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How the West was pre-built

Prefab may seem modern, but kit homes go way back. Ordered from catalogs, thousands were sold in the early 1900s. How to tell if you own one: Look for numbers on lumber.

August 19, 2004|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

Before there was modern prefab, there were kit homes from lumber companies and catalogs.

One of the oldest local examples is a steep-roofed house in Simi Valley that was shipped from Chicago by rail in 1888, a vivid reminder that the real estate market has been shaping Southern California for more than a century.

Colony House in Strathearn Historical Park was one of a dozen bought to attract the pioneer settlers of Simiopolis, a grandly named speculative scheme by Midwestern investors who called themselves the California Mutual Benefit Colony of Chicago.

According to the group's prospectus, Simi Valley was a great swath of rich farming land that could be grabbed up at bargain prices before the railroad arrived. New colonists could join the original investors, many of them physicians, by putting $37 down on five acres.

The prospectus promised paradise, "delightfully cool and pleasant in summer," with plenty of water -- "a grand chance for rich or poor to get a home in the finest climate on earth cheap, and make a fortune at the same time."

An ad in the prospectus caused Simi Valley city historian Patricia Havens to conclude that the prefab homes came from the T.W. Harvey Lumber Co. of Chicago, whose specialty was cottages "in quantities of 10, 25, 50, 100 or more. Cost from $300 up." The colony houses had generous wraparound porches but no indoor plumbing.

The venture quickly went under, but the houses continued to shelter generations of Simi Valley residents. One by one, the houses were destroyed, most by fire. In 1970, one of two that remained was moved to the park and restored, not authentically but in a fashion that would allow visitors to glimpse the past. The other is still a private home.

The Midwest was the heart of America's prefab-housing industry during the first half of the 20th century. Aladdin Homes of Bay City, Mich., is usually credited with pioneering mail-order sales of pre-cut, relatively easy-to-assemble kit houses through its catalog, another innovation. Popular models included the Pomona, an Arts and Crafts bungalow that would have looked at home on any of the tree-lined streets of that Southern California city.

At least six companies sold kit houses nationally, and almost every sizable community had a local company making them, says Rosemary Thornton, author of "The Houses That Sears Built: Everything You Wanted to Know About Sears Catalog Homes" (Gentle Beam Publications, 2004).

Based in Chicago, Sears, Roebuck and Co. was the most famous purveyor of kit houses. According to Thornton, the mail-order giant sold about 75,000 pre-cut houses between 1908 and 1940. Its first Modern Homes catalog offered 44 designs, from $495 to $4,115. Sears would eventually offer about 370 models, which customers could customize -- changing room sizes, varying roof styles and exterior finishes, much as today's prefab customers do. Sears offered options labeled good, better or best.

Honor Bilt was top of the line. The low-cost Simplex structures included the Double Duty, a modest four-room, one-bath residence ($617 in 1926) that could be converted into a two-car garage when you could afford to move up.

A kit house might arrive at the closest railroad station in 30,000 pieces. Those who could put one together themselves -- with help from family and friends -- might save a third of the cost of a conventionally built house. Each piece was numbered, and the 75-page manual that came with the house gave detailed instructions. Today, owners can sometimes establish that theirs is a Sears home by finding telltale letters and numbers stamped on lumber in, say, the attic, Thornton advises.

Buyers could get mortgages as well as homes from Sears much more readily than from conventional lenders of the day, who were often reluctant to lend to minorities and single women, Thornton points out. But the mortgages were the weak link in Sears' mail-order home business. The Depression hit the company hard, especially when it was forced to foreclose on mortgage holders.

Sears finally closed its home sales division in 1940 and destroyed its records.

Although many of Sears' popular styles had names suggestive of California -- the Hollywood, the Avalon, the Claremont -- most were erected in the Midwest or the East. Almost 65 years after the last Sears kit house was sold, fans of Sears homes have their own website, www.searsarchives.com/homes/enthusiasts.htm.

But staff members of Southern California historical societies in Pasadena, Long Beach, Pomona and elsewhere say there are Sears houses in their communities; they are just not sure where. Marketers of kit houses poached designs from popular architects and one another, so it is hard to know which is from Aladdin, Sears or yet another firm.

According to Thornton, many kit houses in the Los Angeles area were built by the local powerhouse, Pacific Portable Construction Co. In the mid-1920s, the company claimed to have 25,000 homes in the West, she says. That included entire neighborhoods of Pacific Ready-Cut Homes "on and around Carson Road and also on 81st Street in Los Angeles."

Today, Thornton says, these fascinating examples of the durable American dream of homeownership are under siege. A major threat is the perennial one -- the overheated real-estate market. As this story was being written, a Santa Monica historian said she believed there was a vintage Sears house in the 800 block of 26th Street. An acquaintance had told her how the family had ordered the house from the Sears catalog and built it themselves. The reporter raced to the site. Too late. The Sears cottage had already been torn down, and a Westside move-up house was rising in its place.

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