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Boardwalk Empire and Sears Kit Homes

March 13th, 2018 Sears Homes 7 comments

The last few weeks, I’ve been watching Boardwalk Empire (HBO), set in 1920s Atlantic City. It’s centered around the real life story of prohibition-era gangster Enoch Johnson, who’s known as Enoch (”Nucky”) Thompson on the show.

From the start, one of my favorite characters has been Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon). Beginning with the second season, there’s a running story line about Van Alden (and his wife Sigrid) purchasing a kit home in 1923.

Of course, that piqued my interest!

Nonetheless, as is often the case with period dramas, there’s so much wrong with the facts behind this particular story line. I tried hard to ignore the many errors but ultimately decided to write a blog instead. :)

The story line suggests it’s a house from Bennett Homes, but the dialogue between Nelson and Sigrid makes it clear that this house came from Sears & Roebuck. It seems that the writers used those company names interchangeably.

Check out the pictures below (and their captions) to get the real story.

Thanks to Rachel for help identifying a few of these images!

Read about a large number of Sears kit homes in Atlantic City.

Want to learn how to identify kit homes? Click here.

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Boardwalk

Nelson Van Alden (played by the inimitable Michael Shannon) is shown at his desk studying the pages of a 1922 Bennett Homes Catalog. When I first glimpsed this, I let out a little "oh my goodness" happy noise.

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Nelson

It's actually a Hollywood mock-up and not a real catalog. The front cover was probably pulled from an online source, and the rear cover is (apparently) from a reprint of the Bennett catalog. The storyline says that Nelson and Sigrid are living in Cicero, and yet they're buying a house from Bennett Homes from Towanda, New York? Cicero is just outside of Chicago, Illinois (home of Sears and Roebuck). Further, this cover is altered. Bennett Homes were *not* prefabricated. More on the cover below. NOTE: I'm not savvy enough to figure out how to remove close captions without taking a course at a local community college.

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1922 cover

Here's the cover of the 1922 Bennett Homes catalog that Nelson is examining above. It's quite different than the image shown above. And you'll note that the word "pre-fabricated" does not appear anywhere on the cover. Neither do the children or the man (shown in the screen shot with Nelson).

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Rear cover

Shown here is the true rear cover for the catalog that Nelson is examining in the first image. You'll note that it is color - not black and white (as seen on "Boardwalk Empire").

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stripped

This is a shot of the "Sears & Roebuck House" (as it's described in the show). If you look closely at this house, you'll discover that it's a brick house that has been covered in diagonal planks, to replicate the look of a partially finished house. Notice the window frames, and the bracketing under the stoop. They're disappearing under the many layers of siding. Those are the clues that tell me - this house was dressed up with that fresh lumber to create the look they sought. The style of this house doesn't match ANY of the models offered by Sears, Gordon Van Tine, Bennett or any of the kit home companies with which I am familiar. Odds are good it's just a bungalow somewhere from the 1920s.

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Rear

This gives a better picture of the brackets on the stoop. Notice also that the windows are 2/2 (two lites - or panes - over two panes). Sears didn't offer 2/2 windows - ever. In fact, if I am trying to identify a potential kit house, I look at the windows first, and if they're 2/2, I discount it.

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next one

This shows the neighbor's brick bungalow, and notice, there's a billboard at the end of the street.

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Perfection in a box

"Perfection from a Box" is a lovely thought. So while the dialogue says that this is a Sears & Roebuck house, the imagery suggests it's a Bennett house. I suspect that the writers were using those terms (Sears - Bennett) interchangeably.

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Long view

Here's another view of those solid brick (not brick veneer) bungalows. And notice that the other houses are 6/6 windows, which would have been more typical in 1923. When Bennett (or Sears or Gordon Van Tine or the other companies) did an entire community of kit homes, they did NOT use the same model again and again. Nelson and Sigrid allegedly live in Cicero, Illinois. It would be interesting to know where these brick bungalows are located.

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copper

And there's this. I'm not sure what's happening under this kitchen sink, but I do know that copper plumbing was not in wide-spread use until the late 1940s or early 1950s. In 1923, it would have been galvanized supply lines and lead pipes for drains - typically. And those gate valves? Definitely not from the 1920s. Then again, neither is the plywood panel behind Nelson Van Alden.

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fff house

A native Norwegian, Sigrid struggles with her English. Another recurring them in this story line is that the house has many deficiencies, which is also not accurate. Sigrid asks Nelson repeatedly if he's contacted "The Sears Roebuck" to get these deficiencies addressed. In fact, customer satisfaction with these 12,000-piece kits was very high.

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Lots of dialogue on inferior

Through several episodes, Sigrid complains bitterly about problems with the house. This is a great line where Nelson explains that he has been in contact with Mr. Roebuck. In real life, Alvah Curtis Roebuck was no longer involved with the company in the 1920s, but was in Florida, making many very poor investments in land. He was bankrupted later, and in the 1930s, took a job at Sears & Roebuck cutting ribbons for the opening of new retail stores.

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images

When Bennett or Sears or the other kit home companies built entire neighborhoods, they mixed it up a bit as shown in the catalog page above (1923).

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c

Cicero is within 3 miles of Homan an Arthington Street (the home of Sears & Roebuck in the 1920s).

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secret

Nelson is one dapper fellow.

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Read about a large number of Sears kit homes in Atlantic City.

Want to learn how to identify kit homes? Click here.

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