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Fort Wayne historian builds a case for the “House in a Box”

ARCH, Inc. concludes its 2024 Fun and Free Lecture series with an exploration of houses their owners chose from the Sears and Roebuck catalog, by its popular panelist, Karen Richards.

The event takes place Saturday, May 18 at the Cinema Center’s Spectator Lounge.

Through historic records and reference materials, extensive leg work and present-day photographs, Richards, the former long-time Allen County prosecutor, has built the story of this novel approach to residential housing in the first half of the 20th century.

Here WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses the development of the “House in a Box” movement with Karen, as well as where and how “Kit Homes” continue to function in our community.

Event Information:

ARCH, Inc.’s Fun & Free Lecture Series:
“Sears Houses in Fort Wayne,” by Karen Richards
Cinema Center’s Spectator Lounge, Fort Wayne
Saturday, May 18, 2024
1:00 p.m.
Admission is free

Find more information at the ARCH, Inc. website
Below is a transcript of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Karen Richards, welcome.

Karen Richards: Thank you.

Julia Meek: So, you are hot on the trail of another architectural curiosity, tracking kit homes, a house in a box, I believe you call it? Mail order houses, notably from the Sears catalog. Let's take a second to remind everyone out there just what these are.

Karen Richards: These houses come basically completely ready to go. The lumber is all pre-cut to size, the correct size and quantity of nails and screws, roofing material, flooring, everything you need to build a house comes all together.

Julia Meek: In a Box? A kit.

Karen Richards: Basically in a kit. Yes.

Julia Meek: Now Sears was king of mailorder from 1896 to 1993, Karen. Can you explain what this kind of purchase meant back in that day to have your house that you could build come in a box?

Karen Richards: Well I think everybody's dream during the period of time that Sears sold kit houses was basically the same as everybody's dream today; everybody wanted to own their own home.

And when these houses first came on the scene, there was no such thing is power tools, everything was cut by hand. So the beauty of these homes would be that you would pick out your house, and you would basically get everything it took to build the house pre-cut and ready to be assembled.

So, what that meant was it would cut your construction cost by about 40% because everything was pre-measured, pre-cut, you know put together and ready to go. So, for a very small house, you could erect a small house in one day.

Julia Meek: And kit homes dominated the first half of that 20th century. How and why was Fort Wayne a perfect market for this type of housing at that time?

Karen Richards: Sears Kit Houses were in existence from 1908 to 1940. And you will find them predominantly in the Midwest, the northeast and a few in the south, but mostly the Midwest and in the Northeast.

And the reason for that is they were delivered by rail car. During that period of time, places that were serviced by a railroad were the places where the houses were built.

So, Fort Wayne, Gary, Indianapolis, several places in Ohio, several places in Illinois, Michigan, in the Midwest, that's predominantly where the houses were built because of our access to the railroad.

Julia Meek: So timing was everything. And sometimes the railroad would precede the lumberyard the hardware, or everything else that one would have to visit?

Karen Richards: Right, right.

Julia Meek: So how personalized were these kits, what kind of options could be offered?

 Karen Richards: By the time they were all done, there were 450 models. There were enough so that they didn't necessarily all look alike.

But when you went to get your house, you could either do it totally by mail, or there were sales offices, there were a couple sales offices located in northern Indiana. So you could go to the sales office, and you could to some degree customize your house.

You could reverse the plan for one thing. And there were other small customizations that you could do. You could paint it different colors, you could make a brick or stucco, different things like that.

You could also customize the interior. And whereas a lot of the built-ins came from Sears, you could also order lighting fixtures, all kinds of different things so that you could make your house your own.

Julia Meek: Your own! So we're talking about a scant 40 years?

Karen Richards: Correct; the houses came out between 1908 and 1940. The last catalog was published in 1940. And shortly after that Sears shut down their production factories and you could no longer get a kit house.

Julia Meek: Then the war and then there were prefabs and quite another chapter in homebuilding.

Karen Richards: Right, right.

Julia Meek: In the meantime, within that span of the heyday, if you will, did you see the quality build, shift, diminish--of the extras of the tricks that people liked?

Karen Richards: Well, there were three different homes that you could get; you could get them in three different qualities.

