Monday, August 19, 2013

Publicity Reveals Historical Misidentification

I came upon an interesting story through the Preservation Virginia newsletter. It provided a link to a post on the Florida Historical Society website about a woman's home having received official designation as a Sears Roebuck kit house. However, because of the news article, the glory was short-lived. You see, her house, though a historic mail order kit home, is not a Sears Roebuck kit home.

The article appeared in January on the Society's blog entitled The Importance of Historic Designation. Because of its subject matter it reached the attention of Rose Thornton, an authority on Sears kit homes and administrator of the Sears Modern Home blog, which documents homes manufactured by the retail company and features still existing examples found nationwide. Not being familiar with this particular Sears home model and backed with research provided by Mark Hardin and Rachel Shoemaker; who documents mail-order homes in Oklahoma, the error was discovered.

According to a post entitled 80% of the People Who Think They Have a Sears House Are Wrong written by Thornton on the Sears Modern Home website, this kind of mistake is not unusual.

The Florida woman's home was found to be model #620 by the Gordon-Van Tine Company; a competitor of Sears, who sold their own Ready-Cut kit homes from 1916 to 1947. As seen in the composite above (and on the Sears Home site), the owner’s home and model #620 are clearly the same design, especially when you observe the unique shape of their double dormers. According to the post, supporting documentation of this new identification was sent in May to both the home owner and the Florida Historical Society. Click here for an exciting update to this story.

I love that they were able to track the history of this home. However, I wonder what was the reaction of the homeowner when she received this news? Was she happy to find out that her house was misidentified, because…

  • It shows that the research was flawed. Perhaps the research effort was subconsciously influenced by the desired result and led them to information that supported their thesis instead of “letting the evidence lead them,” as they would say on C.S.I. or Bones. Quotes from the article state, “It was no easy task to obtain the designation proudly displayed on the front of the house that she purchased in 2002." and "Thanks to the significant research efforts of Ed Browder from Little John Engineering the home’s historical significance is now confirmed.” I wonder how Mr. Browder and his company felt about this new information?

  • The designation that facilitated her news mention, ironically is no longer applicable and the plaque attached to her home is no longer accurate.

  • Possessing a Sears Kit homes may have more of a cache to the general public that owning a Gordon Van Tine home. The Sears name had staying power and most people associate these types of homes with the company and not all the other companies that manufactured mail-order homes around the same time period.

  • In addition, the time period in which Sears manufactured their homes was not as long as other companies like Aladdin and Gordon-Van Tine, from 1909 to 1940. Therefore, they produced and sold a smaller number of homes sold and of those constructed, any still-standing examples are rare and perhaps more valuable in regards to resale value.

I would love to know what happens next, wouldn't you?

Working in historic preservation, my office possesses a non-lending resource library full of architectural books and state and county histories. We also possess a small selection of home catalogs from Sears and Aladdin, which I have spent time studying. Call me weird, but I love examining house plan layouts of the past and discovering the weird alcoves, built-in cabinets furniture, framed archways, and back passageways that were common then. Words like soffit, coving, dentil, eave, and casement, these are all interesting to me. One of the resources that we have is Houses from Books, Treatises, Pattern Books, and Catalogs in American Architecture, 1738-1950: A History and Guide* by Daniel D. Reiff. Written from both a social and historical view, the book covers the whole catalog home phenomenon from early pattern and style books for choosing individual architectural details to the actual process of mail-ordering a complete home, lumber and all.

If you are interested in some of the same things as I, I suggest you contact your state historic preservation office (SHPO) or any local historical societies and see what information they can offer. The Dover currently reprints many of the catalogs from manufacturers (Aladdin, Gordon-Van Tine, Montgomery Ward, Sears Roebuck, Sterling, et al.) and makes them available for purchase. Enjoy!

*I do think he could have come up with a more eye-catching title though?

Images: Sears Modern Home


Rachel Shoemaker said...

Interesting! I just came across this blog. I am the one who discovered the misidentified house and the others neighboring it.

Rachel Shoemaker said...

Read this blog to see what else I discovered in the area!