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12,000 easy pieces

Was your '20s house built from a kit? Many local gems came `assembly required.'

July 16, 2006|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

SHORTLY after Craig and Kim Proctor moved into their Monrovia house in 1993, they discovered the original blueprints for their two-story 1926 Tudor.

Much to their surprise, they learned they were living in a house built from a kit. Craig turned to the Web and learned that the classy oak floors downstairs, the gleaming Douglas fir floors upstairs, the charming built-ins and the sconces in every room all came as part of a do-it-yourself kit ordered from a Pacific Ready-Cut Homes catalog.

"We had no idea what a Pacific Ready-Cut home was," said Kim Proctor. "We never thought it was a kit home."

Back in the 1920s, "buying stuff out of mail order was kind of the 1990s equivalent of buying stuff from the Internet," said Rosemary Thornton, who along with Dale Patrick Wolicki wrote "California's Kit Homes: A Reprint of the 1925 Pacific Ready-Cut Homes Catalog." "You've never touched it. You've never seen it. You send your money in a little brown paper envelope and somebody sends you back a house."

Thornton, who also wrote a book about Sears' mail-order homes, says that although those houses may be better known nationally, Los Angeles-based Pacific Ready-Cut Homes Inc. -- once the biggest home builder in the West -- dominated the pre-cut market in Southern California during the company's pre-Depression peak.

Eight decades later, many Pacific Ready-Cut houses still stand in neighborhoods as varied as Beverly Hills and South Los Angeles. From the outside, it's hard to tell that a house was built from a kit, unless, like Thornton, you're familiar with the designs in the catalog. And in most cases, not even the current owners know they are living in a kit home.

From 1908 to 1940, Pacific Ready-Cut sold 37,000 ready-to-assemble homes based on 1,800 plans, plus some custom-designed ones, as practical California bungalows replaced fancy Victorians. Although most of the company's houses were one story, it also produced two-story homes, duplexes, bungalow court apartments, hotels, gas stations and offices.

After World War I, the prefabricated housing market in Southern California really took off, Thornton said. "Returning soldiers needed a place to live, and that's when Pacific Ready-Cut Homes started making bigger, better houses."

The firm's heyday in the 1920s coincided with a spike in California's population and a booming economy that created a new generation of homeowners. At that time, the firm operated branch offices in 53 California cities, expanded nationally and also shipped kit houses to Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, Guatemala and Japan.

Locally, the homes cost anywhere from $200 to $25,000, which paid for everything -- the framing wood as well as the kitchen sink -- except assembly and, in most cases, the land. Models popular with the increasing number of working- and middle-class families settling in Southern California were the Spanish, English or Italian styles advertised at $636 to $2,817.

The company put up a dozen model homes at South Hill Street near Pico Boulevard in 1922 and said 80,000 people toured them that year. The sales center showed off the quality of first-growth, high-altitude Douglas fir framing, built-ins and porcelain plumbing fixtures that were sold in categories rated "good, better and best."

The next year, visitors to the South Hill Street grounds could watch a 90-minute film on how a typical Pacific Ready-Cut home was built, starting in the Northern forests, where trees were cut and sledded through snowy passes to lumber mills, shipped to San Pedro Harbor and then transported to the firm's mill on Boyle Avenue, on the edge of Slauson Boulevard in Huntington Park.

"This was a 24-acre mill," Thornton said, "and they were shipping 25 houses a day."

In 1928, before they made it big, Walt Disney and his brother Roy bought Pacific Ready-Cut houses for lots they owned on Lyric Avenue within walking distance of their studio in Silver Lake. The houses are still there.

Like the Sears houses, Pacific Ready-Cut's kit homes arrived via boxcar. The 12,000 pieces included lumber, nails, doors, windows, screens, hardware, paint and a thick instruction manual. Homeowners spent about a month building the houses with help from relatives and neighbors, or they hired a contractor and a crew to put them up in as few as five days.

Because kit houses helped to extend the American dream of homeownership beyond just the wealthy, Southern California writer and historian Mike Davis nicknamed them "democracy bungalows."

"The kind of mass-produced bungalows of the early '20s, and their variety of facades, responded to the movies and to people's fantasies about California," he said.

"In the 1920s," he added, "you had a prefabricated-home system that allowed people to choose from different varieties so you could build neighborhoods where no house looked like another, but in the post-World War II housing revolution, you had cookie-cutter houses."

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