I did. I will tell you that I couldn’t decide between the Schoolhouse No. 5008 with a teeny library for $11,500, or the Modern Home No. 303, an eleven room Victorian for $2,073.00. My understanding is that no one ever ordered the Schoolhouse. There have been no reports of one in anywhere in the country. Could there be an old kit for No. 5008 sitting in a warehouse somewhere? Could it be mine?
In 1906, Frank W. Kushel, a Sears employee was credited with coming up with the idea of selling entire houses through the catalog. At the time, Sears had warehouses full of unsold building supplies. Kushel suggested taking those raw materials and turning them into prefabricated house kits and Voila! The Sears Modern Home Catalog was born!
Back in the day, in order to buy a Sears catalog home, you needed to show proof that you owned a lot. While I do own a lot, there is already a house on it! My first choices were too big, so I settled on the adorable Modern Home No. 142 for $282. I figure I could fit it in the corner of my back yard if it actually arrives. So I filled out the blank (order form) and sent in a $10 deposit and am awaiting word from Sears!
I am sincerely hoping that my 1920s order form will arrive in some parallel universe where a lovely Sears clerk will fill my order. I want to hear the whistle of the train when my 30,000-piece house arrives. I want to stand at the station excitedly with my kids. I want to buy a house out of a catalog!
My housing dream is that my husband and I buy a big piece of property and populate it with prefabricated homes for family and friends to stay in when they visit. I am always collecting information for this venture. Wherever I travel I always check out the local architecture and I especially make a point of visiting prefab shows.
When I was in NYC a couple of years ago, I went to the MOMA show Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. It was fabulous! There was an empty lot next to museum where they had about five prefabs built that you could tour. Two years ago, I happened upon another show of prefabs, microdwell 2012, near Scottsdale, AZ. If you are going to be in Scottsdale next week, microdwell 2014 is going on right now. The houses being made in this day and age are cool and amazingly cheap. I will be heading to New Orleans for spring break and am looking forward to seeing the Katrina Cottages, or Brad Pitt Homes, as the locals call them.
So with my love of the prefab, you can imagine my excitement when I moved to the Chicago area seven years ago, only to discover that I moved to the prefab capital of the United States! I went on the requisite Architectural Boat Tour, which is a fascinating way to see Chicago. We had a very informative tour guide. My favorite part of the tour was drifting by the enormous Chicago Post Office. Our guide told us the reason the post office was so big was to accommodate Sears Roebuck and Company’s catalog business.
In the early 1900s, many people had only two books in their home, the Bible and the Sears catalog. Can you imagine leafing through a phonebook-sized catalog and picking out the house of your dreams? How do you choose? Sears offered hundreds of designs! Can you imagine quibbling with your spouse over whether you could get the five-room Mitchell for $1953 or the six-room Americus for $2,050! Those catalogs must have been worn and dog-eared! The arguments that must have ensued! Once you placed your order it would arrive by rail in your town. Every last nail was included in your delivery. It might be assembled with help from your neighbors in a “barn-raising” event.
In my research I discovered that the largest collection of Sears Catalog homes are in Elgin and Carlinville. There is also a nice collection in Downer’s Grove. I called the Downer’s Grove Visitor’s Bureau and received an informative brochure and map very quickly. I took myself on the walking tour the next day. The beauty of these houses is that they are nice, solid homes that don’t stand out as different than the other homes. They have nice architectural details. If you didn’t have the map and they didn’t have a Sears Catalog plaque you’d never know they were prefabs. What makes them special is their story.
Sadly, the Sears Roebuck Home Catalog business closed in the 1940s. In light of the blossoming prefab home industry, I was thinking that it would be cool if Sears got back into the production of kit homes. Even if they didn’t want to do it for profit, it would be a great, charitable endeavor. In places like Detroit, where many are participating in urban renewal or in the wake of the next natural disaster, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that Sears train car pull up and give a family their life back?
Kathleen Thometz is an artist and writer. She lives with her husband, kids and doodle dogs. You can experience more about her at www.kathleenthometz.com