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Revisiting Colonial Heights (Virginia)

March 23rd, 2011 Sears Homes No comments

In 2008, I visited Colonial Heights (just outside of Richmond) and did a survey of their kit homes. A short time later, I did a talk and booksigning. I was quite surprised to find so many kit homes in Colonial Heights. In nearby Petersburg, I found only three kit homes in the whole city! In Colonial Heights, I found more than three dozen.

During my 2008 visit, there was one house in particular that I studied and stared at, but could not identify it. When I returned to Colonial Heights on March 2011, I was able to identify it almost immediately.

This sweet little yellow house was an Aladdin Willard.

Aladdin Everett as seen in the 1919 Aladdin catalog

Aladdin Everett as seen in the 1919 Aladdin catalog

Aladdin Everett in Colonial Heights.

Aladdin Willard in Colonial Heights.

To learn more about kit homes, click here.

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

To read about the Sears Homes in nearby Hopewell, click here.

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Hopewell’s Historic Kit Homes: And They’re Not in Crescent Hills!

March 23rd, 2011 Sears Homes No comments

More than 80% of the time, people who think they have a Sears kit home are wrong. Often, those folks do have a kit home, but it’s not a kit home from Sears. Here in Virginia (where I live), most “Sears homes” that I investigate turn out to be kit homes from Aladdin.

Aladdin was based in Bay City, Michigan (a long way from Virginia), but they had a lumber mill in Wilmington, North Carolina (not so far from Virginia).

Hopewell, Virginia has eight Sears homes in their Crescent Hills neighborhood, but they have dozens of Aladdin kit homes throughout the city. It’s a puzzle why so much focus is put on those eight Sears Homes, while the many Aladdin homes are ignored! If I were a little Aladdin Home in Hopewell, I might feel snubbed!

The eight Sears Homes in Crescent Hills are fine-looking residences. The cluster of Aladdin homes are definitely more modest, but they also have a story to tell. They tell about Dupont coming to Hopewell in the early 1900s and building a factory and creating jobs and investing in modest homes for their workers.

And it’s a part of Hopewell’s history that’s getting lost - quickly. Judging by the landscape in this neighborhood (where the Aladdin Homes are located), countless numbers of these modest homes have already been leveled. Perhaps as people become aware that this is a piece of Hopewell’s history, the rest of these houses might be spared.

Unfortunately, I know very little about Hopewell’s history and I’m hoping my readers will share what they know by leaving a comment.

In the coming days, I’ll post several blogs on Hopewell and their Aladdin kit homes, but I’ll start by featuring the Aladdin Edison.

Enjoy the photos and please leave a comment.

Aladdin promoted itself to companies as a supplier of industrial housing. It was believed that providing housing for workers created a more stable workforce. And that was probably true.

Aladdin promoted itself to companies as a supplier of industrial housing. It was believed that providing housing for workers created a more stable workforce. And that was probably true. (1919 Aladdin catalog)

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A close-up of the text from the 1919 catalog.

A close-up of the text from the 1919 catalog.

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The Aladdin Edison was a modest home, but darn cute. And easy to identify these many years later.

The Aladdin Edison was a modest home, but darn cute. And easy to identify these many years later.

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The Aladdin Edison was really a pretty small house. Take a look at the floor plan. How many people today would be content in such a wee tiny house? Typically, the front porch is enclosed on these 90+ year-old houses to create a little more living space. Enclosing the porch created an additional 240 square feet. Pretty significant in a house that measured 30 x 20.

Close-up of the Aladdin Edison

Close-up of the Aladdin Edison

First, my favorite Edison in Hopewell.

First, my favorite Edison in Hopewell. Oh, that's a cute house!

And from the side...

And from the side...

Another well-dressed Edison...

Another well-dressed Edison...

And another...

This one is located on Ramsey Street (near the water) and is in wonderfully original condition! Look at all those original windows! Somebody give this house a pretty placard identifying it as a beautiful example!

This little house is not in original condition

This little house is not in original condition, but it's still cute, and it's feeling happy because it has flowers growing in its front yard.

Pretty

On the Aladdin Edison, the bedroom (front left) and the dining room (front right) are both 10x10. The owner of this house probably wanted to add a little space to those tiny rooms. All in all, the remodeling done to this house isn't too bad. And they saved those awesome old windows in the dormer!

Ouch.

Hmmm. Looks like someone put a great big upholstery tack on that dormer.

Ocu

This house needs a red-tipped cane.

The little Edison waves good-bye, and hopes that someone will take action to include it, in Hopewells preservation efforts. A little house can dream...

The little Edison waves good-bye, and hopes that someone will take action to include it, in Hopewell's preservation efforts. A little house can dream...

To read part II, click here.

To learn more about Hopewell’s kit homes, click here.

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

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Hopewell’s Historic Sears Homes! Well, sort of. (Part 3)

March 21st, 2011 Sears Homes 1 comment

As mentioned in Part 1, I recently visited Hopewell (Virginia) for the first time in several years.

In early 2003, I went to Hopewell to give a talk on Sears Homes. The talk went well and I sold a bunch of books and I had a wonderful time.  Unfortunately, there was a downside to this otherwise delightful visit. Driving through the city, I discovered that most of the “Sears Homes” in their infamous Crescent Hills neighborhood were not Sears Homes.

Unfortunately, a handful of people did not agree with me, and Hopewell’s brochure - with its inaccurate information on their Sears Homes - was not to be changed.

