are usually incredibly supportive andhave wonderful resources to aid you in your search. In working with thesegroups, you might be able to get some press coverage (in small towns) and thenthe phone calls may start to come from senior citizens, telling you where tofind one or two, or even a cluster of, Sears homes.
About one-quarter of my Sears homes discoveries have come from these personalreminiscences. Memories are usually accurate, but not always. When someonesays, "Yeah, we live in a Sears home," I ask, "How do youknow?" If they reply, "Well, it looks like a Sears home, doesn'tit?" I smile and keep going.
If they reply, "My dad remembers when his Mom ordered it out of thecatalog," or "My aunt remembers riding down to the train depot withGranddad to unload the boxcars," I listen a lot closer.
Sears homes werealso delivered by truck. As word spread of my search for Sears homes, I met awoman who worked at one of Sears lumber mills in Urbandale, in Southern Illinois. It was her job to help load the lumber and materials on a truck anddrive the delivery truck to the site.
8) Keep records
Unfortunately, many of the people who knew of the Sears homes in the community have passed on.So as you start finding Sears homes, keep good recordsand notes and preserve the information in an easily accessible format. Give onecopy of your findings to the local historical society and another to the historyroom of your local library. As time passes, identification of these old homeswill become more and more challenging.
The search for Sears homes is exciting. For the last two years, I've beenresearching in Southwestern Illinois and every house I find is athrill and a fresh opportunity to learn something new.
And every now and then, you'll find, like I did, the perfect house. My"perfect house" was the 75-year old Starlight in Alton. It was aone-owner home and looked much like it did when built in the 1920s. Hardware,light fixtures, room layout -- nothing had changed. Standing in the living roomof that house, holding a 1922 Sears Modern Homes catalog in my hands, I sawthat the room view before my eyes matched the catalog's interior photos of TheStarlight. It was a wonderful thing. For a moment, I had stepped right into thepages of my 1922 Sears catalog.
Warning, bet you can't ID just one!
Once you start looking at Sears homes, it's hard to stop. Theother day, I was driving along, snatching glances at houses that lined theroadway when my 14-year old daughter asked, "Mom, do you think there willever be a time when you will stop looking for Sears Homes?"
"What do you think?" I replied.
"Probably not," she said, as she reached down to the floorboard ofthe car and picked up my tattered copy of Houses by Mail and started thumbingthrough it.
Text and photos are copyright2002 by Rosemary Thornton and may not be reproduced or distributed without herexpress written consent.
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