House in a box

Sunday, July 9, 2006
Trevor Fisher, owner of an 1911 Sears home, listened as Bonnie Stepenhoff talked about how the Sears houses were transported by train into areas like Cape Girardeau. (Diane L. Wilson)

The home is simple of style and sturdy of appearance. Nothing much stands out about the dwelling on North Middle Street in Cape Girardeau.

But to the trained eye the telltale details jump out. The four-sided gambrel roof, the original wood siding, the door knob and hinges that look as if they belong on a doll-house. The pieces are all prefabricated, but the prefab is from a distant era.

This, said history professor Bonnie Stepenoff of Southeast Missouri State University, is a home that once came in a box from Sears.

"From 1908 through 1940, Sears Roebuck sold house plans and complete kits for assembling houses in a wide variety of sizes and styles," Stepenoff said. "The kits arrived on boxcars for assembly by the purchasers."

During that time Sears sold more than 100,000 of these homes. They would often come on two railroad boxcars, weigh 25 tons, and consist of more than 30,000 pieces. The kits ranged in price from $650 to $2,500 and included all the lumber, shingles, drywall and piping needed -- but none of the labor.

Some enterprising do-it-yourselfers built the entire home, others employed friends and family in the style of the "barn raisings" and still others hired professional craftsmen.

Trevor Fisher's Sears house was built in 1911. The parts were transported to Cape Girardeau by train, then assembled on a lot off Middle Street.

Historical landmark

The Freeman House at 24 N. Middle St., built in 1911, was one of these homes. It's the only house in Cape Girardeau to be granted historical landmark status as a Sears home.

Three years ago, registered nurse Trevor Fisher and family moved into the two-story home. Fisher said it's been a good fit but living in a home of this type can have its drawbacks. "You know its energy efficiency isn't the best in the world. We're not allowed to put in storm windows because of the historical requirements, so we kept the original style," he said. "But it's nice, it's been a nice home."

Fisher said living in a Sears home and doing some research on it has made him look at Cape Girardeau in a different way. "I've actually seen a few of them in town," he said. "You know them when you see them, I guess they just have a similar style and a similar structure that if you're looking for it, they stand out."

At its height, Sears offered 447 styles of homes. They ranged from elegant multistory structures with French doors and art glass windows to squat, three-room domiciles that included the stipulation "outhouse sold separately."

Fisher has put a modern stamp on his six-room, two-story home that was model 122 in the catalogue, but the base structure remains pure Sears.

"We're pretty confident that all the woodwork is from the original kit," he said. "Sears pretty much had it down to a science. With the wood you had to cut it yourself and know what you were doing, it wasn't like slot A into slot B type of building, but as far as how much lumber, they gave you just about exactly what you needed."

Wood beams in some Sears homes have identifying marks. They are individually numbered to correspond to the instructions in the leather-bound building plans that accompanied the materials.

Fisher believes that three other homes on his block are Sears homes as well, but after many years and many changes it's tough to tell.

"They're all different models, and they've put vinyl siding up so outside appearance is different, but they're Sears homes," he said. "We don't know who built all these houses, it could have all been one family or it could have just been neighbors each doing the same thing."

Stepenoff would like to catalogue the Sears homes in Cape Girardeau. She is teaching a historical preservation research class in the fall that will teach students methods of identifying and documenting the homes.

She encourages anyone who believes they know of a Sears home in Cape Girardeau to call her office at 651-2831.

335-6611, extension 245

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