Thursday, March 24, 2022

Washington DC Area Sears Houses by the Numbers

One of the most researched areas of the country for Sears houses is in and around Washington DC. That research took another big step forward this week with the completion of a comprehensive survey of Sears Roebuck mortgages in the City of Alexandria and adjacent Arlington County, Virginia. My fellow kit house researcher Judith Chabot spent about 3 months researching over 200 mortgages from Sears Roebuck (and a couple dozen from other kit house companies). That work fills in a big gap in our knowledge of how many Sears houses were sold in the Washington DC region. Although not every Sears house was financed through Sears Roebuck, where we've been able to do comprehensive surveys, like Arlington County and Washington DC, we've found that they represent a significant number of the Sears houses built. With Judith's work completed, I wanted to share some numbers. Let's take a look! 

To get started, let's orient ourselves with some geography. As you can see in the map below, at the center is our nation's capital, Washington DC. The District of Columbia is carved out of the boundary of the state of Maryland. Two large counties lie on either side of the District in Maryland - Prince George's County to the east and south and Montgomery County to the north and west. 

Based on image from

The city of Alexandria and Arlington County lie directly west of Washington DC. Although not commonly known, the entirety of Arlington County and a portion of the City of Alexandria were, at one time, part of the original 100 square mile District of Columbia. Due to various reasons, those areas were returned to Virginia in 1846 in what is known as the Virginia Retrocession. In 1870, the city of Alexandria was split from what was then called Alexandria County. In Virginia, cities and counties are independent of each other, unlike many places where cities and counties coexist over the same areas. Alexandria County was renamed to Arlington County in 1920 to avoid confusion with the city of Alexandria, which has grown beyond its original boundaries defined by the original District of Columbia. 

Map courtesy of "The Economist"

Washington DC experienced explosive growth during the first half of the 20th century when kit house sales were most active. As DC grew, so did the surrounding areas in Maryland and Virginia as developers turned farms and small towns into streetcar suburbs of the nation's capital. In many of those new developments, Sears houses were built by owners and by developers seeking to encourage new homeowners to move out to their new developments. 

With that little bit of geography and history out of the way, let's move onto the numbers. For this post, I'm only going to use the number of Sears houses authenticated by mortgages. The total number of documented Sears houses is higher but houses with mortgages represent the vast majority of houses that have been documented in and around Washington DC and it's the one attribute that we can easily account for across the various communities. 

Authenticated Sears "Woodland" - Alexandria, Virginia

These numbers reflect the totals as of today. As I noted, these reflect the total number of houses that were authenticated through a mortgage from Sears Roebuck. 

Washington DC: 242
Montgomery County, Maryland: 109
Prince George's County, Maryland: 126
City of Alexandria, Virginia: 11
Arlington County, Virginia: 114

Total: 602

The totals for Arlington County are particularly noteworthy as it's only 26 square miles in size. As Judith's research discovered, there were even more houses with mortgages that were built but quite a few of them have fallen victim to both commercial and residential redevelopment. While we saw this to some degree in Washington DC and the surrounding areas of Maryland, none of them experienced the amount of loss as Judith documented in Alexandria and Arlington. Hopefully, her research will make more homeowners aware of what they own and encourage the long-term preservation of these houses.  

We don't know how large an area the Washington DC Sears "Modern Homes" office covered. There are still adjoining counties where we need to do research although based on some preliminary reviews of mortgages in nearby counties in Maryland, the numbers dropped quickly once you got outside the urbanized areas of that time period. But as you can see, Sears financed a significant number of their homes in the Washington DC area. As more research is completed, I'll update the numbers. 


1 comment:

  1. This data is significant, and represents a huge amount of work on your part! Thanks for including me, and I hope that the good folks of the greater DC area can benefit from our research in some way.