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HUD: Destroying History One House At a Time?

If HUD gets its way, a beautiful, mostly original Sears Alhambra  in Portsmouth, Virginia will soon be remuddled into a homogenized plasticine mess.

The old Sears kit home is in a historic district of Portsmouth (Cradock), and - speaking as an architectural historian - I can say with some authority that this is a one-of-a-kind house.

What makes this house special?

It’s a Sears Alhambra (one of Sears finest homes), and it’s 85-years-old, and it’s still in mostly original condition.

Inside, it has an original porcelain bathtub, original light fixtures, unpainted oak trim (a $160 upgrade!), vintage plaster, and original wood windows (some casement; some double-hung).

Through the decades, these beautiful old houses often get remuddled into an almost unrecognizable form.

The Alhambra in Cradock was spared that fate because it was owned by one family for 75 of its 85 years.

And if those 85-year-old walls could talk, they’d tell quite a story.

In 1929, Swedish immigrant Gustav Emil Liljegren picked up a Sears Roebuck catalog and ordered his Sears kit house, an Alhambra.

Price: $2,898.

The 12,000-piece kit arrived within six weeks later in Portsmouth, Virginia and a few weeks later, Gustav’s new home was ready for occupancy.

For years, Gustav Emil Liljegren had toiled and sacrificed and saved so that he could provide a fine home for his family (a wife and four children).

In April 1929, Gustav was anxiously awaiting the arrival of his kit house from Sears.

He had saved enough money to pay cash for the house. His wife was pregnant. He had a good job at the Proctor and Gamble plant in Portsmouth (near the Norfolk Naval Shipyard).

Only five years earlier, Gustav had immigrated from Malm√∂, Sweden, working as a steward to pay for his passage. It was on the ship - bound for America - that he’d met William Proctor (of Proctor and Gamble fame) who was so impressed with this young Swede that he promised him a job at the Portsmouth plant.

Within a year, Gustav was able to send for his wife and four children. And in 1929, it all fell apart.

His wife’s pregnancy ended in miscarriage. She contracted blood poisoning and died three weeks later, leaving Gustav with four little children. And 12,000 pieces of house coming to Portsmouth.

A short time later, the market crashed and Gustav lost his life savings.

But Gustav pulled it together and pushed on. He picked up the pieces of his life and the 12,000 pieces of his house and slogged through the hard days. Gustav, after all, was a survivor.

In 1937, he married his second wife. In 1954, Gustav retired from Jif and moved to Florida, and sold the Alhambra to Ingvar (Gustav’s son) for $8,000. In 2004, due to declining health, Ingvar Liljengren, (born in 1923) had to sell the house.

A few years later, the house went into foreclosure and that’s when it became a HUD house (in 2014). A long-time Portsmouth resident had always admired the house and put in a bid to buy it. Her bid was accepted.

But that’s where it went off the rails.

After inspecting the house, HUD demanded that the following repairs be completed.

1)  All existing wooden windows were to be replaced with new windows.

2)  Due to the suspected presence of lead, all interior woodwork had to be painted (encapsulated). Yes, all that solid oak, varnished, stunningly beautiful woodwork must be painted.

3)  Due to the suspected presence of lead, the plaster walls had to be covered with sheetrock.

In other words, HUD wants the new buyer to destroy the home’s historic significance (prior to moving in).

I’ve never dealt with HUD but I suspect it’s a massive bureaucracy awash in red tape. I suspect that the local HUD representative doesn’t understand that this house is in a historic district within a very historic city (Portsmouth, Virgina).

I suspect he/she has never read the Secretary of Interior’s preservation briefs on the importance of saving a home’s original features.

I suspect he/she doesn’t understand what they’re asking of a woman who purchased an old house because she fell in love with its inherent unique historical characteristics and charms.

That’s what I suspect.

I hope this is just a massive misunderstanding.

Because if it’s not, our old houses are surely doomed.

If you’ve any ideas how to stop this, please leave a comment below.

Gustav and I thank you.

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The Alhambra was first offered in 1918.

The Sears Alhambra was first offered in 1919.

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In the 1919 catalog, it was featured in a two-page spread.

In the 1919 catalog, it was featured in a two-page spread.

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And it was a very beautiful home.

And it was a very beautiful home.

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Dining

The dining room featured a built-in buffet (shown above).

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But who doesnt love a sun porch!

But who doesn't love a sun porch - and with a chaise!

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One of Gustavs hobbys was wrought iron work, so he did a little embellishing of the homes exterior railings.

Gustav ordered the Alhambra in Spring 1929. Inside, the house retains many of its original features, such as an oversized porcelain tub, varnished oak trim, original light fixtures and more. This Sears House is now 85 years old, but is still a real jewel. However, if HUD has its way...

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One of the homes best features is its original windows, such as this small casement window on the second floor.

One of the home's best features is its original windows, such as this small casement window on the second floor. BTW, one of Gustav's hobbies was wrought iron work. He added the wrought iron railings when he built the house in 1929. In 2002, I was given a full tour of the home's interior, and I was blown away. It is a real beauty, and has been tenderly cared for through the many decades. It's truly a gem.

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It truly saddens me to think that HUD wont be happy until our Alhambra in Portsmouth looks like this lost soul in Wisconsin.

It truly saddens me to think that HUD won't be happy until our Alhambra in Portsmouth looks like this lost soul in Wisconsin. And yes, that's an Alhambra, all dressed up for the 21st Century.

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Please leave a comment below. I’m feeling mighty sad these days about the future of these old houses.

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  1. Anne
    May 7th, 2014 at 14:46 | #1

    If it’s in an established historic district, I would think that designation would override HUD requirements.

