Sunday, December 4, 2016

Lewis Homes in Washington DC

Logo of the city of Washington DC's
Historic Preservation Office
The week has brought a bit of excitement to my circle of kit house researchers. The reason? The city of Washington DC's Historic Preservation Office placed online a massive database of information related to over 100,000 structures located within the boundaries of the District. Among those structures are hundreds of catalog/kit houses from the major kit house companies including Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine, Lewis, Sears Roebuck and Sterling. That database has been a treasure trove of information for my group of kit house researchers, helping us to authenticate dozens of houses that had previously been identified and allowing us to discover catalog/kit houses that had not previously been identified. It's also giving us a deeper understanding of the activities of the different kit house companies in Washington DC, one of which I'll explore a little further in this post.

One of the most active sellers of catalog and kit homes in Washington DC was the Lewis Manufacturing Company of Bay City. From 1913 - 1925, Lewis sold homes across the country under the "Lewis Homes" name. As documented by fellow kit house researcher Catarina Bannier, Lewis was represented locally by Guy S. Zepp, and through local research, mortgage records, newspaper ads and articles, Catarina has documented over 60 Lewis houses representing 32 different models located within Washington DC. Most of these houses had already been authenticated through other methods. But through the online database, we've been able to add another layer of documentation confirming that those houses came from Lewis. We've also been able to identify some homes that had not previously been identified as being houses from Lewis. For kit house researchers, that's pretty exciting stuff!

We always enjoy finding and authenticating houses. But what's also interesting is what we learn about the companies as we research the houses. Most interesting to me is that the building records in Washington DC reflect something that fellow kit house researcher Judith Chabot discovered when she was researching Lewis homes built in Syracuse, New York. Like some of the examples she shared from Syracuse, several of the large Lewis houses that were built in Washington DC were built after 1925. Why is that important?

1338 Geranium St NW - Washington DC - Lewis Cheltenham (1926)
Image courtesy of Zillow
One of the ways that we learn about the kit house business almost 100 years later is by studying the catalogs that the companies issued. One of the most striking changes occured between 1924/1925 and 1926 when Lewis Manufacturing changed the direction of their kit house home products, transitioning from "Lewis Homes" to "Liberty Homes". Before 1926, Lewis offered a wide range of houses in various sizes and styles. But Lewis was especially noted for its large homes in attractive designs like the Cheltenham. 

Cover of Lewis Homes Catalog (1922)
Image courtesy of
Catalog image of Lewis Cheltenham
Image courtesy of

But when the 1926 catalog arrived, it was good-bye "Lewis Homes", hello "Liberty Homes". Large models like the Ardmore, Cheltenham and the Piping Rock were nowhere to be found. Instead, they had been replaced with a small selection of low-cost, modest homes without much detail or flair for design, an example being the Sheridan model pictured below. 

Cover of Liberty Homes Catalog (1926)
Image courtesy of

Catalog image of Lewis-Liberty Sheridan
Image courtesy of
Some have speculated that the reason for the change was a massive fire at Lewis's Bay City facilities in November 1924. After rebuilding, it's surmised that Lewis decided to refocus their kit home business towards lower-cost houses that were reflected in the modest designs of the new "Liberty" brand. 

Alternatively, one prominent kit house historian has shared with me that the move towards smaller, less expensive homes was already in the works when the fire occurred. This move was in reaction to Sears' mortgage program that was capturing the market for larger, more expensive homes. There's some evidence for this in the number of homes that were built in Washington DC between 1922 and 1925. Sears sold over 100 homes, most of them with mortgages, while Lewis sold only half that amount. In any case, it was clear that with the 1926 catalog, "Lewis Homes" had been replaced by "Liberty Homes" and there was no sign of the large houses with striking designs that had previously filled the pages of the catalog. 

Which bring us back to the Cheltenham I shared at the beginning of the post. According to the DC HPO database, it was built in 1926. But it wasn't the only home built in 1926 based on a design that didn't appear in that year's "Liberty Homes" catalog. In fact, over a dozen Lewis homes were built in Washington DC 1926 and 1927 and almost all of them were models that came from the pre-1926 catalogs. 

As Judith discovered in Syracuse, New York, Lewis was more than willing to sell homes that came from the old catalogs to those who had a relationship with Lewis, like Guy S. Zepp. It's not known how long Lewis continued this practice. From the DC database, the last example that is directly attributable to Lewis was built in 1927. In fact, we don't have any examples of a home by Lewis being built in Washington DC after that date from either the pre or post 1926 catalogs, at least based on the information in the database. But we will keep looking and I won't be surprised if the examples we find are more like the Cheltenham than the Sheridan. 

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting!
    My Lewis contractor in Syracuse, Emil F. Kotz, was linked with other business ventures after 1928 ("District Superintendent for Sales" for Steel Frame House Company, for one), and stopped advertising Lewis homes.