by Mimi Montgomery
photographs by Catherine Nguyen
Most people know the horror of the words “some assembly required”: the miniscule parts and pieces, the half-translated instructions, the ridiculous illustrations that somehow lead you to put the entire thing together backwards. Now imagine that instead of a bookcase or wardrobe, you’re assembling something much greater – your own home.
Such was the case for the families in the first half of the 20th century who purchased and built over 250,000 kit homes in the United States. An outsized number of them ordered and put together their own kit houses here in Raleigh. At least 30 are still standing today, making the City of Oaks a noteworthy Southeastern mecca of kit homes.
These Raleighites flipped through catalogues of drawings and blueprints, selected the plan that best fit their price range and taste, and had all the materials needed to assemble that home sent right to the curb: doors, cabinets, lumber, shingles – even the kitchen sink.
Nationally, Sears, Montgomery Ward, Aladdin Homes, Gordon Van Tine, and Lewis-Liberty Homes were some of the biggest names in the kit home business. Aladdin and Sears started selling the homes in 1906 and 1908, and the others soon followed suit. In its heyday, Sears sold over 70,000 homes and offered more than 350 blueprints. The advent of industrialization contributed to the homes’ popularity, as it allowed for the mass production of building materials on a wide scale. In turn, this lowered kit home costs for customers, many of whom were members of the growing middle class that wanted their own slice of the American Dream – a well-made family home.
These companies made this dream accessible: They provided payment plans, allowed customers to make adjustments in materials as desired, and sent instructions with pre-cut-and-fitted materials. Owners often assembled the houses themselves, piecing each part together, Lego-like, until the home was complete.
Many kit homes were modest, three-bedroom bungalows that reflected the style of the era. Some were more ornate at higher prices; but for the most part, the majority were regular homes for regular people. Consequently, it can be hard to distinguish which are the existing kit homes within a present-day historic neighborhood, as they often look much like the houses beside them.
It helps to have a trained eye: Rosemary Thornton, a Virginia-based kit home expert and author of The Houses That Sears Built, was in Raleigh visiting her daughter when she spotted an Alhambra Sears home. “When you see one Sears home, you know there are many more,” she says.
She continued to search and was thrilled with what she found: kit homes scattered all over Mordecai, Cameron Park, Boylan Heights, Oakwood, and Five Points.
Thornton calls it “remarkable” and “a historically significant collection,” with many well-preserved homes featuring a wide range of styles and manufacturers. In 2012, the Raleigh Historic Development Commission and City of Raleigh Museum hosted an exhibit on Raleigh kit homes, and Thornton gave a talk at the Rialto Theatre.
Raleigh’s high number may have something to do with its proximity to an Aladdin Homes mill in Wilmington during the 1920s. These houses tended to catch on quickly – once a neighbor ordered and built a kit home, others followed. It didn’t hurt that the homes were affordable and the economy was healthy. Many of the kit homes in Raleigh were built during this decade of prosperity, when American industry was booming.
Of course, this didn’t last: Due to the financial losses of the Great Depression and the increasingly complicated structure of modern homes, kit homes waned in popularity. Sears stopped selling them in 1940, and while some companies continued to offer a small number of the homes, most did not after the mid-century.
Thornton has made it her mission to preserve this segment of American history. They’re worth preserving for more than nostalgia: Their craftsmanship and quality of lumber and materials far surpasses the type typically found today, she says.
But in order to preserve this legacy for the city, these homes need to be maintained, Thornton says. “When you have an old house, you need to get away from thinking of yourself as an owner, and think of yourself as the caretaker. That house is going to be around long after you are.”
Here in Raleigh, that’s the plan.
Want to learn more about kit homes? Check out Rosemary Thornton’s The Houses That Sears Built or visit her webpage at searshomes.org