    This document states that the lead abatement guidelines can be modified for historic properties. https://www.onecpd.info/resources/documents/Historic-Properties-and-the-Lead-Safe-Housing-Rule.pdf.

    Also, here is the historic guidelines document for Cradock. http://www.portsmouthva.gov/planning/guidelines/Cradock/Cradock%20Historic%20District%20Design%20Guidelines%20Small.pdf

  2. May 7th, 2014 at 14:57 | #2

    HUD - been there, done that. It is an organization of dubious distinction.

    THEY are requiring these updates? Has the sale been completed?

    They have been caught before with improper procedures. My first suggestion would be to send them a copy of John H. Meyers info.

    It will take a program of constant contact with them as well as information to them in order to get any results.

    The city or county involved here should take an affront to HUD involvement. Same for any historical organization.

    Rosemary, I’ll look you up for a conversation on this. I hope they can be persuaded to butt out !

  3. Anne
    May 7th, 2014 at 15:19 | #3

    And here is another document that addresses lead abatement and historic preservation. http://www.hud.gov/offices/lead/lbp/hudguidelines/Ch18.pdf

  4. May 7th, 2014 at 19:43 | #4

    @Anne
    GO ANNE !

  5. Cynthia Ward
    May 7th, 2014 at 20:39 | #5

    Yep, Historic Building Code sets precedent for all but the worst of health and safety violations.

    Tell HUD to go pound sand. The buyer needs a good real estate attorney to fire off a letter. Shouldn’t take more than that.

    We had a house in my neighborhood that was in the same family, a time capsule that remained intact when owner died.

    The daughter was already married, so she was not interested in Mom’s house.

    It was used as guest space for visiting friends and relatives so it stayed the same, just like calendar on the wall still said 1914.

    The granddaughter had to tap equity for health issues lost to foreclosure.

    A few of us in the ‘hood made a pact.

    If the bank took it, we would go in and strip the place, take everything, replace it with home depot junk so the bank couldn’t say we removed critical fixtures, it would still have lights and such they just weren’t original, cuz the bank was going to take it all out anyway, paint it white, put down wall to wall carpet, the boxes checked by mindless pencil pushers for foreclosure are the same as HUD.

    Once the place sold we would bring the original fixtures and features to the owner and reinstall them.

    Thankfully she got a short sale and didn’t have to deal with it.

    Two years later…I hear the new owner stripped the place.

    Shoot me, just shoot me.

  6. Shari D.
    May 8th, 2014 at 16:20 | #6

    Since when the hell is there LEAD in UNpainted surfaces? Lead in varnished woodwork? Lead in plaster? Puhleeeze! What the hell are these people thinking??

    Oh, I forgot. You’re talking about government pencil pushers and bean counters.

    Go go go with all the historic information you’ve been given, and anything else you come up with.

    That suggestion about the Real Estate attorney taking them on sounds like a great idea.

    I can’t believe these people are this blind! Tell them everything you have told US! Get their attention, Rosemary, because if anybody can do it, you can! I know it looks formidable, but it’s doable, and I truly believe that your calling is to take on these Goliaths, in favor of all the little “David” houses out there.

    It’s your life ~ you know it is. This house needs you, and we all know you can do it!

  7. Candace
    May 8th, 2014 at 18:53 | #7

    Hi everyone. I’m the (hopeful) buyer of this home. I will have to take the time to write out all of the story in more detail, however to answer a few things:

    I still have not closed on the house. There were some “technical difficulties” with my first mortgage company, so at the last minute I had to switch lenders.

    Replacing the windows was not actually a HUD requirement, but since 99% of the lead in the house was in the windows and casings, I was going to have to spend $9500.00 to get a certified lead company out just to scrape the windows and do whatever it is they do.

    So that is where the HUD/financial reality comes into play.

    Long story short, I’ve come to a compromise with the contractor that we will replace the windows, but they are going to be in the same style as the originals. (And believe me, I’m saving the original windows too.)

    So they will be new, but have the same effect from the street. Of course, doing this is almost doubling the cost. The costs for customization are outrageous.

    Unfortunately, the house does not fall in a historic district. In my opinion, there needs to be some rezoning or reconsideration as to what defines historic as this house is definitely worth protecting.

    Believe me, I want to keep as much of the original house and character as possible.

    Unfortunately, due to the lead findings and my own financial restraints, I’ve had to make some sacrifices. I probably should have started a fundraiser months ago! :)

    Feel free to add me on Facebook or message me and I can discuss in further detail.

    Candace Pippin

    P.S. The oak trim and interior french doors aren’t being touched! Since they were never painted, they don’t have any lead. And on another good note, the contractor is actually repairing the original front and back doors so no character will be lost there!!

  8. May 8th, 2014 at 19:39 | #8

    It’s so wonderful to review the beautiful “suggested interiors” of the Sears Alhambra while I sit in it’s kitchen where my Great grandmother, grandmother and mother cooked before me.

    This story gets my “Irish” up for sure!

    With Gustav’s history and the house still so close to intact, the buyer should contact the historic preservation officer for their region of the state for help and advice.

    Achieving historic status for our Alhambra was the path to preservation loans for repair, preservation and protection from such pitfalls as HUD.

  9. Andrew Mutch
    May 10th, 2014 at 12:33 | #9

    Candace - I would strongly encourage you to contact the people at the State Preservation office.

    I’m sure that they have dealt with this issue before with HUD and could provide guidance on how to proceed.

    I’m glad to hear that you’ve made some headway on getting some compromises on some of the issues raised.

    But there’s no need to replace old windows and at that cost if it can be avoided. Best of luck!

  10. Sarah
    August 6th, 2017 at 18:46 | #10

    Does anyone know what happened with this house?

    I rode around Cradock today trying to find it but was unsuccessful.

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