Ann Arbor's Kit Homes

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, January 1991,
January 1991

Author: Grace Shackman and Rob Schweitzer

Linda Feldt knew she wanted to buy her house on Keppler Court the moment she saw it six years ago. It's strong and well made, she says—even the original plaster is holding up well for a house built in the 1920's. She works at home as a holistic health practitioner, and she says, "Every time I walk up to my house, I just love it."

The one thing Feldt didn't like about her house's layout was the way the refrigerator was placed in a little dead-end hallway off the kitchen. A handy, practical woman, she decided to incorporate the hallway into the kitchen. Getting ready to move the doorway, she recalls, "I took off the baseboards—and it said on the back, 'Montgomery Ward.' "

Feldt had just discovered that her dream house was a kit home. In about 1927, Albert Jedele (his name was on the baseboard, too) and his wife, Elsa, picked the house out of a Ward's catalog. Ward's shipped everything needed to build the Norwood, as the model was called, to Ann Arbor by rail: lumber already cut to size, roofing, flooring, plaster, even nails and paint. The Jedeles, too, seem to have been delighted with their house: the 1928 "Wardway Homes" catalog includes this testimonial from Mrs. Jedele: "We saved $1000 and got better materials by buying a WARDWAY home from you. We have lived in it for three years, and we like it better every day."

The catalog also explained the mystery of the refrigerator in the hallway. The house was built before the days of electric refrigerators, and the catalog boasted that the Norwood's floor plan allowed deliveries to the icebox without having the ice man track through the kitchen.

The kit home industry flourished between 1906 (when the Aladdin Company started making home kits in Bay City, Michigan) and World War II. An important but, until recently, overlooked part of America's architectural history, it is only now beginning to get serious attention. Many companies, including Ward's and Sears, the best-known kit home seller, no longer have their records, and can only estimate how many homes they actually sold. A conservative guess puts the number at over half a million across the country.

Ann Arbor was an ideal market for kit houses: it had a growing population, good shipping access via two rail lines, and a location near the industry's center in Bay City. In addition to Sears and Ward's, there were four large manufacturers of kit homes. One of the four, Gordon-Van Tine, was in Davenport, Iowa. But the other three manufacturers—Aladdin and two later competitors, Sterling and Lewis—were based in Bay City.

The son of Aladdin's founder, W. F. Sovereign, thinks that his father got the idea for kit houses from a Bay City company that made precut kits for wooden boats. Whatever the inspiration, Bay City early in this century was the ideal place for the industry to spring up: its boat-building industry used mechanized wood-cutting technology that could be adapted for homes, and it had all the facilities needed to ship lumber, a legacy of Michigan's late-nineteenth-century timber boom.

In 1906, when Aladdin was founded, it was just becoming possible to sell and ship products in large volume nationwide. New national magazines made it easy to advertise all over the country, and the 1893 Rural Free Delivery Act made it possible to mail catalogs everywhere. At the same time, the nearly universal spread of railroads put most towns on a line for easy shipping.

Home builders of the era, however, still worked entirely with hand tools. By taking advantage of the efficiencies of mechanized mass production, kit house makers were able to offer fancy detailing—for instance, porches with elaborate pillars, and overhanging eaves with knee brackets—while undercutting the prices local carpenters had to charge to cover all that labor. Some firms built entire company towns of kit houses. Kits were shipped to every state in the union, to Canada, and even to England.

Construction of kit homes in Ann Arbor peaked in the 1920's with the growth of the university and the expansion of the city's industrial base. It slowed during the Depression and stopped completely during World War II when materials were needed for war production.

Kit houses can be found all around the city, but are concentrated in neighborhoods developed during the early years of this century: the outer edges of the Old West Side, lower Burns Park, and East Ann Arbor. They are found in all the predominant styles of the time—bungalow, semi-bungalow, craftsman, Tudor, box (four-square), Dutch colonial, and Georgian. Most are modest homes of less than 1,200 square feet, but some elegant models were built, too. The best known is former Ann Arbor News publisher Tim White's southern mansion at 2030 Hill. The founder of American Broach, Francis LaPointe, lived in an elegant Sears home (since torn down) at 4158 Washtenaw, so big it included a ballroom in which Henry Ford once danced.