It was one of the most upsetting events in my professional career. History is important and must be kept pure from defects or errors. That’s something about which I feel passionate.

When I returned to Hopewell (March 18 2011), I was gratified to see that a few of the errors had been removed from the city’s well-promoted brochures, but many non-kit homes were still being wrongly identified as Sears Homes. To help clarify what I’m talking about, I’m going to post the Hopewell house, together with an original catalog image and (where possible), an extant example of that kit home in real life.

Click on the links to see Part 1 and Part 2 of this story.

Hopewell claims to have several “Rochelles” (see pictures of these houses below).

I have enough information to have an authoritative opinion on this.  ;)

Here’s the Rochelle (1929 Sears Modern Homes catalog). It’s a cute little neo-tudor with many distinctive features.

The Rochelle, as seen in the 1930 catalog.

The Rochelle, as seen in the 1929 catalog.

Rochelle

Notice how the front gable on this Rochelle is asymmetrical. In other words, it extends much further down the left side than the right. And notice the little stylistic feature to the right of the front door. It's touches like this little gabled wall, that give the Rochelle its tudor-esque charm. Also notice how the gable on the roof goes all the way up to the roofline. And lastly, this is a house with a small attic, suitable for storage but not living space.

Gable

Here's one of Hopewell's so-called "Rochelles." Oh dear - the roof is much too high! And there's a full bedroom in that upstairs area! And look, the front gable (with the door) is symetrical. Why that's nothing like the catalog picture! And the front gable is much wider, with two little windows. Plus, that gable behind that (to the left, with the two bedroom windows) actually extends quite a bit beyond the primary wall. And on the right side, there's a little nook for the fireplace that extends three or four feet beyond the roof line. And look at the windows! The house above has three on the right and two on the left. The Rochelle has one and one. In short, these houses are quite different. Last but not least, the furnace chimney on this house is in the rear. In the Sears house, it's near the center of the house. That's actually a pretty important detail.

Rochelle

Again, for comparison, here's the Sears house.

And heres the non-Sears house in Hopewell.

And here's another Hopewell "NOR" (Not-a-Rochelle).

Rochelle

Again, for comparison, here's the Sears house.

Oopsie.

Nice awnings, though.

Well maybe we could focus on what these houses (extant photos) have in common with the Sears Rochelle.

1)  They have walls and windows

2)  They have lots of lumber.

3)  They have pointy rooflines.

4)  They have pretty green stuff in the front yard.

That’s about it.

Sears Homes were offered in 370 designs, and they were purposefully designed to emulate the popular housing styles of the day. To authenticate a Sears Home, you must start with visual clues. These three Hopewell homes are lacking in that regard. Next, you should check the “footprint” of the house. These houses are not the same dimensions as the Rochelle. That single fact right there is a deal breaker.

A comparison of the two homes

A comparison of the two homes

To learn more about how to identify Sears Homes, click here.

To read Part 1, or Part 2 of this story, here and here.

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

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Hopewell’s Historic Sears Homes! (Part 2)

March 21st, 2011 Sears Homes No comments

Continued from Part One (here).

As mentioned in the prior post, I visited Hopewell recently and found that they do have EIGHT real, live Sears Homes in Crescent Hills. Unfortunately, they don’t have as many as they originally thought, but these eight are pretty darn nice!

Pictured below are the real Sears Homes in Crescent Hills.

By the way, you’ll notice that all these houses look a LOT like the original catalog images!  :)

The Sears Hawthorne, as seen in the 1929 catalog.

The Sears Hawthorne, as seen in the 1929 catalog.

Sears Hawthorne in Crescent Hills

Sears Hawthorne in Crescent Hills

Sears Barrington, also from the 1929 catalog.

Sears Barrington, also from the 1929 catalog.

Sears Barrington at 210 Oakwood Avenue

Sears Barrington at 210 Oakwood Avenue

Sears Bellewood

Sears Bellewood

Sears Bellewood, looking quite dapper in white and red.

Sears Bellewood, looking quite dapper in white and brown.

Sears Lewiston from the 1930 catalog

Sears Lewiston from the 1930 catalog

And one of the prettiest Lewistons Ive ever seen!

And one of the prettiest Lewistons I've ever seen!

Sears Maplewood, which is just like the Sears Dover, only smaller.

Sears Maplewood, which is just like the Sears Dover, only smaller.

Sears Dover looking much like the image above!

Sears Dover looking much like the image above!

And the Sears Lynnhaven. There are two in Hopewells Crescent Hills.

And the Sears Lynnhaven. There are two in Hopewell's Crescent Hills.

Sears Lynnhaven #1

Sears Lynnhaven #1

Sears Lynnhaven #2

Sears Lynnhaven #2

And the surprise is this Sears Walton. For reasons unknown, the citys brochure is calling this an Oakdale. See Part 1 for more info.

And the surprise is this Sears Walton. For reasons unknown, the city's brochure is calling this an Oakdale. See Part 1 for more info.

Sears Walton at 102 Oakwood Avenue

Sears Walton at 102 Oakwood Avenue

That’s it. I think thar be eight genuine, authentic Sears Homes in the Crescent Hills area. And they’re really a beautiful group of Sears Homes, no doubt about it.  Plus, a couple blocks away are three beautiful Sears Homes in a row! The Rockford, The Americus and the Dover! And just down the road on City Point Drive there’s a beautiful little Sears Puritan! More on those later.