The best was Honor Built. The medium was, I believe, Standard and the seasonal cottage was called a Simplex, so you could get them in three different qualities, three different prices.

But Sears had a guarantee that if you aren't completely satisfied with your house, they would pay you for it and pay the shipping.

So it was basically 100% Satisfaction Guaranteed and I haven't seen anything that anyone sent their house back, or wanted to be reimbursed, or found the quality less than what it should have been.

Julia Meek: It's quite a testimony, then to the Sears Company and the home building division of that. And in your usual thorough investigations, Karen, what did you find when you literally went out looking? And how were these distributed around the city?

Karen Richards: Number one, they're really hard to find. There is a list published by the National Trust and ARCH had a copy because without the list, a lot of them had been altered so significantly, you couldn't really tell.

But, they are mainly located in the 46805 neighborhood, the area around South Wayne Tacoma and Beaver, there's some in North Highlands. There's a few off of Runnion, and then there are just an occasional home in really odd places. There's one supposedly on Cook road that I have not yet found that was probably one of the earliest.

Julia Meek: So, design-wise are their distinctive tells, then? You say it's not really easy to tell exactly what's what.

Karen Richards: There are so many different styles, there were 450 styles, you could get everything from a two to three room house to a mansion to a four square to a bungalow to an English cottage.

You could get a duplicate of Mount Vernon. (all laugh) You could get a duplex, an apartment building a garage. You could pretty much get anything you wanted. Some of the bungalows that have not been altered have really lovely front porches, the end of their rafter tails are carved.

So, there are some really, really nice architectural pieces on some of the ones that have not been altered, but many of them have been victims of aluminum siding, which is definitely not a friend to historic homes, because when they put the siding on, they take off a lot of the architectural features.

Julia Meek: And a word on the quality of those building supplies that you're listing there. Do they stand the test of time? If things haven't been renovated or spruced up for any reason, are they solid?

Karen Richards: Yeah, they absolutely are. They're beautiful homes. I think the two nicest are actually in the 46805, and they have not been altered and they have been maintained and they really are lovely.

You can see the detail on the outside and there's bracketing under the roofs and like I said, the rafter tails are carved. I think the bungalows were really the most elaborate of the designs. They have lovely large front porches. And there's, for those that haven't been altered, they really are lovely.

And the ones that have been are nice as well. It's just that when you enclose the front porch and you do some of the other things, you really do lose some of the beauty of the original intention.

Julia Meek: It's great to know that they really did have the look and the charm. And what about the competition? This had to be all the rage--were there rival companies back in the heyday?

Karen Richards: There were other companies but I would not call them rivals. There was Aladdin, there's Hodgson, there was Montgomery Ward, but none of those really had either the marketing plan or the production plan that Sears did.

Sears built this business based on the fact that they never sold anything wild and crazy. They sold your basics at a very high quality. Their reputation was impeccable. And so people generally flocked to Sears because they knew they could depend on the quality, the price and the service.

So I think that's what sets Sears apart. Sears also had a production plan that really was incredibly well thought out. And for a long time very profitable. They made millions of dollars from these home sales.

Julia Meek: And plenty of people got homes!

Karen Richards: Correct. About 100,000 people ended up with a Sears Home.

Julia Meek: Now I am curious, Karen. Once you get through the Karen Richards Bootcamp/ Kit Homes 101, do they pop right out at you as you're going anywhere? And are they seemingly everywhere?

Karen Richards: They are not everywhere, and they really don't anymore, unfortunately, pop out at you. I have several books. In fact, I've purchased a couple books that are duplicates of the original catalog.

And so you know what the home is, and you can get it in the catalog and you put it in front of you and you look at the house. And you can see the roofline is the same and the basic square footage looks right.

And the dormers or, you know, the general concept looks the same, but you really sometimes have to look because once you enclose a front porch, and you cover up the pretty brick work or the wood shingles or some of the other architectural features that stand out, it's not so easy to find them.

Some of the ones from the '30s, which are more in English cottage kind of version have very similar fireplaces. And so, the chimneys are very distinct, and sometimes you can tell from that.

But there is a whole list of things you're supposed to be able to look at in order to confirm it's a Sears House and it's not, with a lot of these, it is not easy.

