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READY-TO-ASSEMBLE History of Sears homes evident in Akron neighborhoods



Published: Sat, April 9, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The housing development coincided with the growth of the area and industry.

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

AKRON -- They were the buyers of Sears homes, ready-to-assemble houses ordered from the mail-order megastore and shipped by train all over the United States.

From 1908 to 1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold more than 100,000 house kits by mail, mostly to the burgeoning middle class. Many of those houses were built in the Akron area, which has an unusually large concentration of Sears homes, said Steve Gordon, survey and National Register manager for the Ohio Historical Society's Ohio Historic Preservation Office.

The houses sprang up here largely because the heyday of the Sears home coincided with a population boom in the area, said Barbara Powers, the preservation office's department head of inventory and registration. Fueled by the growth of the rubber industry, Akron's population jumped from 69,000 to 208,000 from 1910 to 1920, and many of those rubber workers pursued the American dream through the pages of the Sears Modern Homes catalog.

Sears' business was so brisk here, in fact, that the company chose Akron as the site for its first Modern Homes sales office in 1919. By 1930 the country was dotted with 48 sales offices, where customers could work with salespeople to modify floor plans and customize their orders, according to "Houses By Mail," the Sears home bible written by architectural historians Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl.

Kits were affordable

Sears wasn't the only mail-order company in the housing business, Powers said, but it was the pre-eminent one. Its affordable kits included everything needed to assemble the house on site, from lumber to door hinges.

The pieces were sent by rail cars in staggered shipments timed to arrive when they were needed. The lumber was precisely cut in the factory, the pieces were numbered and the instructions were detailed, saving construction time and labor costs. A small house could go up 40 percent faster than a comparable home, Stevenson and Jandl wrote in their book.

The quality of Sears' materials set its houses apart from other mail-order sources, Powers said. The houses were designed by architects, so they were characterized by well-considered floor plans and often by attractive architectural details such as bookcases, fireplace nooks and leaded-glass windows. "They were seen as good-quality, solid housing," she said.

That's been borne out by how well Sears houses have held up over the decades, Gordon said. And that quality, he said, gives Sears homes a certain cachet.

Sears' house styles weren't architectural trend-setters but rather interpretations of popular styles of the time. Over the years Sears offered 447 designs, according to the company's online archive, ranging from compact cottages to grand manors.

The designs represented such ubiquitous styles as Tudor and Colonial revivals, English cottages, bungalows and American foursquares. Craftsman styles were particularly prevalent here, Gordon said, probably because that school of architecture was popular at the time of Akron's growth spurt.

House with no bathroom

Some Sears houses, such as the one Marion Hoffman grew up in on Akron's east side, didn't even have a bathroom. Hoffman's father, Albert Joy, ordered the two-bedroom house, called the Almo, and had it built around 1918 on land that used to be the Chapman farm.

The house had just four rooms and a porch, yet it was home to Hoffman, her parents and three siblings. She and her two sisters shared one bedroom, her parents had the other bedroom, and her brother had to climb a ladder to sleep in the attic.

Hoffman's mother, Catherine Joy, had no say in choosing the house. "Really and truly, my mother was mad at my dad her entire life because he got such a little house," she said with a laugh.

The family pumped its water, relied on an outhouse until a bathroom was added in 1935 and used kerosene lamps until the house got its first electric light, a single bulb that hung from the ceiling. Eventually the porch was enclosed to create another much-needed room.

Now Hoffman's son, Brian, lives in the house, which he bought from his grandmother's estate in 1975. He has remodeled it extensively, putting wallboard over plaster, adding hardwood floors over the original pine and replacing most of the molding. However, he's kept the outside of the house in more or less original condition, even spending five years heat-stripping the many layers of paint -- work that revealed the numbers on the clapboards that had guided the builders nearly 90 years ago.

The house is the ideal size for a single person, Brian Hoffman said. "Gets a little crowded if you get more than that in there," he said with a chuckle.

A grand design in Canton

That's hardly the case with Mary Cirelli-Fawcett's Sears home, a sprawling place in Canton's historical Ridgewood neighborhood.

Cirelli-Fawcett's house is the Magnolia, the most grand design Sears offered. The center hall Colonial, with its two-story portico, gracious foyer and maid's quarters, was based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's home in Cambridge, Mass.

The Magnolia kit sold for $5,140 and $5,972 in the 1918 and 1921 catalogs, but Cirelli-Fawcett said the original owners paid more than $7,000, including upgrades. By comparison, Brian Hoffman's Almo model ranged from $463 to $1,052.

The Canton house was built in 1923 by Leroy J. Contie, an architectural engineer and lawyer, and his wife, Mary. Their son, the late Leroy J. Contie Jr., was a judge on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

For Cirelli-Fawcett, a former state representative, the house was the object of love at first sight. She first spotted it when she was campaigning for Canton City Council in the 1980s, and despite its state of disrepair at the time, she immediately started plotting how she might buy it someday.

By the time she and her late husband, Richard Fawcett, got their chance four years ago, the house had been renovated by previous owners. It essentially has been returned to its 1920s glamour, although some original elements such as light fixtures and floor tiles have been replaced.

The house is filled with graceful touches, including a broad front terrace, French doors, an arched, leaded-glass transom over the front door, a grand staircase and a large living room with a fireplace and bookcases in a nook at one end. The house is flanked by a sun room on one side and a porch on the other, which replaced a porte-cochere -- a shelter over a driveway -- in the original design.

Cirelli-Fawcett has an interest in historical preservation, and she has filled the house with antiques she has restored. She has made it her mission to scour antique shops and other sources for period light fixtures more in keeping with what would have been in the house originally.

She feels a sense of protectiveness toward the house. "I almost feel it would be disloyal to sell it and move away, because it's home," she said.

Firestone Park has many

Unlike Cirelli-Fawcett's spacious house, most Sears homes were aimed squarely at the American middle class. A number of examples are in Firestone Park, an Akron neighborhood built for Firestone employees and the site of the biggest local concentration of Sears houses of which Akron architectural historian Jim Pahlau is aware. Crescent Drive alone has a stretch of 16 Sears houses in a row, he said.

Not all of the houses in Firestone Park are Sears houses, Pahlau said, and many of the Sears homes there weren't ordered from the stock kits available through the Modern Homes catalog. Firestone founder Harvey S. Firestone commissioned the New York architectural firm of Alexander B. Trowbridge and Frederick L. Ackerman to create about 20 home designs based on five master floor plans, which Sears used to create house kits available exclusively to Firestone Park residents.

The Sears catalog reported that by 1921, 100 of the specially designed houses had been sent to Firestone Park. One of those houses was the subject of an episode of the PBS series "History Detectives" that first aired in July 2003 -- an episode that also included footage of Cirelli-Fawcett's house.

Pahlau is aware of several other Sears homes around the area, but he suspects there are many more. "There are a lot of Sears homes we're not aware of," he said, either because identifying features have been removed or obscured in remodelings or because the owners simply aren't aware of their homes' origins.

No one knows where all the Sears homes were built, because records were destroyed after Sears discontinued its Modern Homes program, according to "Houses By Mail."

Maybe some of them represent more layers of history just waiting to be discovered.




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