The other thing Hopewell has is an impressive collection of ALADDIN kit homes!

To read about that large group (more than 50) of kit homes  click here!

To read Part 3 of this blog, click here.

To learn how to identify kit homes, click here.

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

To read part one of this blog, click here.

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The Sears Homes in Danville!

March 21st, 2011 Sears Homes 14 comments

On Friday, I traveled to Danville, Virginia and had the good fortune to meet up with Gary, Joyce and Susan, and Tiffany (the indefatigable reporter from the local paper), and tooled around the town looking for kit homes. It was a delightful day and Danville is a city that’s heavy laden with beautiful architecture. Some day, I’d like to take some time and tour the city at a more leisurely pace!

Below are a few pictures of what we found in Danville.

The first house is the Sears Walton. This was one of 370 designs offered by Sears during their 32 years in the kit home business. The Walton was one of their most popular homes, and it’s easy to identify! Notice the large front porch, which extends several feet beyond the main wall of the house. In the front bedroom, there’s a box window with a shed roof. And in the dining room, there’s a gabled bay with three windows.

The Sears Walton

The Sears Walton

Most of the Sears Waltons Ive seen are yellow! Just like this one in Danville.

On this Walton in Danville, someone extended that dining room bay and turned it into a porte cochere! Notice the oversized front porch, with its roof line that's got a slightly different angle than the rest of the house. And you can see a piece of that box windows on the left front. Sears house designs could be "reversed" like this one in Danville. It's the mirror image of the catalog page (above).

The next house is also a kit home, but it was not sold by Sears, but by a company in Iowa known as Gordon Van Tine. Like Sears, they sold homes through mail-order catalogs. The houses were shipped in about 12,000 pieces and came with a 75-page instruction book and a promise that a “man of average abilities” could have the house assembled in 90 days. Sears offered mortgages with their homes (75% loan-to-value, 15 years and 6% interest), and it was a requirement of the mortgage that the home be 100% assembled within four months of shipment!

From the 1921 catalog, this is the Gordon Van Tine #705.

From the 1921 catalog, this is the Gordon Van Tine #705.

And here it is, in the flesh!

And here it is, in the flesh! Notice it still has those wide bands over the second-floor windows. It's unusual for a house of this vintage (1921) to still have original railings, columns, windows and siding!

Next is my favorite find:  The Wardway Lexington! Like Sears, Montgomery Ward also sold kit homes. Sears sold kit homes (12,000 pieces of house and a 75-page instruction book) from 1908-1940. Montgomery Ward started in 1910 and stopped about 1931. I found two “Wardway” kit homes in Danville!

The Montgomery Ward Lexington

The Montgomery Ward Lexington

A beautiful example of The Wardway Lexington!

A beautiful example of The Wardway Lexington!

Sears Lewiston

Sears Lewiston

Sears Lewiston

Sears Lewiston. This one has two windows (centered) instead of three, but these are replacement windows, and there's certainly room for three windows here. Plus, this house still retains the small windows to the left of the fireplace with their original diamond muntins!

This is a kit home from Aladdin, another kit home company that - like Sears - sold houses through mail order!

This is a kit home from Aladdin, another kit home company that - like Sears - sold houses through mail order!

From the side...

This house on Virginia Avenue is a beautiful match to the original catalog picture!

Close-up of the Hampshire (by Aladdin)

Close-up of the Hampshire (by Aladdin)

And in the flesh!

Note the original windows! When I first started learning about Danville, I was told this was a Sears Home, but it's not! It is a kit home, but it's from Aladdin (based in Bay City). This is a common mistake. About 80% of the people who *think* they have a Sears Home are wrong. Most often, they DO have a kit home, but it's from a company other than Sears.

Another Aladdin home - the Winthrop!

Another Aladdin home - the Winthrop!

This Winthrop is in wonderfully oriignal condition, and even has the same paint scheme as the house shown in the catalog!

This "Winthrop" is in wonderfully oriignal condition, and even has the same paint scheme as the house shown in the catalog!

Sears Sunbeam

Sears Sunbeam

Although its been altered (and added onto) this still appears to be a Sears Sunbeam!

Although it's been altered (and added onto with the roof being raised) this still appears to be a Sears Sunbeam!

Wardway

Wardway

Another Wardway Home: The Whatever

Another Wardway Home: The Mt. Vernon

In addition to kit homes, Danville also has prefab homes, such as this Lustron (see below).

“Never before has America seen a house like this,” read a 1949 advertisement for the Lustron, also hailed as “the house of the future.”

The Lustron was an all-steel house, with walls made of  2×2 20-gage metal panels, with a porcelain enamel finish. The roof was porcelain enamel steel, and unlike traditional roofing shingles, has a lifespan of at least 60 years (and perhaps much more).

The modest ranches were designed and created by entrepreneur Carl Strandlunds to help deal with the severe housing shortage after World War II. Unfortunately, Lustrons never became very popular. Three years after the company first started (in 1947), it went into bankruptcy. Sixty years later, there’s still much debate about the reasons for the company’s collapse.  The debate over the reasons for Lustron’s demise because a topic for a fascinating documentary.

About 2,500 Lustrons were created.

