Sunday, October 10, 2021

Sears Jefferson in New Britain, Connecticut


Some of the houses that I post about tend to be outliers in the Sears Roebuck "Modern Homes" program. Because they are "rare" models (or at least I thought so when I first started posting about them), I like to share them so that other kit house researchers (and fans of these houses) can see real-world examples. Some of them are rare because the model only appeared for a year or two in the "Modern Homes" catalog before being replaced by something more appealing to customers. Or they were introduced near the end of the run of the "Modern Homes" catalog (see the "Rare 10" listing from Lara at "Sears Homes of Chicagoland"). But in the case of today's example, the "Jefferson", this model appeared in the catalog for 5 years. But to date, only 4 examples of this house have been found. We'll discuss why as we review this example from New Britain, Connecticut. Let's take a look!

The "Jefferson" first appeared in the 1932 "Modern Homes" catalog. It would continue to appear in the catalog through the 1937 edition. This period was a difficult times for the "Modern Homes" department. By 1931, sales of homes had started to decline in reaction to the effects of the Great Depression. Sears had propped up sales with ever more generous financing terms but even those couldn't stop sales from falling. There simply weren't enough people with the financial wherewithal (or the stability of a steady paycheck) to keep up the pace of sales during the Roaring 20s.

Cover of 1932 "Modern Homes" catalog

While the Depression was awful for home sales overall, the one segment that did slightly better than others were high-end homes for the wealthy and upper middle class. With more financial stability, some of these people were able to take advantage of low labor and materials costs that resulted from supplies of both far exceeding demand. In the 1932 "Modern Homes" catalog, Sears explicitly pivoted to this market, highlighting a number of large, expensive models as well as examples of large, custom homes that Sears had designed and supplied materials to more affluent customers. Models like the "Jefferson", the "Norwich", the "Trenton" and the "Torrington" represented the largest and most exclusive of Sears "Modern Homes" available at that time (or any time in the history of "Modern Homes"). 

We've found several examples of these models so we know that Sears had some success selling these homes. Part of our success in finding these houses is through mortgage records. Sears continued to finance homes through the end of 1933 and even those of means often took advantage of the very generous terms that Sears was offering (low interest rates, 15 year terms, willingness to finance second "Junior" mortgages). While I don't have the actual mortgage for this house, I have the next best thing - a newspaper article that connects the house to one of the Sears trustees whose name appeared on the mortgage documents of houses financed through Sears. 

This article from the "Hartford Courant" notes, as I've shared below, that Dr. Robert S. Buol had secured financing for a new house from Edwards D. Ford of Philadelphia. During this time period, Ford's name appeared on all the mortgages that were issued from the Philadelphia office for "Modern Homes" in New England, the Mid-Atlantic states and as far west as Pennsylvania and as far south as the Carolinas. His name is what connects this house to the "Modern Homes" program.

The article doesn't note the exact amount of the mortgage but it does state that the finished house should not cost less than $18,000. It was pretty typical for Sears mortgages to list a finished house value and those were always higher than the actual amount of the mortgage. That amount tells us to expect a high-end model or a custom house. 

Article from January 24, 1932 "Hartford Courant"
Image courtesy of Newspapers.com

From this newspaper article, I knew I was looking for a house on Ten Acre Road and further searching on Doctor Buol's name helped me pin down the address - 91 Ten Acre Road in New Britain, Connecticut. Once I saw it, I was pretty sure that I had found another "Jefferson" but with some customizations. 

Sears Jefferson - 91 Ten Acre Road, New Britain, CT 
Image courtesy of Realtor.com

As you'll note from the newspaper date of January 1932, you might wonder how Dr. Buol had already selected and financed a house by that date based on model that first came out in the 1932 catalog. There's one of two possibility. One, the catalogs for each year were often issued before the end of the preceding year. A couple of my fellow kit house researchers have a copy of what appears to be the 1932 "Modern Homes" catalog with a September 1931 publication date. Alternatively, it's possible that Dr. Buol's house plan started out as a customized house design that Sears adopted for use in the catalog. Hopefully, more information will come to light in the future answering that question!  

Sears Jefferson - 91 Ten Acre Road, New Britain, CT 
Image courtesy of Realtor.com

As you can see from the photo, this house has dormers, which we don't normally see on the "Jefferson". It also doesn't have the Sun Room on the left side, which was standard for the "Jefferson". But as I reviewed each side of the house, everything else appeared to match up. The design of the front entrance is one that appears on a couple high-end Sears models so I double-checked to see if there was anything that was a better match but none were as close as the "Jefferson". 



It's not unusual to see customizations like this, especially on higher end houses like the "Jefferson". If we had found this without the mortgage information, it might have made us question the provenance of the house. But knowing it was financed through Sears, we know that the house is either a customized version of the "Jefferson" or a custom design based off it. Either way, it's one more for the list. 




I don't normally share a lot of interior photos but this one in particular is interesting because it shows the walk-in shower that you can see in the second bathroom that's connected to the primary bedroom. I don't know that I've seen this in any other Sears model but it's another way that we can confirm that the floor plan is consistent with the "Jefferson". You can view more photos of the house inside and out in this listing at Realtor.com (the house is not currently for sale but the listing photos are still visible). 

Sears Jefferson - 91 Ten Acre Road, New Britain, CT 
Image courtesy of Realtor.com

Knowing that the "Jefferson" was offered for 5 years, why have only 4 been located to date? One strong likelihood is that there just weren't that many examples of the house built. Sears first offered it as house sales were cratering and even among high end buyers, there were only a limited pool of potential customers. Those customers also had other models to choose from as well as the option of having Sears create a custom design. Also, once Sears stopped financing houses at the end of 1933, it would have been a bit more challenging to get financing for a house this size until the lending markets and government programs to assistance borrowers stabilized. That said, there are likely more examples of the "Jefferson" out there waiting for us to find them. 



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