We have identified Ann Arbor area kit houses through reminiscences of people involved in the building or buying of them, from physical evidence found in the houses themselves, or from information gleaned from the sellers' original catalogs. So far, we have positively identified thirty-one homes as kit houses; twenty-five others are strong possibilities, while countless others are suspected.

Collier's, Better Homes & Gardens, and the Saturday Evening Post all carried kit home ads. Interested readers could send in a coupon to receive the company's latest catalog. The catalogs changed yearly and included about seventy models. Each model had a name, often one intended to evoke the aura of a style or an era—Hathaway or Birmingham for Tudor-style models, Rembrandt or Amsterdam for Dutch colonials, San Jose for a Spanish-style house, Magnolia for a southern mansion. Other models were named after contemporary heroes, including actress Mary Pickford and General John J. Pershing.

The catalogs had pictures and floor plans of each model, along with a "bill of materials" and forms for ordering the house or requesting further information. The catalogs also included details about such optional extras as lighting fixtures, wallpapers, furniture, and even window screens.

The Aladdin Company proudly advertised that its catalog was its only salesman. Both Sears and Ward's, on the other hand, had local agents in many areas. In 1930, Sears had kit house sales offices in seven Michigan cities, including Ann Arbor, Detroit, Jackson, and Port Huron, and in Toledo, Ohio. A 1928 Sears catalog lists an office in the Washtenaw Heights subdivision between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The agent could help buyers decide on design options, such as roof variations or different sidings. He could also direct buyers to similar models already built in town.

To compete with the local agents, Aladdin sent its customers lists of Aladdin homes built in their area and paid these home owners a dollar for each potential customer they allowed to tour their houses. This method proved quite effective; testimonial letters show that some new Aladdin home owners made several hundred dollars within a year from the tours. No such list has yet surfaced for southeast Michigan, but we know of ones from Ohio and Pennsylvania.

If the testimonials in the 1926 Gordon Van Tine catalog can be trusted, the average kit house cost 30 percent less than a similar conventionally built house. According to Ann Arborites who built them, other attractions of kit houses included easy financing, style, convenience, and the challenge of building one's own home.

Financing was the lure for the late Frank Braatz, a trained carpenter who could just as easily have built a house from scratch. "My credit was no good," he recalled in 1988. "I was just a kid. I didn't want to work for someone else, so I borrowed from Sears." In 1922 Sears gave him a $500 advance plus the lumber to build the Rodessa model, a small two-bedroom bungalow. He lived there for several years, sold it, then used the profit to build another house. "After I built enough, I could go ahead on my own."

Cost was the major factor in Reuben Rose's decision to build a Sears house at 1472 South Boulevard. "In 1927 money was scarce," he recalls. "I was an apprentice electrician not making much money, but I only needed two hundred dollars down to build a Sears house."

Rose and his wife, Ruth, remember looking through the catalog at the office of a Sears agent. They chose a California style bungalow called the Somers to match the other one-story homes in their neighborhood. Now, sixty-three years later, Rose is glad of that—he doesn't have to go up and down stairs in his retirement years.

Charles Winfeld Good, a professor of mechanical engineering at the U-M, built a Sears Rembrandt model at 622 South Seventh in 1925. "He was a young man with little income and a lot of energy," says his eldest daughter, Martha Good Vibrans. "This was the only way he could get a house for his family."

Style and convenience were also strong selling points. Each maker's catalog offered scores of choices every year, and included catchy innovations like the Norwood's icebox hallway. The Burkhardts in Chelsea, according to their daughter, Olive Burkhardt Wiseman, saw a house in Ann Arbor that they liked. On learning that it was a Kit house, they ordered the same one, hiring local barn builder Chris Koch and his son Roy to build it. The house still stands at 12345 Jackson Road near Stivers.