Quantico, Virginia was home to the largest collection of Lustrons in the country, but those 60 houses are now gone. Some were moved, most were demolished. An interesting aside: Turns out the Marines at Quantico weren’t too keen on living in a pink house! (The houses were offered in pink, blue, brown and yellow.)

On inside walls, nails were a no-no. Instead, magnets are used to hang pictures. The porcelain enamel finish on the 2×2 panels is tough, which makes re-painting the panels virtually impossible. The Lustron (seen below) in Danville was painted, and it’s trying hard to shed this second skin. Painting porcelain enamel never works out too well.

Lustron in Danville

Lustron in Danville

Lustron

Close-up of the window on Danville's Lustron.

And then on down the road a bit in Altavista, I found this perfect Sears Whitehall.

From the 1916 Sears catalog

From the 1916 Sears catalog

Heres a Sears Whitehall, outstanding in his field!  :)

Here's a remarkable Sears Whitehall. It fact, it's outstanding in his field! :)

And one of my favorite non-house finds in Danville! A tribute to “Old 97″! After I left Danville, I took the “mighty rough road” from Danville to Lynchburg, and it wasn’t too bad - for a car.  :)

Wreck of the Old 97 is commemorated with this mural in downtown Danville.

"Wreck of the Old 97" is commemorated with this mural in downtown Danville. If you know the meaning of the little white and yellow birds (upper right), please leave a comment!

Did you enjoy reading about the houses in Danville? If so, please share this link with others! Or copy and paste the link on facebook!

To learn how to identify Sears Homes, click here.

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

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Hopewell’s Historic Sears Homes! Well, sort of.

March 21st, 2011 Sears Homes No comments

This last weekend, I visited Hopewell for the first time in several years. In early 2003, I went to Hopewell to give a talk on Sears Homes. The talk went well and I sold a bunch of books and I had a wonderful time. I was treated like a queen and I really enjoyed my stay in Hopewell. Most of all, I loved doing something good and positive to help promote Virginia - my favorite state and the place where I was born and raised.

On my flight back to Illinois, I stared out the tiny plane window and thought, “This is what people mean when they talk about ‘Southern Hospitality.’”

The ladies who drove me around Hopewell were a living example of grace and gentility.

There was one downside to this otherwise delightful visit. Sadly, as I toured the city, I discovered that most of the “Sears Homes” in their infamous Crescent Hills neighborhood were not Sears Homes.

Unfortunately, a handful of people did not agree with me, and Hopewell’s brochure - with its inaccurate information on their Sears Homes - was not to be changed.

It was one of the most upsetting events in my professional career. History is important and must be kept pure from defects or errors. That’s something about which I feel passionate.  But in the end, I decided that - as Joel Osteen says - sometimes you have to put life’s difficult events into a file folder labeled, “I don’t understand this, but I have to trust God has a plan here and go forward with my life and leave this in God’s hands.”

When I returned to Hopewell (March 18 2011), I was gratified to see that a few of the errors had been removed from the city’s well-promoted brochures, but many houses in Crescent Hills were still being wrongly identified as kit homes. A picture is worth a lot of words, I’m going to post the Hopewell house, together with an original image from the Sears catalog and (where possible), an extant example of that kit home in real life.

Let the reader judge for themselves.  :)

This house (106 Crescent) is purported to be a Sears Newbury.

The city's brochure claims that this house (106 Crescent) is a Sears Newbury. It's a massive house and note the inset on the huge shed dormer on the second floor. There's a flat space in front of that shed dormer. Plus, note how the rear roof is higher than the front roof. This house has two small closet windows on the front (second floor). The porch roof is on the same plane as the primary roof, and is flat and comes straight down - with no break. Also notice that this house has a spacious attic, due to the large footprint of the house, and steep pitch of the roof.

This is a catalog picture of the Sears Newbury.

This is a catalog picture of the Sears Newbury. Notice, this house has a bellcast roof. In other words, the porch roof has a "swoop" (like the cast of a bell). It does not come down in a straight plane, but takes a little curve upward. It does not have an attic and the roof is not very steep. It has a gambrel roof (like a barn roof). It's also a much smaller house than the house in Hopewell (pictured above). There's no inset in front of those second floor windows.

Heres a close-up of the Sears Newbury

Here's a close-up of the Sears Newbury

Heres a Sears Newbury in Elmhurst, Illinois. Youll notice that it looks a lot like the house in the catalog picture.

Here's a Sears Newbury in Elmhurst, Illinois. You'll notice that it looks a lot like the house in the catalog picture.

Now take another look at the Hopewell house. Hmmm...

Now take another look at the Hopewell house. Hmmm...

The house in Hopewell (pictured above) is a much larger house. And the rooflines are dramatically different.

Comparison of the Newbury with a known Newbury

Comparison of the Sears Newbury with a known Newbury

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Now, take a look at the photo below:

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Oopsie.

Oopsie.

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Sears Homes, one must remember, were patterned after the popular housing styles of the day. They were - by their very design - intended to look like the average house. When identifying Sears Homes, details are hugely important. But one of the most important details is the home’s footprint. If the catalog image says the home was 32 by 22, the subject house should be 32 by 22.  The Hopewell house (above) is much larger than the Sears Newbury.

Now let’s look at Hopewell’s purported “Oakdale” at 106 Oakwood Avenue.

I aint sayin nothing.

I ain't sayin' nothing.

Sears Oakdale as seen in the 1928 catalog.

Sears Oakdale as seen in the 1928 catalog.