Julia Meek: It's its own hunt once you get into this game.

Karen Richards: Yes. And sometimes even on some of the houses I found that all came with fireplaces, you can see a chimney, but you talk to the owner and say, well, do you have a fireplace in your dining room?

And they're like, No, we don't. And so you assume somebody probably took that out at some point. Probably when better heating systems are available, the fireplace went away.

Julia Meek: Interesting. The structures do stand and accept home improvements, internal and external. That says something about the quality and character, doesn't it?

Karen Richards: Yes, the earliest ones I found are probably from between 1911 to 1913. And those are off of Runnion, and there's three houses all together.

And I really wonder if they aren't there because the street backs up to the railroad. And it would have made offloading the materials really easy.

Julia Meek: (chuckles) Indeed, quite well, quite easily.

Karen Richards: And there are; there's three. There's two next to one another and one directly across the street.

Julia Meek: Can you tell by your investigating now, if there was any kind of a ripple effect? I mean, here's a supply of them and then go a little further, and...

Karen Richards: You know, I don't know if that's true or not. Because the ones I've found really span time. There's a few older ones.

There's a lot of bungalows, there's a lot of English cottage, there are not very many four squares, which really surprised me, because that was a pretty standard building style in the late teens and in the 20s.

There are very few of those mostly bungalows in the kind of English, I call it like an English cottage look. It's kind of a story-and-a-half house.

Julia Meek: And a comfortable one, especially for that time period.

Karen Richards: Exactly.

Julia Meek: And affordable.

Karen Richards: And affordable. Yeah, the price of a house went anywhere from $650 to the most expensive, most amazing one was probably $7000.

Julia Meek: Can you extrapolate that in today's prices?

Karen Richards: Well, I can do it this way. In the early 1920s, a Model T Ford costs about $290. A simple house would have cost, you know, 5-6-7 times what a car cost. So, you know, roughly the same, maybe, as today.

Julia Meek: And satisfying a lot of people.

 Karen Richards: And satisfied a lot of people. And you know the list I'm going from are the houses that still exist today, it's difficult to tell what might have been torn down.

Although the neighborhoods they were built in are pretty, you know, steady neighborhoods, not a lot has changed in them. There are not a lot of empty lots.

Julia Meek: Now with this fascinating topic under your belt, Karen, what's next on your list of history mysteries?

Karen Richards: You know, I don't know. I'm waiting for inspiration. I've always been fascinated by Sears Kit houses.

And you really should come to the lecture because I'm going to try to have taken pictures of all of the houses where there's more than one of the same house in Fort Wayne so we can compare what they look like and then compare it to the catalog.

And I'm trying to get a couple of my neighbors to let me in their home so that I can take pictures of built-ins, because the built ins in the bungalows, especially, were absolutely gorgeous.

They were really quite sophisticated down to being able to order stained and leaded glass windows for your home from the catalog.

Julia Meek: That is impressive. Is there a way to compare any of the smaller units in particular with the tiny house movement that is starting to go wildfire now?

Karen Richards: I think Sears started that movement because you can go on Amazon right now and buy a Kit Home.

And all of that was because companies like Sears pioneered the concept of a "house in a box," of a kit home where everything comes ready to be put up.

Julia Meek: And bottom line, Karen, what's the most important thing this popular Kit Home movement from the past tells you and all of us, now, about our own community and its sense of place?

Karen Richards: I think it says the same thing. Like I said in the beginning, I think people's dream is still to own their own home.

The interesting thing I find is that most of these homes have now enclosed their front porches. These homes were built in a time when people sat on their front porch and neighbored.

And it's funny as our neighborhoods get a little more impersonal, I found it interesting that with just a few exceptions, almost all of these homes have enclosed their front porches, which I don't really find to be a positive.

It says a lot about society today, I think. (laughs) You know, you don't talk to people walking down the street. You don't have a glass of iced tea at eight o'clock at night, sitting on your front porch because now you have air conditioning, you can be inside.

One of the saddest things for me is just enclosing these homes so that you no longer have that connection with your neighbors.

Julia Meek: Karen Richards is a retired Allen County prosecutor and current Fort Wayne historian. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Karen. Have a great lecture, and always happy hunting.

Karen Richards: Thank you.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.