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
The year was 1918. Fueled by the opening of a new coal mine and post-World War I industrialism, Carlinville, Illinois experienced a population explosion.
The solution to the resulting housing shortage was uniquely American - pre-cut kit homes ordered from Sears Roebuck & Co. catalogue sales. Standard Oil, owners of the coal mine, wrote out a check for $1 million.
That money bought 192 houses: 156 for a twelve-block section of Carlinville and 36 more homes in nearby Wood River, Illinois, which also had a Standard Oil coal mine. Coal miners occupied the houses, and the Carlinville neighborhood became known as the "Standard Addition."
In the 80 plus years since, the resulting "instant town" has been through ups and downs (mostly downs). But today, it stands as a unique window on the past, as the largest contiguous collection of Sears' Catalogue homes in the U.S.A.
"The more the world grows, the more people enjoy a little bit of the past," observes Carlinville homeowner Jolene Little, reflecting on the attention the homes now receive.
Building "The Standard Addition"
The homes arrived by rail in boxcars filled with pre-cut lumber and wooden kegs of nails. The kits also included glue, paint, plaster, roofing, paint, varnish, windows, doors, plumbing and electrical fixtures.
A disassembled, gravity-fed coal furnace was also part of the package. Bathroom floors, with their blue and white octagonal tiles were laid in thick mortar beds, all of which was included in the kit.
How complete was the package? Well, Sears sent along two small trees for planting in the front yard. And each kit included floor plans that detailing the ideal placement for Sears Roebuck furnishings, such as chairs, couches, dinettes, pianos and tables.
A woman, known locally (and to us) as simply as "The Lady on Horseback" supervised the massive building project, riding from house to house and keeping a close eye on the workmen. She reportedly kept the construction workers on their toes. Men she'd hired in the early morning were sometimes fired by noon.
A rail line spur was built into the neighborhood to expedite unloading the construction materials from the hundreds of boxcars. A small sawmill was constructed on site and youngsters could get a handful of kite sticks for the asking. Basements were excavated using horse-drawn scoops.
Standard Oil sold the houses within the 77-acre tract under contract for deed to the miners and their families. The cost of the kits in the "Standard Addition" ranged from $1,092 for "The Lebanon" to $1,494 for "The Langston." The price did not include land and construction costs.
The total cost to the miners was $3,000 for the five-room house and $4,000 for a house with six rooms. The miners paid Standard Oil $100 down and $40 a month. The 156 houses, eight different models, were called "the finest mining homes in the country."
A short-lived dream
But the American dream the houses represented was to be short-lived. In just six years, the mines closed and the workers fled to the larger, industrial city of St. Louis, 60 miles to the south.
For ten years, the homes in Standard Addition sat empty and desolate. With only eight families left in the 156 homes, it became known as "The Phantom City."
In 1935, Standard Oil decided to sell off the five- and six-room houses for $350 and $500 cash.
With comparable "modern" houses selling for around $4,000, the Carlinville Sears Homes were an incredible value, even in the depths of the Great Depression.
And Sears was now out of the Catalogue Home business. In 29 years, Sears had sold over 100,000 houses by mail and rail. But in 1937, after ever dwindling sales and repossessions of Sears-built -- and financed -- homes, this division of catalogue sales was closed.
Over the years, the small, plain, boxy houses gained a bad reputation as being the "cheap seats" in Carlinville. Homes sold to absentee landlords and many homes fell into disrepair.
The proud collection of Sears homes, built by Standard Oil for its mine workers, picked up the denigrating name of "Substandard Addition."
By the mid 1950's, the homes were selling for $4,000-$5,000.
A modest revival
Visit a Sears home
The 2000 annual tour is Saturday, December 2, from 5-8 PM. Tickets are $5 per person and can be purchased through the Carlinville Chamber of Commerce. For more information, call them at (217) 854-2141 or visit their website.
In 1987, local opinion about these modest houses would undergo a major shift. That summer, Carlinville scheduled a historic tour through the Standard Addition.
Folks in the area expected some moderate interest in the houses, but to everyone's surprise, several hundred visitors arrived from near and far.
Despite some recent challenges from Downers Grove, Illinois, Carlinville still claims to have the largest collection of Sears' Catalogue homes in the country.
"I've really enjoyed my house and partly because of the interest in it," homeowner Little says. "On last year's tour we noticed it was the people outside Carlinville who had the most interest."
Kristy Foiles, Carlinville Chamber of Commerce Administrator, agrees that the neighborhood has been through some hard times, but she thinks outside interest will help preserve the 80+ year-old houses.
She says she continues to be surprised by how many out of town visitors arrive each year for the annual tour of the Sears' homes.
"We've had visitors as far north as Chicago and as far south as Arkansas," she said. "Many of them are people who think they may live in a Sears' Home and want to see our houses and compare the two."
THE MANY MODERN FACES OF A "CARLIN" MODEL
There's been loose talk of buying one of the remaining 152 houses, restoring it to its original condition and appearance, and then converting it into a museum. However like many such projects, funding makes that dream an impractical reality for now.
"People who are interested in preserving history will make sure these houses are taken care of and maintained," says Foiles. "I don't think we'll ever see them torn down."
The Village Today
"Standard Addition" appears to be enjoying a modest revival in recent years. Signs of home improvement and thoughtful restoration can be found throughout the neighborhood.
Still, these are not museum pieces, but family homes. And hundreds of families have passed through this working class neighborhood since World War I drew to a close.
A neighborhood stroll shows that most of these 152 homes have undergone extensive remodeling. Only a half dozen retain their original siding. Many have new windows and doors.
The long view down these streets looks far different than it did in the early 1920's, when Sears photographed this neighborhood for promotional advertisements in its catalogues.
Sears Catalogue Home Models found in Carlinville:
These are simple and modest homes, without the many built-ins that were also landmark features of Sears' homes. Door hardware, hinges and knobs, are plain and do not bear the Sears logo. Original plumbing and electrical fixtures are long gone from many of these houses.
By the early 1990's, the 1050-1200 square foot houses were selling for $20,000-$40,000 depending on the upgrades and condition of the property. Of the original 156 houses, all but four remain. Three burned to the ground and one was moved to a rural location.
Current prices for these houses vary widely - from $39,500 for a fixer-upper to a high of $76,900 for a completely remodeled home with an addition that brings the size to 1600 square feet. As built, most of these homes were 800-1100 square feet.
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Rose Thornton is a frequent contributor to The Old House Web. Here are other stories from Rose.
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