An Oakdale in Cairo, Illinois

An Oakdale in Cairo, Illinois. You'll notice that this house looks a lot like the house in the catalog image (above). One of the goofy features of the Sears Oakdale is that the side door is RIGHT by the front of the house! See it on the side, with the small awning? That always catches my eye. Those three vents on the front porch are also distinctive. This is a small two-bedroom house, measuring 24 by 38 feet.

Close-up of the Sears Oakdale

Close-up of the Sears Oakdale

Oakdale Floorplan

The Oakdale has a very unusual floorplan, with the living room spanning the home's width, and the two bedrooms spanning the width in the rear. The brick house in Hopewell (seen below) has the more traditional layout of living room, dining room, and kitchen on the left, with bedroom, bath, bedroom on the right.

I aint sayin nothing.

This has has a projecting gabled bay. The Oakdale has a small, tucked-under-the-eaves squared bay. This house has a recessed wall on the front. The Oakdale is flat across the front. This has has a cute little diamond vent up top. The Oakdale has three rectangular vents. This house has a bedroom on the right front. The Oakdale has a full-width living room, with a side door on the right front. In fact, this house has a completely different floorplan than the Sears Oakdale! And notice the roof pitch is very different from the Oakdale. This house has three columns and a larger porch. The Oakdale has two. This is wider than the 22' (size of the Oakdale). Other than this, the two houses are a perfect match! <wink, wink>

Oopsie.

Oopsie.

Which leads me to the real puzzle.

Hopewell claims to have TWO Oakdales. The second “Oakdale” is next door to the first.

Nope.

That doesn't look like an Oakdale!

However, it sure looks a lot like a Sears Walton!

However, it sure looks a lot like a Sears Walton!

And it even has the little box window on the front of the house!

And the house in Hopewell even has the little box window on the front of the house! Wow, it's a good match to the floorplan!

Side by side comparison

Side by side comparison

So why are they labeling a Sears Walton a Sears Oakdale? I’ve no idea. But I’ll make a $100 bet with anyone who cares to wager that this house at 102 Oakwood Avenue in Crescent Hills is indeed a Sears Walton. :)  Interestingly, there’s another Sears Walton in a different part of the city! That’s two Waltons in Hopewell!

Enjoying the discussion?  There’s a lot more on Hopewell here.

To learn more about how to to identify Sears Homes, click here.

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

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The Best Thing That Happened Today…

March 19th, 2011 Sears Homes 2 comments

The best thing that happened today was seeing a little Sears House that I’d never seen before. After traveling to about 500 towns and seeing thousands of Sears Homes, this is becoming an increasingly rare event! This afternoon in Crewe, Virginia (off Route 460, about an hour from Lynchburg), I saw this Sears Lucerne.

It’s a real cute house, and a perfect match to the original catalog image.

Crewe, Virginia is a big railroad town, and I found many kit homes within the city limits. (More on that in a subsequent blog.) The town also has a very cool train museum, with many interesting items on display, such as an old coal-fired steam locomotive and a more modern diesel electric locomotive. But my favorite find was this little $867 Sears House!

To read another blog about the abundance of Sears Homes in Crewe, click here.

From the 1916 Sears Modern Homes catalog

From the 1916 Sears Modern Homes catalog

Lucerne in Crewe, Virginia

Lucerne in Crewe, Virginia

This view shows that little funny staircase window on the left side. See floorplan for details.

This view shows that little funny staircase window on the left side. See floorplan for details.

Comparison of the two houses

Comparison of the two houses

One of the trains on display at the train museum in Crewe.

One of the trains on display at the train museum in Crewe.

Another view of the choo choo at Crewe-Crewe.

Another view of the choo choo at Crewe-Crewe.

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

To buy one of Rose’s splendiferous books, click here.

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My Pink House Has Gone Green

March 16th, 2011 Sears Homes No comments

My pink house is now green. Green - as in - environmentally friendly.

Well, let me restate that. It’s as environmentally friendly as an old house can be.

On March 10, 2011, we assassinated our old cast-iron, oil-fired boiler. It wasn’t pretty, but it had to be done.

The old behemoth wasn’t really that old. It was born in Utica, New York in early 2002, and was, in fact, a Utica (brand-name) boiler. When we purchased this cold house in March 2007, we were told that the Utica was a higher end boiler, and should provide good service for years to come. It was rated at 200,000 BTUs, which is a lot of heating power for 2,300 square feet.

What we didn’t realize is that we’d spend several billion dollars on heating oil trying desperately to stave off Old Man Winter (a natural enemy of old houses).

And then came Winter 2010, one of the coldest winters we’ve had in a long time. And then oil prices started up (again). In three months’ time, we burned more than $1,600 in fuel oil.  In January 2011, when Mr. Oil Fill-Man appeared in my back yard (a scant 27 days after his last visit), I ran outside to chat with him.

“We’re taking 160 - 170 gallons of fuel oil each time you come by,” I told him, trying hard to be charming. “Is that normal for this area?

His answer was not a  comfort.

“Yes M’am,” he replied. “In this neighborhood, every house I visit is taking between 150-200 gallons of heating oil.”

This told me that my neighbors were probably apoplectic over their heating bills, as well.

Talking with two of my neighbors, I’d found that they’d converted from old oil boilers (about the same age as mine), to high-efficiency tankless gas-fired boilers. Both neighbors told me that their heating bills had dropped from $500 - $600 a month to about $125 - $150 a month. Both were delighted with the new system and the new savings.

