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Sears homes showcase nostalgia
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DANVILLE, Va. (AP) — They were offered in a catalogue — and shipped in a kit — via railroad a century ago.

From 1908 to about 1940, those pursuing the American Dream of home ownership could order houses from the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogue. With an instruction manual sent as part of the package, they would build their houses.

The company sold about 75,000 homes in 447 styles across the nation through their mail-order Modern Homes program, according to the Sears archives website.

Some of those homes made their way to the Dan River Region — and are still standing and occupied.

Kate Blair Farmer, president of Blair Homes LLC in Pittsylvania County, said she knows of two Sears homes in the town of Gretna. She owned and renovated one of them last fall on Washington Street.

“We purchased three lots of land for future projects and the house came in the deal,” Farmer said. “We didn’t know it was a Sears home until mid-renovation. We actually toyed with the idea of leveling it for the lot, but upon inspection, we decided to renovate it.”

Farmer and her partners saw potential in the structure.

“There was just something special about its character that we loved,” she said. “The bones were there, she just needed a lot of TLC.”

While researching the history of Sears homes, Farmer got confirmation from members of the original family — who bought the house in 1918-19 — that it was a Sears home. The home was built in 1920, she said.

The Sears homes came in a kit with 75 pages of instructions and thousands of pieces. The kit included 750 pounds of nails and 27 gallons of paint, Joyce Wilburn, a member of the Danville Historical Society, said. Prices ranged from $600 to $6,000 for kits.

Key characteristics of the homes included large eave overhangs, large front porches and a four-square interior plan, said Susan Stilwell, real estate broker at Prudential Manasco Realty. Many were mission revival and arts and crafts-style homes, Stilwell said.

According to the Sears archive website, the company “was not an innovative home designer” but could modify houses and hardware to buyers’ tastes. Individuals could design their own homes and send blueprints to Sears, which would ship precut and fitted materials, “putting the homeowner in full creative control,” according to the website.

Wilburn leads tours of historic homes in the city and said there are about 25 Sears homes in Danville.

Wilburn said most of Danville’s Sears homes are located on College Avenue, Howeland Circle, Randolph Street and in north Danville, which were close to the train station where the parts arrived. “It just made sense to build near the train station,” Wilburn said.

Rosemary Thornton, author of “The Houses That Sears Built,” toured Danville in March 2011 in search of kit homes, including Sears homes. Wilburn was with her that day.

They saw a variety of Sears homes, with styles including the Walton, Lewiston, Elmwood, Sunbeam and Whitehall.

Aspiring homeowners who ordered Sears homes liked their convenience and character.

“Designs were attractive, they came with directions and everything was there,” Stilwell said.

They were not innovative homes, but owners could customize them and Sears had flexible financing options, Farmer said.

“For our region, I do think the Sears homes had more character, unique design features and appeal than the other typical designs of that era that were being built here,” Farmer said.

Designs ranged from Spanish style to traditional and other architectural styles in between, she said. One signature feature to look for in a Sears home includes stamping on the floor joists or in the attic, Farmer said.

The idea of buying “a customizable home with beautiful details and design features from a catalogue” appeals to Farmer.

“It’s something very American about it,” she said. The homes were well thought out and could accommodate a growing family, Farmer said.

“I love looking at their floor plans for inspiration and I hope to use some of those details in homes we build in the future,” she said.

As for the home her business renovated last fall, it was the only Sears home she has worked on so far. “We enjoyed the project and the connection to something special,” Farmer said. “Sears . was a household name and they, as a company, brought much joy to many families. It feels good to renovate that piece of history and bring life back to that house 95 years later.”

Blair Homes’ renovation of the Washington Street structure included rewiring, addition of a conventional heat pump, new windows, plumbing upgrades and roof replacement, Farmer said. Some of the home’s features “were too far gone to restore, but we were able to keep the footprint the same and put back materials that would be characteristic of a house built in 1920,” she said.

Farmer sold the home following renovation.

Gretna Mayor Keith Motley recalled a story about the second known Sears home in Gretna, the Scruggs house on Henry Street. The original buyer, Mr. Scruggs, did not have a vehicle and used a cart or wagon to go to the depot and haul his home to the building site.

“He would load up as much of his house he could and would come up Henry Street, just three or four blocks from the depot,” Motley said. “He did that for many days until he got it to his building site.”

The small home has the look of bungalow houses that were built at the time, he said.

“In the day, they (Sears homes) were well-built and affordable, everything you needed for the home came together in the package,” Motley said.

“They withstood the test of time.”

Thornton, author of ‘The Houses That Sears Built,” said “the homes are unique because they’re intimately tied to the history of America.”

“They’re part of our ‘story’ and they’re part of the story of the development of this country in the early 1900s,” Thornton said via email. “When Laura Ingalls

Wilder wrote her ‘Little House’ books, she talked about her father building a log cabin in the middle of the undeveloped wilderness. That was in the 1870s. We went from that ‘type’ of construction to ‘modern homes’ in a scant 50 years. That in itself is remarkable.”

Our country’s notion of “rugged individualism” played a role in the homes’ popularity as well, Thornton said.

“Today, we can hardly imagine ordering a 12,000-piece kit out of a mail-order catalogue and assembling those pieces ourselves,” she said. “Yet more than 300,000 wanna-be-homeowners did exactly that in the early 1900s, when they ordered a kit home from Sears, Aladdin, Gordon Van Tine, Montgomery Ward or one of the other national mail-order companies.”

There was also the rising popularity of bungalows, which have their own history, she said. The country abandoned the massive Victorian homes from the 19th century when the germ theory made those houses unappealing, Thornton said. “The bungalow craze was spawned — in large part — by the understanding that dust and dirt were the harbingers of disease (and death),” she said. “And there was Sears, with dozens of the prettiest little bungalows that you ever did see.”

Nostalgia is also a large part of the appeal of Sears homes, Thornton said, pointing to a phenomenon in historic architecture known as “Grandma’s House.”

“We all tend to be in love with the dwelling places occupied by the folks two generations removed,” she said. “As Baby Boomers age, we find bungalows of the early 20th century utterly enchanting, and the Sears kit homes are a big part of that story.”

Sears homes are uniquely American and the story of a country made up of immigrants seeking peace and prosperity in a land far from home, Thornton said.

“One hundred years ago, even the new immigrants understood that if they could just get into a home of their own, their lives would be so much sweeter,” she said.

Sears offered mortgages to anyone who had a vocation, Thornton said.

“Unlike traditional lenders of the time, if you had a vocation, you were automatically approved for a mortgage with Sears,” she said.

By the 1930s, however, homes became more complex, with plumbing, electricity, central heating systems and other amenities. “Homebuilding was increasingly becoming a technical trade, requiring not only contractors, but subcontractors and their unique skills and expertise,” Thornton said.

Also, following the end of World War II in 1945, American ideas about homebuilding underwent another major shift, she said. Part of that change included U.S. Navy Seabee Bill Levitt turning a 1,000-acre of potato fields into a neighborhood of 750-square-foot homes.