This Milford house was built from a Sears and Roebuck house kit
There was a time when a person could buy just about anything they needed in the Sears Roebuck & Co. Catalogue, a comprehensive mail-order book that offered sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods and even automobiles.
The catalogue also sold houses — well, house kits, from which houses could be assembled.
Marie Cavaliere-Gloates didn’t know that until she learned she and her husband, Joe Gloates, were living in a Sears & Roebuck house.
The couple’s home at 59 Berkeley Terrace, in the Rivercliff section of town, isn’t quite like many of the surrounding capes and capes-turned-colonials in the Rivercliff area.
Their two-bedroom 1200-square-foot home, with stucco and now-modern-day wood-look siding, is more of a California-type bungalow, with nine-foot ceilings and plaster interior walls.
Marie said she set eyes on the house years ago when she was a teenager and got lost on the way to an aunt’s house. The Stratford native fell in love with the house and told herself then and there that she wanted to live in it someday.
“It was so unusual,” she said.
She and Joe bought the house in 1996, and Marie started using her artistic talent to turn it into a dream house. It wasn’t until a year later that a neighbor chanced upon a picture in a Sears & Roebuck book, detailing house kits that were sold through the catalogue years ago, that the couple learned their house had a little secret.
“My neighbor was in Colorado, and he went into a bookstore and started thumbing through the book,” Marie said, indicating her copy of “The Houses that Sears Built”
The neighbor gave the Gloates a copy of the book, and there was a note inside, telling them to turn to page 59.
When they did, there was a picture of their house.
“I had never heard of Sears houses,” Marie said.
Between 1908 and 1940, thousands of Sears homes were built around the country, according to Katherine Holler Stevenson’s “Houses by Mail.” When the Milford couple learned that their house was one of them, they started doing some research.
They learned that Sears house kits were typically delivered by rail, taking up three box cars. The boxes contained 20,000 to 30,000 pieces, and a 75 page how-to instruction book. People either assembled the houses themselves, or more likely hired a contractor to do the work.
The Gloates are the third owners of the Rivercliff house. The land was purchased in 1916 by a woman named Dorothy Fandrella, according to city records they found. The land had been owned by the Hubbards, who owned much of the land in the area.
The house was built in 1927.
City records do not reflect that the house was a Sears catalogue purchase, but there are clues for people who believe they may be living in one. First, there are the books that contain pictures and plan summaries. Also, stamped numbers on basement beams give away the secret.
Their particular house is called the Osborn, and “The Houses that Sears Built” describe it as follows:
“The Osborn was a mid-range Honor-Bilt home. Through the 1920s, it was offered for $2700, plus or minus a few hundred dollars. It was described as a California bungalow and was a fine looking home with many nice features.
“Maple floors for the kitchen and bath were standard; the other rooms had oak floors.
“For an additional $148, you could upgrade to oak trim for the living room and dining room.”
A fireplace greets visitors when they walk in the front door of the Gloates’ home, off the roomy front porch overlooking scores of red roses the couple has grown. There are built-in book cases on either side of the fireplace, and small windows above — windows that Marie calls “Hansel and Gretel windows” because they look like they come from a storybook.
The rest of the houses is just as impressive. A once-open side porch is enclosed now, but it pays homage to days gone by. It was once a sleeping porch, built with the belief that sleeping in the open air would help the owners escape tuberculosis.
At one time the exterior was mostly stucco, with dark green wood shingles. Even when it was built, it was probably out of place on the east coast, being more popular in the Midwest.
Much of the interior is original, like the oak floors and white tile in the kitchen. New tiling and intricate artistry added by the Gloates, combined with the pale, pale gold paint that Marie chose for most of the walls, give the interior almost a homey-museum character, something reminiscent of the past and the present.
“I like things to glow,” Marie said, indicating the slightly shiny plaster-over- steel walls.
Marie has become somewhat of an expert on Sears catalogue houses, and guesses there are many more throughout Milford. She thinks she has spotted some as she’s driven around the city.
A WikiHow website points out that the Sears house kits sold in the early 1900s were far from quick pre-fabs.
“If you think houses built from kits are shoddy, cheap and obvious — think again,” the website states. “Between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold about 70,000 kit homes in 48 states through their mail-order Modern Homes program, with 370 designs that you might not readily recognize as a kit.”
A Sears Archives websites depicts a number of the houses that could be built from kits, and they range from modest to elaborate and expansive.
“Sears was not an innovative home designer,” the site states. “Sears was instead a very able follower of popular home designs but with the added advantage of modifying houses and hardware according to buyer tastes. Individuals could even design their own homes and submit the blueprints to Sears, which would then ship off the appropriate precut and fitted materials, putting the home owner in full creative control. Modern Home customers had the freedom to build their own dream houses, and Sears helped realize these dreams through quality custom design and favorable financing.”
Entire homes would arrive by railroad, from precut lumber, to carved staircases, down to the nails and varnish, according to Sears history.
“Families picked out their houses according to their needs, tastes, and pocketbooks. Sears provided all the materials and instructions, and for many years the financing, for homeowners to build their own houses.”
While it is estimated that 100,000 houses were sold between 1908 and 1940 through Sears’ Modern Homes program, there isn’t a count on how many of the houses still stand today.
“The keen interest evoked in current homebuyers, architectural historians, and enthusiasts of American culture indicate that thousands of these houses survive in varying degrees of condition and original appearance,” the website states.
The Gloates love their Sears-made house.
Theirs is not a big house, Marie explained, but the high ceilings and the personal touches make it feel big.
“It’s a gem,” the couple agreed.