I was not that surprised to hear that two neighbors had just had not-so-old oil boilers ripped right out and replaced with this fancy new system. I suspected that most people were NOT going to tolerate paying $500+ a month - every month - to heat their homes. It was an outrageous sum of money. And I knew that we’d done everything in our power to “button-up” the old house. Since purchasing the house in March 2007, we’d added four high-dollar storm doors to the previously naked (and drafty) primary doors, and we’d installed 12 super-dooper high efficiency replacement windows (on the rear and side), and we’d repaired and re-caulked old storm windows on the remaining windows. We’d also used up 40 tubes of caulk (yes, 40), in Summer 2010, closing up every little crack and crevice on the old house.

Frankly, I’ve always felt it was a bit nutty to use oil for home heating - for several reasons.

1)  Our oil reserves are dwindling. Peak Oil, according to the smart people, arrived in 2007 or 2008. I’m of the opinion that remaining reserves should be devoted to transportation, with an eye toward (quickly) developing energy alternatives for our little cars.

2) Many of our “oil dollars” go to a foreign country, and some of these oil-rich countries in faraway lands have a history of treating women with little or no respect. I find that reprehensible, and I don’t want my dollars funding such egregious behavior. Sharia law is a glimpse of hell on earth for women.

3) BP oil spill. ‘Nuff said.

4) Hugo Chavez.  ‘Nuff said.

5)  Every dollar I spend on oil is a dollar that leaves America and right now, we need to buy local. Natural gas supplies are abundant in North America. Having watched “Gasland,” I’m horrified at the fracking process currently in use (which is destroying our water supply), but for now, Natural Gas seems to be a better alternative than #2 Heating Oil, and the lesser of two evils.

6) Heating oil is messy and smelly. I’ve got the blessing (or curse) of a hypersensitive sense of smell, and every 27 days when we get an oil delivery, the smell has been powerful throughout my home. Our 275-gallon tank is in the basement and often when I open the basement door, I get a whiff of #2 heating oil. Not pleasant.

7)  Heating oil is dirty. It’s recommended that oil-fired appliances (furnaces and boilers) be cleaned once each year. Cost: $150 or more.

When it was time to get estimates for the new work, I had many choices, but the big two were:  Gas-fired boiler or Heat Pump?

The benefits of a heat pump were simple: It’d give us the chance to add central air. We had a central air system for the upstairs, but wouldn’t it be dreamy to have it on the first floor, too?

Yes and no.

The central air unit on the second floor had been oversized (by my request), with a major trunk line and vent directly over the top of our large, open staircase. In the summertime,when the A/C was running, great wafts of deliciously cool air came galloping down the stairs. Due to design of the staircase, probably 50% of the cold air ended up on the first floor. I’d also positioned the return in such a way that it’d naturally draft the hot air from the first floor. In other words, the 3-ton unit for the second floor effectively cooled much of the first floor.

Secondly, adding all new ductwork for the first floor heat pump (and A/C) would have made our basement well-nigh unusable. With no garage at our home, we rely heavily on the basement for storage. And I like having a big basement.

The other factor was, I love my radiators. They’re old and funky and they rattle and pop in the winter. I was not ready to abandon the old charm of the 1920s cast-iron radiators. Plus, it’s true what they say: Radiant heat is the most comfortable, even heating in the world.

So that left us with one more set of choices:  Cheap it out with a regular, average efficiency gas-fired boiler, or go ahead and spend the extra dough and go with a high-efficiency (90%+) unit.

The lower end gas boilers were $3,000 and up (for 80% efficiency), but would require that we’d re-line the old chimney. That’d add another $2000 to our costs, so we were at $5000.  For $7,500, we could get a super-high efficiency gas-fired boiler, rated at 94% efficient, which used a pvc snorkel, and abandon the old chimney, and get our heating bills down under $200 a month. And, we’d get a $500 rebate from our local gas company, making the price difference between the two options a scant $2,000 (or the cost of 100 days of fuel oil).

We opted for the high efficiency tankless gas-fired unit.

Several things went wrong along the way. The high-efficiency gas boiler was ordered, but didn’t arrive. That’s okay, we were told, they’d upgrade us to a better system, no extra cost. Sounded good. Oopsie, more trouble. The better system had a lag time too, so we’d have to wait three weeks for unit to arrive. But then, the company had located the unit we’d contracted for and we went forward with the installation.

Next, Virginia Natural Gas had to drive us nuts. They would not set a meter for us until the boiler was in place. That’s funny, because the contractor didn’t want to set up the new boiler until we had a meter in place.

In the end, Virginia Natural Gas won. No meter would be installed until the boiler was in place and complete. Dealing with VNG was an enormous hassle. For a time, I really missed dealing with Miller Oil. They were so friendly and accommodating.

Once the boiler work was mostly done (and we knew it would soon be ready to be turned on), we called Virginia Natural Gas for the 3,492nd time. It was a Thursday afternoon.

“The next available date on our calendar is Friday afternoon,” the operator told me.

Friday, as in eight days away.  We’d already been two days with no heat or hot water. We were already  greasy and cold. A bad combination.

After I made a few screeching noises, she moved the date up to Saturday, between 9:00 am and 4:00 pm.

