Sunday, February 25, 2018

Washington DC - Sears Houses Over The Years

Two years ago, I wrote about the "The Great Sears Paper Trail", the idea that even though the original sales records from Sears Roebuck no longer exist, across the country, there is a trail of documents in the form of building permits, deeds, mortgages, newspaper articles and other recorded documents that allow us to find and authenticate Sears houses. Nowhere is the trail of document as robust or as accessible as in Washington DC. As I've shared in previous posts, online databases of mortgages and deeds, building permits as well as articles from digitized newspapers have allowed us to locate and/or authenticate hundreds of kit houses from Sears as well as other kit house manufacturers. This wealth of information has not only helped us to find Sears houses, it has assisted us in learning more about how the Sears Roebuck Modern Homes program operated in the Washington DC area. As we've assembled the data that is associated with these homes, it gives us the opportunity to share more about what we've learned.

In this post, I'm going to focus on the sales numbers for Sears Modern Homes in Washington DC. Before I share those numbers, I'll include a few caveats about the numbers. First, these only include houses from Sears that are still extant. Houses that we were able to identify but are no longer standing or have been expanded or modified beyond recognition were not include in the totals. Second, these totals do not include custom house designs even if those houses are still standing. While custom house designs were a part of the Sears Modern Homes program and we've documented those in Washington DC and other communities, for the purposes of these numbers, I wanted to stick to houses that were clearly based on models from the Sears Modern Homes catalog. At some point, I will go back and do a comprehensive tally that will include custom houses, demolished houses and any others we're able to document to show the full range of activity of Sears homes sold in Washington DC. But for today, we're sticking with the houses that match models from the Sears Modern Homes catalog and that are still standing today.

4602 Fessenden - Washington DC - Sears Conway
Image courtesy of Google Maps
To date, 272 Sears houses have been authenticated in Washington DC. The majority of those houses were financed with mortgages from Sears Roebuck. Most of the houses with mortgages also have an associated building permit in the HistoryQuest DC database that list Sears Roebuck as the architect. A smaller number of houses were authenticated solely using the building permit. A handful of houses in HistoryQuest DC list Sears Roebuck as the builder of the house (model homes). Finally, a few houses were authenticated through other methods like stamped lumber. 

Early Years 
Sears started selling their Modern Homes in 1908. The earliest documented Sears houses in Washington DC are four houses built in 1911 on Macomb Street NW by a local developer who had seen one of the models on display at the Illinois State Fair. Sales in these early years appeared to be light with only a handful of homes being constructed between 1911 and 1920. The earliest mortgage we are able to document is from September 1919 for the Sears Westly at 2901 King Place NE. Here's the breakdown by years for that time period.

1911 - 4
1913 - 1
1915 - 2
1917 - 1
1919 - 1
1920 - 1
1921 - 7

The Roaring Twenties
While sales of Sears houses had been fairly modest in the early years of the Sears Modern Homes program, in Washington DC, they took off starting in 1922. It's no coincidence that the huge jump in sales coincided with the opening of a local sales office for the Modern Homes program in Washington DC in early 1922. Particularly in 1922, Sears homes were heavily advertised in Washington DC-based newspapers like the "Evening Star" and the "Washington Times". This new sales office was located at 704 10th St NW and like other Sears sales offices, include a display of home models and materials that would be used in the construction of your Sears home.

Image from Eastern Star (Washington DC)
April 8, 1922
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
The presence of the sales office surely contributed to the surge in sales of Sears houses. In suburban locations, the sales of Sears homes typically peaked in the later 1920s but in Washington DC, as the following numbers illustrate, the sales of Sears houses were strongest between 1922 and 1926. At the same time, kit home sales weren't limited to those from Sears. Lewis Homes of Bay City, Michigan had a particularly strong presence in Washington DC, selling dozens of homes during the same time period.

