Sears, the former retail giant that filed for bankruptcy this week, started as a mail-order catalog that sold everything from toys to clothing to car parts. And back in its heyday, it even sold house kits.
Between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold about 75,000 houses built from kits that the new homeowners would then need to assemble themselves. Several of those homes still stand in the Charlotte area, often in historic neighborhoods close to uptown. According to old Sears catalogs, some kits sold for as low as a few hundred dollars.
Today the homes are revered by many for their historical importance. Their styles are also being mimicked by home builders today.
Sears would sell thousands of parts required to put a house together, including pre-cut lumber, pipes for plumbing and parts for heating systems, advertisements from the catalogs show. If local homeowners didn’t want to handle the assembly themselves, they’d often hire local contractors to handle it.
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Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett estimates there are a few dozen homes in Charlotte built from Sears kits. Hanchett said the house-kit idea gained traction around the same time as companies like Ford started mass-producing automobiles in the early 20th century.
In selling home kits, Sears was trying to make the home-building process simple for its customers, Hanchett said. Though they were built from kits, the homes were built to last.
“Sears wasn’t looking to reinvent architecture. It was looking to make houses everyone liked,” Hanchett said. “They were not trying to be taste leaders. They were trying to help you, whatever your taste was, build a house less expensively.”
Sears sold hundreds of styles of homes, oftentimes a variation of the Craftsman-style bungalow that’s popular again today. Some styles were Colonial-inspired. Many other homes built around the time Sears sold home kits were inspired by the Sears styles, Hanchett said. “A lot of people think they have Sears houses but they don’t.”
A September 1999 Charlotte Observer story about the Elizabeth home tour featured a Sears home built in 1927 on Vail Avenue, off Randolph Road.
Then-owners Jane and David Kroening re-did much of the house after buying it in the early 1990s. For instance, they reconfigured the main floor, remodeled the kitchen and added rooms upstairs. When they were ripping off the aluminum siding that had been added onto the exterior, they discovered boards stamped with building instructions from the original Sears kit.
About a mile away in Elizabeth, near Hawthorne Lane, sits another Sears house on Lamar Avenue. The home, according to its Zillow listing, is an “original Sears & Roebuck catalog home (that) boasts high ceilings, extensive millwork, 5 fireplaces & built-in cabinetry and vintage lighting.” The bungalow, built in 1917, has a wraparound porch, too.
In uptown Charlotte, a home was moved from Seventh Street to N. Pine Street in the 1970s, according to a November 1997 Observer story. While vacant on Seventh Street, the home had been badly burned by vagrants and sold for $100 on condition that it be relocated to its current location.
The house is believed to have been a Sears catalog house, built around 1907 of component parts delivered to Charlotte by rail.
“A few weeks after the order was placed, two boxcars containing 30,000 pieces of house would arrive at the nearest train depot,” historian Rosemary Thornton wrote in her book called “The Houses that Sears Built.” “The kit included 750 pounds of nails, 22 gallons of paint and varnish and 20,000 shingles for the roof and siding.”
Near Charlotte, the historic Brawley House is a Sears home that “stands out like a jewel” on North Broad and Williams streets in downtown Mooresville, according to a December 2010 story in the Mooresville News. Mooresville historian Andy Poore told the paper at the time it is believed that pieces of the home were ordered from a Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog and shipped to the site via train.
In Charlotte’s Derita neighborhood, a historic former railroad community situated between uptown and UNC Charlotte, a Sears home on Gibbon Road was built in 1919. According to a May 2000 Observer story, “The Auburn” style home was two stories and had three columns.
The kit for the that particular style of house cost $1,638 to $3,624 between 1917 and 1922, according to an old Sears catalog. (That’s approximately $21,425 to $47,401 in today’s dollars.)
According to the Observer story, the home was slated to be torn down to make way for new homes to be built, but amid outcry from longtime residents, the developer changed his mind. Doug Boone, founder of Boone Communities, opted instead to remodel the home and sell it.
“You know, I like it so much I do believe I’d stand out in front of the bulldozer to save it,” Derita resident Jean Poteat said of the Sears house on Gibbon.