Friday evening, we got an automated call from Virginia Natural Gas. It said that our meter would be set on Saturday morning, between 1:15 am and 1:15 am, and that we were to make sure someone would be home at that time.

Watching television in our living room, wrapped up in blankets, we listened to the voice mail and laughed out loud through chattering teeth.

Saturday morning, my optimistic husband got up and went outside to check for the meter.

“They didn’t come at 1:15 am,” he said with a bit of disappointment.

About 2 pm, Mr. Meterman showed up. He looked at the gas line poking out from the house, and said serenely, “I can’t hook this up. They ran the line in the wrong place.”

I fell on my knees and begged. From my close-to-the-ground position, I hugged his legs and told him that we were making mortgage payments on a cave, and that I’d lost feeling in my fingers the day before, and could he please, please, please give us a little heat?

Surreptitiously, I rubbed my greasy hair against his pants leg. He scrunched up his face, groaned and took a step back.

Moved by my impassioned pleas, he forced the modernistic, bright yellow piping this way and that, and managed to get the gas meter set in place.

Virginia Natural Gas had told us that Mr. Meterman would fire up our appliances. Mr. Meterman said he was not permitted to fire up our appliances.

Fortunately, Mr. Brandy-New Boiler sprang right to life when turned on, and for the first time in 72 hours, we had hot water again.

Monday morning, the contractor re-appeared and got the boiler going, and Monday afternoon, our radiators were once again filled with hot water, making their trademark snap, crackle and pop noises.

My house is warm again. And it’s a good, comfortable warmth. And best of all, it’s a high efficiency warmth.  :)

Old Oil burner

This is the only picture I have of the old oil burner. I'd intended to snap a few before photos when the work started, but was so stressed out by all the upset of my house being torn up (again), that I thought, "ah, forget it." This photo was taken in March 2007 when we first looked at the house.

The poor old Utica, as its being hauled off for scrap.

The poor old Utica, as it's being hauled off for scrap. Notice the heavy cast-iron boiler on the front. Workers estimated this rig weighed about 400 pounds.

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The new unit is wall hung, and is much smaller. It is a tankless boiler, and water is heated as it passes through the boiler.

The new unit is wall hung, and is much smaller. It is a tankless boiler, and water is heated as it passes through the boiler. Notice the unpainted square on the basement floor, where the old boiler once sat.

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Another view of the new equipment.

Another view of the new equipment.

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Close-up

Close-up

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pipes

This photo shows the complexity of all those pipes. Lot of stuff going on there!

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And outside, it looks like this. The white PVC pipe is an air intake for combustion. The silver is for exhaust.

And outside, it looks like this. The white PVC pipe is an air intake for combustion. The silver is for exhaust. The red area around the border is where my house is bleeding from the jagged, rough and ugly cutting. The house cried out in pain, but I was the only one who could hear the throes of agony.

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I wasnt thrilled with how the gas meter business turned out.  Two holes and one crooked meter.

I wasn't thrilled with how the gas meter business turned out. Notice, the house had some hemorrhaging here as well. The hole on the left was the contractor-created hole for the natural gas piping. They used a bright-yellow 1" line and it was not attractive. Monday morning, the contractor agreed to remove the misplaced yellow line and replace it with black-iron pipe, in the hole to the right. You can see (from this picture), how awkward the placement of that left-side hole is. The yellow gas line continues just inside the house.

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Close-up of the pain

Close-up of the pain. The hole on the right was the original hole, where a gas line was run many, many years ago. If the contractor had simply used that hole in the first place (as I requested), it would have saved us all a lot of trouble.

And theres a handy dandy little gauge on the wall that measures boiler temps and domestic hot water temps. Highly entertaining.

And there's a handy dandy little gauge on the wall that measures boiler temps and domestic hot water temps. Highly entertaining.

Instructional literature that came with the unit shows that the tankless boiler is a happy little thing.

Instructional literature that came with the unit shows that the tankless boiler is a happy little thing.

But he can get frustrated pretty quickly.

But he can get frustrated pretty quickly. Not sure what he's doing here...

My pretty, pretty pink and green house!

My pretty, pretty pink and green house!

Another view

Another view

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

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Harrisonburg’s Surprising Bunch of Sears Homes

March 15th, 2011 Sears Homes No comments

In Fall 2010, my hubby and I were driving home from Elkins, WV and took a detour through Harrisonburg. In less than 30 minutes, I found a plethora of kit homes in this beautiful little mountain town. To learn more about Sears Modern Homes, click here.

In brief, Sears Homes were sold as pre-cut kit homes from the Sears catalog. These 12,000-piece kits came with a 75-page instruction book and a promise that a “man of average abilities” could have one assembled and ready for occupancy in 90 days!  When Sears closed their “Modern Homes” department in 1940, all sales records were destroyed, so the only way to find these homes in one by one.

To admire the beautiful pictures, scroll on down!  :)

To read about another amazing collection (in Rocky Mount), click here!

Sears Willard, as seen in this 1928 promotional ad

Sears Willard, as seen in this 1928 promotional ad

Sears Willard in Harrisonburg. Note, the dormer has been altered a bit but thats a very common repair as this is the site of frequent roof leaks.

Sears Willard in Harrisonburg. Note, the dormer has been altered a bit but that's a very common "repair" as this is the site of frequent roof leaks. One distinguishing feature of the Willard are those three windows on the right side (in this photo).