Esther Schwartz, who still lives in a Ward Kenwood model on Eighth Street, remembers that she and Elmer, her husband-to-be, selected that particular model from the catalog because it had a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor. (Two-story houses traditionally had the bathroom and all the bedrooms on the second floor.)

Kit houses were shipped by rail. Frank Braatz received a postcard from the Ann Arbor Railroad notifying him when his Rodessa arrived at the station on Ashley. The boxcar containing the materials was put on a side track until Braatz could arrange with Si Elsifor's trucking firm to unload it and bring it to the site at 802 South First Street, where he had already dug a basement.

The kit contained blueprints, a building instructions booklet, and everything needed to construct the house, including numbered precut lumber, plaster, a furnace, radiators, nails, stair pieces, white paint, gutters, downspouts, and storm windows. Sears first shipped the items needed to frame in the house; a second shipment had the finishing materials, such as casings, finish floors, windows, and doors. The Rodessa wasn't a top-of-the-line model; the kit included neither kitchen cabinets nor a fireplace. Fancier plans had these extras and more. For instance, Tim White's Hill Street house came with glass paned French doors and elaborate porch pieces already made up.

After he lived in his house for two years, Frank Braatz built a larger Sears house at 812 Miner, a Dutch colonial model called the Puritan. (Another Puritan, owned by Polly Varhol, can be found at 3055 Lakewood.) Braatz later built several more houses, but they weren't kit houses. Once he could afford to borrow on his own, he chose to build from scratch, with more freedom to make changes in a design.

The late Roy Koch remembered his work on the Burkhardt home in a 1987 interview. Each piece of lumber had a code number on it that tied it to the blueprints and assembly instructions. Koch complained that it was more trouble to keep track of the numbered lumber than just to go straight to work.

Frank Braatz solved that problem by laying out the materials in order of use. "The wood came with perfect cuts, tied with steel straps. The main thing was to keep the piles separate." At first, Braatz laid the piles out on the ground. Later, when the roof was in place, he brought the remaining material inside for protection.

Reuben Rose, who hired Godfrey Moving to haul his kit house from the railroad station, was lucky that his parents lived around the corner on Packard. He stored the materials for his home in his father's barn, where they stayed safe and dry until he was ready to use them.

Testimonial letters to the Gordon-Van Tine Company in Iowa tell of numerous farmers and their hired hands completing kit houses unaided. But even though Ann Arbor buyers of kit houses were often handymen or jacks-of-all-trades, they usually hired a trained carpenter to help them build the house. Kit houses saved their owners the trouble of buying each individual part and of sawing the wood into the right sizes, but they still took considerable skill to erect.

Rose's house was built mainly by his carpenter uncle, although he and his father helped. Esther Schwartz's house was built by a carpenter named Otto Tony, who lived across the street, with help from her husband. Clarence Steffey, who lives in a 1929 Sears Westly model at 602 Soule, reports that his dad, retired farmer Frank Steffey, built it, working side-by-side with a carpenter from Stockbridge named Whit Holmes. Bob Truby, who grew up in a Sears Clyde bungalow at 905 South Fifth Street, remembers that his father, ice cream manufacturer Harold Truby, hired a contractor to build their house. The Good children remember that a large group of people—neighbors, friends, relatives, colleagues—all helped with their Seventh Street house.

The Ann Arbor area homes we know of took about six months to build. Guila Baries, whose husband, Fred, and father-in-law, Jacob, built a Sears Wilmore model at 3101 Dexter Road (an identical house is at 2625 Dexter), remembers that they started work in the spring of 1937 and were finished in time to celebrate Thanksgiving in their new home.

Both Steffey and Rose report that their houses took longer to complete than they'd expected, forcing the families to live temporarily in their garages. Steffey's father had rented a house on Eighth Street to live in while the new house was being built. But that lease ran out in the fall of 1929 while the new house was still unfinished, and the family was forced to move into the garage. They lived there about a month, where, Steffey remembers, "it got kinda cold."

Reuben Rose remembers that, tiring of garage living, he and his wife decided to move into their house, although it meant having the bed in the kitchen for awhile.

