Sunday, January 7, 2018

Custom Sears House in Tonawanda, New York

Sears Modern Homes catalog (1932)
Image courtesy of Archive.org
One of the more interesting but lesser known aspects of the Sears Modern Homes program are the custom homes that were ordered from Sears Roebuck. For a few short years, Sears made a concerted effort to encourage homebuyers to come to Sears with ideas for a custom designed home or even bring their own plans that Sears would provide the materials to construct. Because these houses often were not based on house plans found in the catalog, absent some documentation like a mortgage record, they can be difficult to identify these homes "in the wild". Fortunately, I found an example of a custom Sears house that has both a mortgage and can be found in the Sears Modern Homes catalog. Let's take a look!

Starting in the 1930 Modern Homes catalog, Sears encouraged people to come to them with their own ideas for a home from which Sears would draw up a plan for a custom design. Or if one already had plans from an architect, Sears could use those plans as the basis of providing construction drawings and materials to build the house. 

Image from Sears Modern Homes catalog (1932)
Image courtesy of Archive.org
Sears also offered to finance these custom homes so that homeowners could take advantage of Sears liberal lending policies. Although it wasn't referenced until the 1932 Modern Homes catalog, Sears also started offering "Home Construction" services around 1930. Instead of building the home yourself or hiring a contractor to build it, Sears offered to construct one of their houses for you. Sears extended this service to their customers who wanted to build a custom-designed home as well.


The 1932 Modern Homes catalog featured a number of custom homes that were constructed using various elements of Sears Modern Homes and Home Construction services. In some cases, those homes were based on houses that were available in the Modern Homes catalog like the customized Sears Lexington that was built for Dr. Frederick and Mrs. Lum of Chatham, New Jersey. Other houses were based on plans created for the owners by Sears Roebuck or the customer's own architect and constructed with materials supplied by Sears.

Many of these homes included information about the owner and location of these homes. But a couple examples didn't include any information about the homes. Despite that lack of information, Lara Solonickne was able to uncover the history behind one of the homes - the Red Shield Lodge in Palatine, Illinois.

Red Shield Lodge - Palatine, Illinois
Image courtesy of Archive.org
But as far as I know, the home I will share below has remained unidentified until now. The story of discovering this house starts with doing mortgage research in New York state. Most of the research that I have done has been in and around New York City and in the upstate areas of Albany and Troy. My fellow kit house researcher, Sarah Mullane, has searched for and located most of the Sears mortgages in western New York state that have shown up in searches through FultonHistory.com. But I knew there were a few mortgages that Sarah had not yet tracked down so I decided to give those another look-see.

One of the mortgages that I wanted to see if I could locate was for Herbert L. Schultz. Schultz had taken out a mortgage from Sears trustee Edwards D. Ford for $12,500 in the spring of 1930. The mortgage was for property in Tonawanda, New York. A mortgage of that amount is typical of either a high-end Sears house like the Sears Elmhurst or a custom Sears house.

Image courtesy of Archive.org
Fortunately for me, I was able to find Schultz and his family at 278 Paramount Parkway, Tonawanda in the 1940 Census. I jumped over to Google Streetview and saw this:

278 Paramount Parkway - Buffalo, New York
Image courtesy of Google Streetview
Because of the trees, I couldn't get a great view of the house. But I could see enough of the house to tell that it wasn't a standard Sears design although it was reminiscent of the Sears Barrington/Cambridge. I didn't have a legal description for the property so while it was likely that this was the house that had a mortgage for $12,500, I couldn't be 100% sure. I filed it away as a possible Sears custom house with the hope that some additional information would come forward to help us authenticate this house.

A few weeks later, I was paging through the 1932 Sears Modern Homes catalog and came across this house in the catalog. It doesn't have any information that identifies the house's original owner name or the location of where it was built.

Sears Custom Homes - Sears Modern Homes catalog (1932)
Image courtesy of Archive.org
As you can see from the image, this house is reminiscent of the Sears Barrington or Cambridge. But it differs from that house in several notable ways including the centered door on the front vestibule, the bay window on the first floor and the way that the second floor overhangs the first on the front of the house. The chimney also differs significantly from the chimney design we've seen with either the Barrington or the Cambridge. Finally, the decorative brick and stone and stucco and half-timber effects are much more elaborate than we see on the standard Sears models.

Catalog image of Sears Cambridge (1930)
Image courtesy of Judith Chabot
My memory being what it is, I knew that I had seen this house recently but couldn't remember where. I asked my group of Sears kit house researchers if any of them could remember seeing this house - one half-joked "it's probably in New York". Turns out she was right! The light bulb finally flicked on for me and I realized that the house that I had found on Paramount Parkway was the house in the catalog. Also, it turns out that Sarah had shared the house with the group in early 2016 but none of us had connected it to the house in the catalog. Sarah was able to get photos of the house that I'm able to share with you here that better highlight some of the features of the house.

278 Paramount Parkway - Buffalo, New York - Sears Custom
Photo courtesy of Sarah Mullane
278 Paramount Parkway - Buffalo, New York - Sears Custom
Photo courtesy of Sarah Mullane
278 Paramount Parkway - Buffalo, New York - Sears Custom
Photo courtesy of Sarah Mullane
As you can see from the photos, the house retains many of the design elements of the house as it originally appeared in the 1932 Sears Modern Homes catalog. These details help us confirm that the house on Paramount Parkway is the same house that appeared in the catalog. Mystery solved!

If you know of any other Sears houses in Tonawanda or know more about the history of this house, please share those in the comments below!

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