A Vaster Master Plan
The Old House Journal website published this article, A Vaster Master Plan, about the “Sears” mail order house.
By Gordon Bock
A Vaster Master Plan: Only seven short years after the debut issue, yet a good decade or more before the expression Sears house entered the real estate lexicon, Old-House Journal asked a question that has crossed thousands of minds ever since: Is yours a mail-order house?
Even that modest 1980 article, highlighting the mail-order house-plan business of 1890s architect George Barber, clearly touched the tip of an architectural iceberg. Though accompanying reader letters showed several sister Queen Anne’s, the article cited how Barber himself claimed that one of his styles had been built more than 300 times. What’s more, correspondence with Barber’s descendants revealed how the ambitious Knoxville carpenter-cum-publisher moved into marketing building materials along with his plans are the forerunner of the kit house concept that took off after 1900. In fact, Barber himself owned a copy of Palliser’s American Cottage Homes by George Palliser, who perfected mail-order house plans in the 1870s. The implication was both mind-bending and far-reaching. Could it be that hundreds of old houses across the continent share the same design DNA?
Although sharp-eyed students of American architecture would have noticed the house illustrations and offer of free building plans in the 1969 reprint of Sears, Roebuck & Co.’s 1908 Catalog No. 117, notes historian Daniel D. Reiff, it was not until Patricia Poore’s s key article Pattern Book Architecture that a thorough and illustrated account of the phenomenon became available to the general public. Reiff adds, By 1981, other articles had appeared in Landscape, the Winterthur Portfolio, Americana, and Historic Preservation, but as is often the case, OHJ was at the forefront of new interests and trends in old-house lore.
Countless historic buildings are irreplaceable because of their characteristics and discontinued materials, so it was a novel notion to explore the possibility that many old houses may not be unique. Old-house owners, though, have always known that having a mail-order plan or kit-built building actually adds to its individual identity.
From the mesmerizing variety of plans from George Barber, R.W. Shoppell, and other 19th-century pioneers, to the sturdy, sensible, readi-cut stock offered by Sears and Aladdin, few mail-order houses were ever built exactly as designed, and time invariably brings more personality. Moreover, being able to trace the design to a source adds to the building’s provenance or history and helps document changes and improvements. In some realms the catalog or kit-house imprimatur is everything from a pedigree to proof of membership in a club. Judging by the real estate brochures that trumpet more Sears houses every year, there’s no question the club is growing.
Thank you for exploring A Vaster Master Plan from the Old House Journal.