The nonprofit Riverside-Avondale Preservation is spotlighting a set of remarkable buildings in Jacksonville: three build-it-yourself homes you could order from the Sears Catalog - also known as the “Big Book” - in the early part of the 20th century.
The homes are located in Ortega, Murray Hill, and Fairfax Manor neighborhoods, and Jacksonville Historical Society historian-at-large Wayne Wood said Wednesday they represent an important part of American history.
“Most of these houses are not hugely architecturally significant, although many of them are attractive in their construction,” Wood said. “But they are a remarkable piece of Americana, in the fact that people could build their own homes, out of a kit that they ordered out of a catalog, in the early part of the 20th century.”
Beginning in 1908 and into the 1940s, you could flip through the pages of a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog and pick out your home from a series of models, most costing between $400 and $5,000. The house would arrive on the railroad in a series of shipments, beginning with the foundation and extending all the way up to the roof. Everything would be included, Wood said, from the toilet to the doorknobs.
Approximately 70,000 kit homes sold in total in the U.S.; about 10,000 are thought to exist today.
“Some of these houses were modest, small bungalows, but some of them were quite large and amazing,” Wood said. “There was one, the Magnolia. It was palatial. It was two stories, with fluted columns, costing $5,972 in 1921.”
Accounting for inflation, that comes out to $87,749.
The early years of the mail-order home coincided in Jacksonville with the great fire of 1901, when many people lost their homes Downtown and sought new houses in the suburbs. They contributed to the character of neighborhoods like Riverside and Avondale, which are noted for their architectural diversity. The kit homes were also more affordable than contracting with an architect or a builder, and were particularly popular with soldiers returning from World War I.
In 1925, the Percy Butcher family purchased the “Crescent” model for $1,761, according to The Florida Times-Union. That’s about $26,466 in today’s dollars.
The ad for the Crescent model was titled “Five Rooms - Neat Porch” and read, “At the prices quoted we will furnish all the mill work, kitchen cup-board, flooring, shingles, siding, finishing lumber, building paper, eaves trough, down spout, roofing, sash weights, hardware, porch, screens, painting material, lumber and lath to build this five-room house.”
The Butcher family lived in the house for 50 years, Wood said. The building still stands, though it was relocated from its original location in 2003 to make way for a gas station expansion.
Wood said it’s unusual to see Sears kit houses this far south, because the lumber mostly came from the Northeast and the Midwest. But there may be more kit houses in Jacksonville that we don’t yet know about.
Wood said, one way to check if your home came down south on the railroad is to look in the attic. You may find lumber stamped with Honor Bilt, which was the Sears brand, or logos from Montgomery Ward or Aladdin, which were other kit-home companies.
Contact Sydney Boles at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.