“In every home in America, in the late 1800s, you had your Bible and you had your Sears catalog,” said Will Krause, Westlake’s assistant director of planning and economic development at a Feb. 27 Westlake Historical Society meeting.
With photos of Sears Roebuck and Co. homes – once ordered piece by piece through the catalog – hanging on a large display board behind him, he continued, speaking of the significance of these properties and sharing with the audience some he’s identified throughout the area.
Today’s new development homes often have a reputation for being quickly assembled with cheap materials. They can feel sterile and in conflict with their surroundings, grass seeds desperately trying to cling to the soil and small shrubs and trees attempting to fill in open space.
Sears’ well-constructed models not only survived, but are known to contain the finest building materials available at the time, including old-growth trees that were, unfortunately, clear-cut from places like West Virginia.
Now well-worn and fully grown into their surroundings, these house are the focus of enthusiasts who are trying to discover their locations, searching deeds for documentation, and neighborhoods for models known to be sold by Sears.
In 1908, consumers could choose from 44 models, about 13 of which still stand in Westlake and Bay Village alone.
Sears homes were popular in the original Westshore village of Dover, which encompassed Westlake and Bay as well as parts of North Olmsted. Krause said the average cost for one of these “kit homes” was between $495 and $4,115, which is about $13,000 to $102,000 in 2013.
Many people built the homes themselves, putting together hundreds or thousands of numbered parts. Additional costs included the lot, building a foundation, add-ons, and electricity and plumbing, which were not a necessity back then.
All home models can be seen at searshomesarchives.com or by contacting the historical society.
On Walker Road sits a “Barrington” model Sears home; on Bassett Road, a “Chicora”; and there are “Crescent” models on Wolf and Juneway.
Throughout the county they sit, unassuming and blending in with their neighbors.
And though Sears was not the only company selling kit homes in the early 20th century, it was and is the most recognized brand, as the company is still in existence today – thanks to the popularity of its catalog.
For those who suspect their homes to be of this brand, Krause suggested Thursday that owners check millwork behind baseboards or on the backsides of basement stairs for the Sears mark, which was something the company began doing after 1914.
And though there are no specialized plaques to designate these homes, they can be registered as a historical home through the owner’s city, and a plaque then hung near the front door, designating the property as such.
For a fee, in addition to the cost of the plaque, individual historical societies will also research a home’s history. For those unwilling to pay or who are interested in doing their own research, Cuyahoga County now has an online database of deeds for every home in the area.
For those interested in kit homes, they represent an era of innovation in machinery and building that allowed people to begin venturing from cities to the suburbs we know today.
Going through photos of old advertisements and the corresponding local examples, one laminated ad being passed around told potential buyers their lives would be more fulfilling and complete with one of these homes.
“Why pay rent?” one ad asked. “Why not live in your own home? On your own lot? Surrounded by your own lawn and flowers.”
In total, about 70,000 to 75,000 Sears homes were sold, 447 models in total, represented throughout the county.
SIDE BAR: For information on possible Sears homes in a particular area, contact your local historical society.