Humble, Huggable Mail-Order Homes

Bounding up the front steps of a two-story, farmhouse-style home 40 miles northwest of Chicago, Rebecca Hunter affectionately hugs a white porch pillar and grins broadly for a newspaper photographer.

It is these thick wooden columns that most strikingly mark this home as one bought through a Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog in the 1920s.

"They're part of our architecture, our history - the whole phenomenon of mail-order homes," Ms. Hunter says. And that distinction has galvanized her to launch a fund-raising crusade to save the mail-order home from being demolished. Just steps away from the backyard, six bulldozers sit at the ready to clear the land for 333 new town houses.

The developer planned to raze the house until Hunter, a longtime preservationist, pleaded that it had historic value. The firm agreed to give her the house and donated the money it would have cost to raze (at least $7,000), so long as she pays the cost of moving it.

The tab will total at least $70,000 for a mover to hoist it onto gigantic dollies and drive it to a lot two miles away, Hunter says. And like negotiating the muddy road leading up to the house, finding financing has been slow-going.

The developer has given her a year and a half to remove the house.

"We'll still be flexible; that's just a target date," says Les Krusemeier, land-development superintendent for the firm, United States Shelter Group Inc. "You hate to tear something down that people think has some historic value."

In the meantime, the developer plans to use the house as a construction office.

Hunter, a chiropractor and professional musician who also runs a mail-order business, has become the unofficial Sears home historian of Elgin, Ill. She believes there are 205 Sears homes in the community and has authenticated at least 80 of them.

Between 1908 and 1940, Sears manufactured and sold at least 100,000 homes through the store's catalog, with price tags ranging from $650 to more than $5,000, according to the book, "Houses By Mail," published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The homes came in more than 450 styles - from cozy cottages to 10-room mansions that were less remarkable for their architecture than for their solid materials and inexpensive prices.

Customers picked out a house from the catalog, placed their order, and waited for a kit to arrive by rail car containing the blueprints, construction manuals, lumber, windows, and some 30,000 other parts.

No one knows exactly how many of the homes still stand today, although most can be found along railroads in the Midwest and the Northeast.

The quality architectural planning that went into the Sears houses resulted in "a superior product," says Tim Samuelson, curator of architecture for the Chicago Historical Society. "The planning was done by good people; there was good detailing, good materials."

Preservationists say the homes' all-American style, high-quality woodwork, and sturdy materials will earn them recognition as they approach their 100-year mark.

"Certainly there has always been an interest in them, not only for architectural reasons, but in terms of the history of housing, the development of the suburbs, these Sears houses played an important role," Mr. Samuelson says.

"This early 1900s era will be the next group of homes considered landmark type properties," says Joan Johns, the chairwoman of the Glen Ellyn, Ill.-based Sears Home Association, a national group of 150 mail-order homeowners who share restoration tips.

Although owners are enthusiastic about preserving their kit homes, the Sears company has shown very little interest outside of researching their archives, Ms. Johns says.

"I think Sears is truly only interested in things that are enterprising, and we haven't proved in any way, shape, or form that we could make money," she says.

Toni Carroll, a spokeswoman for Sears, says the company provides research for all groups trying to identify Sears homes. As for financial support, there are so many Sears homes that "it's not possible for us to step in to [help] every one," she says.

When Hunter told Sears about the Elgin house facing the wrecking ball, the company offered only research support, she says. But, she concedes, she hasn't directly asked for financial help yet.

To a casual observer, the house that Hunter is trying to save may appear decidedly unremarkable. It's a modest home that has been sorely neglected both inside and out. But that is the home's saving grace, Hunter says, because nobody has ruined its historical character by knocking out the original plaster walls or tearing out other Sears features.

Called the Americus style, the three-bedroom, one-bath home was touted by Sears in the 1920s as one that would "never go out of style."

Hunter hopes that that will remain true, long after her work is done. "I'd like to think that 200 years from now, someone will walk by this home and say, 'That's how they used to make homes 300 years ago.' "

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