1922 - 25
1923 - 25
1924 - 39
1925 - 47
1926 - 35
1927 - 17
1928 - 11
1929 - 16

Image from Eastern Star (Washington DC)
August 17, 1924
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Early 1930s
The effects of the Great Depression were fully taking effect in the early 1930s and the impact of that was reflected in the sales numbers of Sears homes. We also see a change in the size of homes purchased. Where smaller homes tended to be the exception in homes sold during the 1920s, we see more examples of smaller homes like the "Berwyn", "Crafton" and "Oakdale". Buyers were still purchasing larger models too but there was more diversity in homes during this time period. Here are the sales numbers from 1930 to 1933.

1930 - 12
1931 - 14
1932 - 9
1933 - 4

Where are the Sears Houses Built After 1933?
One of the biggest surprises for those of us researching kit houses in Washington DC is the absence of any Sears houses in Washington DC built after 1933. To date, we haven't been able to document any examples that post-date 1933.

As you can see from the numbers, sales of Sears houses declined to the single digits in the early 1930s for a variety of reasons. The effects of the Great Depression were in full effect by 1933 as unemployment reached 25%. By the end of 1933, Sears had ended its financing of houses. The Modern Homes program even closed for a short time in 1934. But as the economy recovered in the later 1930s, sales of Sears homes started to pick up again. Even after Sears stopped issuing its Modern Homes catalog in 1940, Sears continued to sell homes through 1941 and into 1942. But so far, we haven't located any examples homes sold after 1933 in Washington DC.

We're pretty sure that economic conditions aren't the reason for the lack of Sears houses in Washington DC. While home construction lagged in cities across the country, the HistoryQuest DC database documents a healthy number of homes built in Washington DC during this time period. That's not a surprise as the size of the federal government increased as national programs to counter the effects of the Great Depression were instituted. This helped to support the continued construction of homes in Washington DC.

But as popular as Sears homes were in the early 1920s, the opposite seems to be the case after 1933. Were there local reasons, such as code requirements, that precluded the construction of Sears houses? Did Sears scale back its sales to specific areas of the country that didn't include Washington DC? That's possible although DC is only a few hours from Sears East Coast hub at Philadelphia and a couple more hours to Port Newark, where Sears ran its Modern Homes operations for East Coast states. It also appears that Sears didn't maintain a sales office in Washington DC in the later years of the 1930s, unlike other locations in the country where sales offices stayed open. Whatever the reason or reasons, no Sears houses built after 1933 have been located in Washington DC. But we're still looking!

Do you know of any Sears houses built after 1933 in Washington DC? Or have information about your Washington DC kit house that you us to know? Share it with us in the comments!


  1. I've been thinking about the question of later-30s kit houses in DC, and – pending further research – I suspect it has something to do with the nature of the developments taking place in that period. The pattern of development that led to the use of kit houses in the teens and 20s seems to have been that smaller developers would buy up a few lots at a time in partially-developed "streetcar suburb"-type neighborhoods (i.e., really streetcar-oriented, but within DC) and put up a few houses from a given catalogue to sell on spec. The scale of this development was essentially infill where late-19th-c. developers had started working. By the 30s, development had largely been pushed to the very fringes of the District – as, for example, in Spring Valley, where developers like WC & AN Miller built whole neighborhoods featuring larger brick colonials and the like – not impossible to build from the higher end of what Sears offered, but distinct in terms of market, style, size, and developer's m.o. from the earlier infill with smaller frame houses. That's my hypothesis for the moment, but I'd be interested to see what Catarina makes of it from her perspective of having looked at the whole corpus of kit houses locally.

    1. Carin - That makes sense to me. Here in the Detroit area, we don't see large numbers of kit houses in the City of Detroit proper because most of the residential development followed the pattern you described with developers building out entire neighborhoods in the teens and twentys. It was out in the streetcar suburbs that we see the large numbers of kit houses. Thanks tor sharing your insights, they are much appreciated!

  2. That is a rather abrupt end. Most likely, there were Sears homes built in the area after 1933, but they are just not documented as such.