Beyond the Trailer Park - Sears Catalogue Homes
 -by Lynn Becker

A new exhibition asks whether top designers can rescue manufactured housing from the public's disdain.

(Originally published in slightly different  form under the title "Pod Sweet Pod" in the Chicago Reader, March 4, 2005



Beyond the Trailer Park

    Sears Catalogue Homes
    Designer Pre-Fab
    Out of the Box - Design
     Innovations In
     Manufactured Housing
     at the Field Museum
     (illustrations, in abundance)


In 1908, Sears, Roebuck published a specialty catalog, Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, that sold 22 styles of houses. In 1915, Sears began selling kit homes, consisting of up to 10,000 numbered parts and a set of instructions showing the buyer how to put the whole thing together. The catalogs promised substantial savings: "$945 Builds This $1,500.00 to $1,800.00 Eight-Room Bungalow Style House," read one typical ad. Although a number of other companies - including Montgomery Ward - sold houses by mail, Sears was the most successful. By 1925, it had sold 30,000 homes.

Low cost was the main incentive for buyers, but design quality also played a major role. "They were all copied after popular styles," says Elgin-based architecture historian Rebecca Hunter, who maintains a registry of mail-order houses. "In basic size, shape, and style they are no different from anything else on the block." The most expensive Sears home between 1915 and 1920, the Magnolia, sold for up to $6,000; the house included a two-story-high portico with fluted columns, a sun parlor, and a "massive but graceful stairway." By 1940, when the effects of the Great Depression forced Sears to discontinue its catalog houses, 75,000 had been sold. Large numbers of them remain in suburbs like Elgin, Villa Park, Downers Grove, but few were ever built in the city proper.
"Most of them are on the edges of Chicago," Hunter says, "by the rail lines because that's how the kits were transported. They say that parts for a typical house filled two railroad boxcars. There was also a lot of union opposition in Chicago: Chicago had very strict union labor laws, and they really gave people a hard time if they wanted to put a kit home up."

Next: Designer Pre-Fab

Introduction - Design Innovations in Manufactured Housing at the Field



© Copyright 2005 - Photos and text by Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

  Design Innovations in
    Manufactured Housing
    at the Field Museum

  --Exhibition Architects --
  Ali Tayar
  david baker + partners
  Bryan Bell - Design Corps
  David Khouri
  Estudio Teddy Cruz
  Garofalo Architects
  Sumo Architects
  Taylor & Burns architects

  American Planning Association
     Affordable Housing Reader

  City of Chicago Five Year
     Affordable Housing Plan

  Dwell Home
  FLATPAK House  
  Loftcube Project  
  Manufactured Housing Institute
   Michael Graves & Associates  
  Michael Graves Pavilions  
  Resolution 4: Architecture
  Sears Archives- Sears
     Model Homes

  Sears Catalogue Homes on
     Old House Web
  Sears Catalogue Homes in
     Downers Grove
  Sears Catalogue Homes on
     The Arts & Craft
     Society website

   Shipping Container Prefab
  The Houses that Sears Built,
     by Rosemary Thornton

  Tumbleweed Tiny House Co.