Sears and Ward's financed the houses they sold, often on better terms than buyers could get from local banks. That backfired in the Depression, when, like every other financial institution, they were forced to foreclose some of the mortgages and suffered bad publicity as a result. Rose recalls, though, that Sears helped him to hold on to his house. When he was short of money during the Depression, he wrote Sears and asked if he could pay just the interest on his loan for awhile. The company agreed, and Rose continued to do that until World War II, when he got a good job at the Willow Run bomber plant and was able to pay off his mortgage.

Sears' policy of helping owners to retain their houses if at all possible is confirmed by commercial broker Peter Alien. His grandfather, Amiriah Alien, worked for Sears in Chicago, buying homes that were due to be foreclosed and then selling them back to the owners with longer-term loans. Even so, it was probably adverse publicity about foreclosures that led Sears to abandon the kit house business in 1940.

The next year, World War II shut down almost all residential building. Though some of the kit companies revived afterward (Aladdin survived into the early 1980's), they were never again the force they had been before the Depression. Probably the big reason was the postwar introduction of affordable portable power tools that, along with panelized building materials like plywood and drywall, drastically cut down the labor needed to build a house from scratch. Rather than kit homes, postwar efforts at mass housing production instead focused on prefabricated structures like the winsome, all-steel Lustron (Then & Now, March 1989).

All of the kit house owners we talked to reported that their homes have held up well, requiring repairs because of age but not because of poor quality or bad workmanship. In fact, the high standards of the ready-cut housing companies probably raised the all-around quality of lumber throughout the nation. (Aladdin offered to pay a dollar for any knot found in its siding materials. Ward's offered to replace free of charge any piece the customer was dissatisfied with.)

When kit houses changed hands, the new buyers didn't necessarily know that they were buying a kit house, since they were built in the styles of the day and constructed so that assembly markings didn't show. Current owners who do know the origin of their houses, like Linda Feldt, frequently made the discovery while working on their houses. Turalee and Dudley Barlow, who live in a Sears Dover, a Tudor-style cottage, at 1316 South Seventh (very similar to Esther Schwartz's Kenwood), first learned that they had a Sears house while removing insulation from the attic. They found Sears labels on their attic beams and "Sears" stamped on the floorboards. Gretchen Preston and Greg Meisner found Sears labels glued to the back of their living room baseboards when they removed them to install wall-to-wall carpeting. Their home at 1706 Jackson Road proved to be a Sears colonial bungalow, the Columbine. Bob and Katherine Vernon, on hearing from former owners that their home at 814 Third was a Sears house, searched for marks, which they found on beams in the attic and in the basement.

The Vernons then identified their house as a Hathaway model by looking through a book called Houses by Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The book pictures many of the homes once offered by Sears but gives little additional information about the ready-cut house industry itself or Sears' involvement in it. Another aid for people wanting to identify a kit house is Aladdin Homes, 1918-1919, a reprint of an Aladdin catalog, published by American Life Books (Box 349, Watkins Glen N. Y. 14891); it describes a hundred homes offered by the pioneer Bay City company.

Even with these two books, there are still hundreds of Sears and Aladdin models, plus homes from all the other companies, which the general public has no way of identifying. Author Schweitzer has been collecting kit house catalogs from around the country, and now has about 55 percent of pre-World War II catalogs of the six major companies. He and Michael Davis have co-authored a book, America's Favorite Homes: Mail Order Catalogs as a Guide to Popular Early 20th Century Homes, based primarily on research from his collection. It's possible to identify many kit houses just by being familiar with the catalog illustrations. Driving by one day, Schweitzer spotted a Lewis kit house, the Lancaster, at 1113 South State. He has been able to confirm many suspected kit homes by looking through his extensive catalog collection to find a match.

It was with his catalogs that Schweitzer was also able to correctly identify Tim White's house at 2030 Hill as a Sterling Vernon model. An Associated Press article on kit homes, which appeared in the Ann Arbor News in 1982, showed a house identical to White's in Aurora, N.Y. (now used as a funeral home), which it identified as a Sears Magnolia. Local history buffs accepted this designation until Schweitzer examined White's original blueprints. They were labeled "International Mill and Timber," Sterling's early name. A tour of the house confirmed its origins—blue chalk markings were found on the beams in the attic, and the floor plan and French doors matched the Sterling Vernon catalog entry.