The Sears Westly was a popular little house. Notice how the roof in the rear is truncated. Theres a wee tiny window on the back wall.

The Sears Westly was a popular little house. Notice how the roof in the rear is truncated. There's a wee tiny window on the back wall.

Hidden behind the shrubs is a darling Carlin!

Hidden behind the shrubs is a darling Carlin!

Notice the roofline in this picture!

Notice the roofline in this picture!

Sears Lynnhaven from the 1938 catalog

Sears Lynnhaven from the 1938 catalog

Sears Lynnhaven in Harrisonburg!

There ought to be a law against parking cars in front of Sears Lynnhavens!

Sears Lynnhaven

Sears Lynnhaven just outside of Harrisonburg in Franklin. And what a beauty!

Sears Attleboro, as seen in the 1936 catalog.

Sears Attleboro, as seen in the 1936 catalog.

Sears Attleboro (also hidden by the landscaping)

Sears Attleboro (also hidden by the landscaping)

Sears Elsmore, from the 1919 catalog

Sears Elsmore, from the 1919 catalog

Still hidden by the vegetation, and also obscured by a lot of remodeling, but theres a Sears Elsmore hiding underneath all that vinyl.

Still hidden by the vegetation, and also obscured by a lot of remodeling, but there's a Sears Elsmore hiding underneath all that vinyl.

In addition to Sears, I also found houses from Aladdin, a company based in Bay City. Aladdin had a large mill in Wilmington, NC and not surprisingly, Ive found more Aladdin kit homes in Virginia and North Carolina, than Sears Homes.

In addition to Sears, I also found houses from Aladdin, a company based in Bay City. Aladdin had a large mill in Wilmington, NC and not surprisingly, I've found more Aladdin kit homes in Virginia and North Carolina, than Sears Homes.

Aladdin Plaza - in the flesh!

Aladdin Plaza - in the flesh! Note the large addition on the porch. Not what one might call a "sensitive" remodeling.

GVT

And I found a Gordon Van Tine home in Harrisonburg. This company was based in Davenport, Iowa and was also a large, national kit home company.

Is it a GV #605?  Hard to know for sure without getting inside, but it sure looks like it.

Is it a GV #605? Hard to know for sure without getting inside, but it might be. The house above looks wider than the #605.

To learn more about Sears Homes, click here.

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

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My Pretty, Pretty Houses in Pretty, Pretty Lynchburg, Bedford and Roanoke!

March 14th, 2011 Sears Homes 1 comment

Sears Homes were sold right out of the pages of the Sears Roebuck catalog in the early 1900s. These homes came in 30,000-piece kits and were shipped to all 48 states. Sears promised that a man of average abilities could have these homes assembled in about 90 days. More than 370 designs of kit homes were offered - everything ranging from Arts and Crafts bungalows to foursquares to Colonial Revivals.

Today, the only way to find these kit homes is literally one by one. And that’s what I do. When I decided that Sears Homes would be my career, I endeavored to memorize each of those 370 designs of Sears Homes. Now I can drive the streets of small town America and find the Sears Homes - one by one.

Here are a few of the kit homes I’ve found in the Lynchburg and Roanoke area (and Bedford, too!).

(Special thanks to Dale Patrick Wolicki for accompanying me on the trip to Roanoke, Bedford and Lynchburg to help with the treasure hunt!)

To read more about Sears Homes, click here.

To buy Rose’s books, click here.

The Sears Alhambra was one of the most popular Sears Homes

The Sears Alhambra was one of the most popular Sears Homes

The Sears Alhambra in Roanoke, Virginia

The Sears Alhambra in Roanoke, Virginia

Another Sears Alhambra - with some modifications - in Lynchburg

Another Sears Alhambra - with some modifications - in Lynchburg

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Best described as a trailing-edge Victorian, the #306 was surprisingly popular

Best described as a trailing-edge Victorian, the #306 was surprisingly popular

And heres the #306 in Christianburg, Virginia

And here's the #306 in Christianburg, Virginia

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The Martha Washington was a spacious and fine home. Here is a Martha Washington in Bedford, Virginia.

The Martha Washington was a spacious and fine home. Here is a Martha Washington in Bedford, Virginia.

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This is a kit home offered by Montgomery Ward. Like Sears, Montgomery Ward also sold kit homes. This one is in Bedford, next door to the D-Day monument.

This is a kit home offered by Montgomery Ward. Like Sears, Montgomery Ward also sold kit homes. This one is in Bedford, next door to the D-Day monument.

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Harris Brothers was another kit home company (based in Chicago). This is the HB Ardmore, just outside of Roanoke (in Salem).

Harris Brothers was another kit home company (based in Chicago). This is the HB Ardmore, just outside of Roanoke (in Salem).

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Heres a pair of Aladdin Georgias in Roanoke

Here's a pair of Aladdin Georgias in Roanoke

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Another Wardway house, this one is in Roanoke.

Another Wardway house, this one is in Roanoke.

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And the creme de la creme of our trip: A Wardway #101 in a tiny town just outside of Roanoke.

And the creme de la creme of our trip: A Wardway #101 in a tiny town just outside of Roanoke. And Dale Wolicki was the one who made this discovery! Without him, I would have passed it by!

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This is an Aladdin Detroit, which we found in Lynchburg.

This is an Aladdin Detroit, which we found in Lynchburg.

To look at more pictures of Virginia’s Sears Homes, click here: