More about kit homes and standardized house plans…

The recent discovery of the Sears Roebuck Argyle home just up the street—which is maybe more of a realization than an actual discovery…it’s been there for 100 years—got us to thinking about and looking around in search of other Sears Roebuck cousins.

There are plenty of them, which should not come as a surprise. Here’s a helpful field guide to identification.

In the same way that all art is derivative of other art, so too with residential architecture, defined by the period, the market, the ways of living at the time. As we’ve discussed in the profiles we’ve written about eastside builders, most used widely available sets of building plans.

Page through any of the catalogs from the early years and you’ll see lots of familiar designs, including maybe your own house. For a time during the building boom of the 1920s, The Oregonian actually published sets of plans of example houses, many of which were indeed built on the eastside.

A page from the 1936 Sears Modern Homes Catalog.

Here’s a link to the best repository of old house plans we’ve found (with many thanks to the folks at Antique Home Style). If you haven’t seen this, it’s going to be a rabbit hole you’ll want to go down, there’s so much to see and think about here. Even the marketing language from the catalogs will make you smile. The Wikipedia piece on Sears Modern Homes is actually pretty good as well.

And here’s another good local source of information about mail-order homes, and all things related to older buildings in our fine city.

Here’s the invitation and challenge: Next time you’re out for a walk (good for you and a great way to experience neighborhood history), see if you can find built versions of any of these plans. We’ll welcome any insights or photos of matches you find.

6 responses

  1. I did some research on Sears kit homes years ago when I lived in Chicago and started my first rehab. There are so many there and there are many in Portland. I noticed quite a few when I lived in North Portland. They’re not always small 1-1.5 level homes. There are plenty that would blend right into Alameda/Grant Park (and surely do). They’re particularly common in neighborhoods with easily accessible rail lines. I highly recommend the book “Houses By Mail” for anyone who is interested in these homes. I love them and they last forever!

    • Thanks for the book recommendation Virginia.

      We noticed something interesting when we had a detailed look at the nearby Argyle: no numbering on any of the house parts. As we thought about this, it makes sense: why ship all of that framing lumber from the midwest to Oregon (the lumber producing capital of the lower 48). Maybe the folks up the street just bought the plans and sourced the wood close to home…

  2. I’ll take one of those 2 bedroom Sears Argyle packages at $1759. Which now is the price of a very good bicycle (but not a great bicycle – those will run $5000 or more.)

  3. So, I live in what I thought might be a kit home but it is at any rate built from commonly available plans. I haven’t been able to find a plan source though.
    What I have found is about 200 houses built by the same builder (George A Ross) in the late teens and twenties. I can always tell because of the living room built-ins and the fireplace construction, and often there is a tandem driveway/garage. His personal residence was at 4312 NE Hazelfern Place in Laurelhurst. I’ve plotted the houses I know of here:
    https://drive.google.com/open?id=1iwbvStLLjzkVw6_kq9-69LuB-ac
    I’d love to know if anyone else has more details. There are a couple of newspaper references in 1912, 1920 and 1922. The houses are not overly remarkable, but he sure built a lot of them!

  4. I am so happy I found your blog and I absolutely love your information more about the kit homes and standardized house plans and the tips you have shared are awesome. I liked and it is wonderful to know about so many things that are useful for all of us! Thanks a lot for this amazing blog!!

  5. There were quite a few West Coast vendors/dealers of kit homes, particularly the Pacific Homes Ready-Cut Company, which was a very prolific dealer throughout the 1920s. Not only up and down the west coast proper, but to states further east, and to areas further to the southwest of California, Oregon, Washington. Including Alaska, Hawaii, and even other countries like in Mexico, Guatemala, and England. There are two of their catalogs, one for 1923 and the other from 1925, that have been scanned in and stored at the Internet Archive.org. Both are excellent resources for information on their kit homes and materials. The 1925 catalog has a lot more info on the details of the interior features and millwork, which they produced themselves than was given in the 1923 catalog, plus interior views of some of their homes.

    They sold kits for home owners to build their own homes, the additional supplies to complete the homes, which weren’t included with the basic kits, like plumbing, heating, and electrical materials.

    They also had crews of their own construction employees – electricians, plumbers, painters, plasterers, general construction labor, masons, carpenters, etc., on their payrolls who were available to come and build complete “turn key” homes, with absolutely everything needed to construct complete homes, all the way from digging the basement/foundation, to finishing the sidewalks, driveways, and all the basic landscaping required.

    All the interior finish, millwork, etcChina cabinets, buffets, bookcases, kitchen cabinets and breakfast nook furniture, mantels, bedroom dressers, chests, linen cabinets, etc., including decorating services were also available.

    They apparently are not well known enough that even Bob Villa, and a young man who is an architect, and his wife whose relative died and they , on the show on which Villa was in charge of thorough renovations of their older kit home in California, managed to completely misidentify a PRCH home as a Sears Modern Homes bungalow plan, even with the Sears kit home catalog reprint right in their hands, throughout that entire series! They apparently chalked up the obvious differences of plan and dimensions to “customizing” done by the original owner/builder. It apparently never occurred to either of them that they simply had the WRONG company identified, and that it couldn’t possibly be another company entirely!

    I, and several other members of a kit homes Facebook group, found the video of the show on YouTube, and we all did actually identify the proper PRCH plan and home from the 1923 catalog. That home the couple actually owned, was a perfect match to the PRCH catalog, but it was of course too late to make any corrections once the show was already being aired, and especially on YouTube!

    If you’re not familiar with Archive.org, their own description says: “Internet Archive is a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more.” This includes seemingly hundreds of kit home catalogs from companies you’ve heard about, and some of which you may have never been aware, including Canadian vendors, also scads of plan book catalogs, which marketed and sold home plans only, not materials.

    Plus numerous catalogs of various home building materials, separate from kits or plan books. I have several hundred of these various items bookmarked and saved in my own personal library, and best of all, its all FREE! These catalogs, and many other documents are available to download instantly, in at least a half a dozen different formats, so you can get them on your device for your own personal use, instead of having to depend on the availability of decent download speeds at any given time.

    Probably the easiest way to find what you’re seeking is to go to the main site, and search for the Building ģ Heritage Library, and then use the Filter sections to narrow down what you want. The best way to start is to go in the Filter, and open up the “Years” section, and make sure you click on the “more” heading at the bottom of the short list that shows up, before you try to select any specific years. Then, when you have ticked off the years you want, select the “Apply Your Filters” which is at the bottom. Use the rest of the sections as you need, in order to continue to narrow down your individual selections. It can take a few minutes to get through them the first time, but once you’ve done it a few times, it goes a lot quicker.

    There’s another library section you can use as well, which holds additional catalogs, called the Avery Library Architectural Trade Catalogs. Its also a good resource, and has some catalogs in it that are not found in the first one I mentioned.

    If you have any questions about how to navigate the selections or to find what you want, feel free to ask me. I’ve been a member there for several years, and would be happy to assist.

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