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.
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 Malmö, 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 Sears Alhambra was first offered in 1919.
In the 1919 catalog, it was featured in a two-page spread.
And it was a very beautiful home.
The dining room featured a built-in buffet (shown above).
But who doesn't love a sun porch - and with a chaise!
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...
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.
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.
Please leave a comment below. I’m feeling mighty sad these days about the future of these old houses.
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