It's a type of house that dots all points of the country, a house beloved by architecture buffs and Americana aficionados alike — although never as widely recognizable as, say, brick ranchers or pastel beach cottages.
However, the mail-order homes produced by Sears, Roebuck and Company — the biggest name in retail for the better part of a century — initiated the prefabricated-housing movement. Seventy-five years after production of the Sears homes ceased, fans continue to lovingly restore and devote significant virtual real estate to them, via blogs and Facebook pages.
Examining any well-maintained "Honor Bilt modern home" (Sears' top-of-the-line series) shows that this nascent form of shipped housing was typified by high-quality craftsmanship and lasting architectural character.
Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Roebuck connected through watch repair before they became the namesakes of the catalog every 20th-century kid pored over to make his or her Christmas list. At various times since its 1893 founding, Sears, Roebuck had its hand in auto manufacturing, grocery sales, and home mortgages, as well as the extremely popular mail-order homes, made from 1908 through 1940. (The houses came with a mortgage, and boatloads of Depression-era loan defaults eventually brought the craze to a close.)
Richard Sears was a skilled advertising copywriter, and with the advent of railroads, he realized that virtually anything could be shipped by train to the country's citizenry, especially those families living in rural areas. Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine, and Montgomery Ward, among other companies, followed suit with their own kit-home lines, but certain features of Honor Bilt homes remain consistently identifiable today.
These include generous sleeping porches, breakfast nooks, and front-porch "hospitality seats" with built-in benches. Eventually, more than 300 models were offered. Sears wasn't only marketing bricks and mortar, it was promoting the American Dream: a comfortable family haven, a bucolic yard, and a complete social network, all available with the corporation's "easy payment plan."
The fad's heyday was concurrent with the rise of America's middle class, the expansion of suburbs, and the comfort and wonder (not to mention the increased safety) of modern plumbing and heating. When a homeowner received his materials shipment, it included everything: precut lumber, nails, floor varnish, windows, exterior paint, and the customer's choice of door, cupboard, and bathroom hardware. As in frontier-style barn raisings, family and neighbors often helped labor to raise the home.
The floor plans, however modern then, reflect a daunting variance from today's lifestyle. Most models had just one bathroom, and closet space was infinitesimal by contemporary standards. On the other hand, many larger models featured a music room: a piece of culture long gone.
Prices ranged from $635 for the modest 2-bedroom, no-bathroom "Kimball" model to a whopping $4,909 for the deluxe "Glen Falls." Each design reflected the time's popular architectural trends. The 1920s saw both a Neocolonial revival and the rise of the Arts and Crafts style, which honored rusticity and hand-hewn stylings. These trends were a reaction to Victorian architecture's hard-to-sustain formality and high level of detail, such as the ornate gingerbread and fretwork trim so ubiquitous on homes built from the mid-19th century through about 1910. America was now experiencing the Downton Abbey effect, with wealth being redistributed among the classes, and architectural preferences transforming accordingly.
Our region is sprinkled with fine specimens of Sears homes, and their owners came to them in a variety of ways. Ben and Kristen Schlaefer live on a shaded, idyllic West Asheville street packed with outstanding bungalows and Tudor revivals, many of which have the Sears look. Their model, the "Osborn," was first marketed in 1915, though theirs was built in the mid-1920s. Ben lived in the 1,300-square-foot home before he met Kristen, but their artfully curated collection of furniture and objects incorporate, with nary a design hiccup, many diverse pieces, among them a Swedish Modern dining-room set, a clean-lined modern sofa, and an overstuffed, shabby-chic-influenced floral upholstered chair set.
They've attentively respected the home's history, transforming the once-open sleeping porch into a sun-and-plant-filled reading nook and adding a period-appropriate, white subway-tile kitchen backsplash. "We learned that one of the hallmarks of Sears homes, especially bungalows, was the interlocking lumber pieces at the top of the front columns," says Ben. "We recreated this when we had the front porch restored."
Emily Corey came to live in a Sears home quite accidentally. She and husband Randy Hale relocated from California and ended up renting their Dutch Colonial in Weaverville; their landlord and long-established neighbors told them it was a Sears home. It seems closest to the "Verona" model, characterized by narrow interior hallways, a generous side porch, and quaint Neocolonial features such as cutout shutters.
"There are many things that puzzle us about the house, like the evidence of seemingly non-pocket doors at the living-room entrance," Corey says. "But they're likely the result of multiple owners' differing visions and changes over the years." The home nevertheless has typical Honor Bilt generous crown moldings, a brick fireplace, and abundant windows.
Scott Barnwell and Diana Toledo learned they were buying a Sears home from the get–go. "We knew it was the 'Maywood' when the previous owner showed us the reprint from what was probably the 1928 catalog, which was the first year the [Maywood] plans were offered," says Diana. It was only the second or third house the couple looked at when they moved from Madison, Wisconsin, 10 years ago. "We knew this was it — great fireplace, lots of windows to let in light, and plenty of room for all of us." Barnwell and Toledo's home retains its original sleeping porch; an inviting claw-foot bathtub; and a front-entry mirrored coat closet, as shown in the original ad.
True examples of American ingenuity, Honor Bilt homes are found from coast to coast, in small towns and big cities, and are ever more coveted for their charm. Despite the advent of great rooms, bedroom-sized spa bathrooms, and multi-use spaces, these homes' dedicated rooms and warm features prove the old adage that everything old is new (and appreciated) again.