The Jedele-Feldt house on Keppler Court is one of two local houses that can be identified through testimonials in Ward's catalogs. The other, a Tudor revival Devonshire model at 1601 Pontiac Trail, belongs to Anne Marie and Don Coleman (she's a city councilwoman, and they're both ministers at Guild House). In a 1931 Ward's catalog, "Mrs. Wm. A. Parker" wrote to say how pleased she and her husband were at owning their new Wardway home, which she said lowered their monthly house payment from $75 to $43.89. (According to the 1929 city directory, William and Martha Parker owned the Broadway Pharmacy.)

Not all identifications are so easy. Besides the fact that assembly marks are hidden, there were countless models, not all yet documented, and some houses were significantly altered during construction or in the years since. For instance, Fran Steffey reports that his father enclosed half of the front porch as part of the dining room. Reuben Rose changed the windows on his. Others reversed floor plans or altered porches.

Historic kit homes seem to be attracting more public interest lately. The Coldwell Banker real estate agency illustrated its 1990 calendar with reprints from Sears' first kit house catalog. A scale model of the 1908 Sears Home Number 102, designed for model railroad layouts, is available at Rider's Hobby Shops. Real estate companies in recent years have become more likely to mention kit house status as a plus in their advertising. Melissa and Edward Van Dam's house at 401 Berkley, which was on the market last fall, was advertised as an "original Sears home." A visit confirmed it to be a Barrington. (The Van Dams knew it was a Sears house because the original plans had been passed on to them by a former owner.)

Once you become aware of these homes, they seem to show up everywhere. Both authors' families have become adept at spotting them. Schweitzer's ten-year-old daughter recognized a Gordon-Van Tine Brentwood on Wells Street after seeing it on the cover of the company's 1928 catalog. Shackman's teenage daughter has become very good at spotting Dovers and their look-alikes. After Ann Arbor News reporter Tom Rogers wrote up America's Favorite Homes, he too began to see kit houses on every corner. Even Rogers's own Dutch colonial at 111 Kenwood, he noticed, was close to a Liberty-Lewis Victoria pictured in the book. Subsequent comparison with the floor plan provided by Schweitzer showed it was "slightly different, but too close to be a coincidence," says Rogers. "My guess is that it is either a kit house or is modeled after one."

Owners are often able to find houses identical to their own. Clarence and Lucille Steffey know of two Westlys in Saline. The Vernons have identified several other Hathaways, including 1334 Hutchins, 117 West Hoover, and 112 Collingwood. Sears colonial bungalow Crescent models have been spotted at 709 West Stadium, 2504 Hawks, and 431 Parkwood, while additional cottage-Tudor Dovers (or similar models) can be seen at 2006 Dexter, 916 Hutchins, 510 Potter, and 407 Pauline.

Although many of the original purchasers and builders of kit homes are no longer alive, and many of the missing catalogs are probably permanently lost, it is still possible to identify a large number of these houses using available clues. If anyone knows of any kit houses in the area, or has plans, blueprints, or catalogs, please let us know. (Write us in care of the Observer.) With the exception of company towns that were built entirely of kit homes, Ann Arbor may soon have the most extensive list of identified kit houses in the country.

Photo captions:

A lot of the city's coziest houses were ordered out of a catalog early in this century. Sears was the best-known seller, but the industry's real center was in nearby Bay City.

"Every time I walk up to my house, I just love it," says Linda Feldt, with her Wardway Norwood and (inset) its original catalog listing. Feldt discovered she had a kit home when she removed a baseboard and found a Ward's label—and shipping information to original owner Albert Jedele.

Greg Meisner, Gretchen Preston, and their Sears Columbine. Elaborate porch treatments like this were an attractive feature of kit houses—the highly mechanized manufacturers could produce them much more cheaply than local carpenters working with hand tools.