Instant House

A blog tribute to the manufactured, mass-produced, modular and kit homes that grace the American landscape.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Lewis-Liberty Homes

Cover of the 1922 Lewis Homes Catalog
Lewis-Liberty--The Product of an Unhappy Marriage  
Lewis-Liberty Homes are an interesting hybrid in the history of the instant house.  The company started as Lewis Manufacturing in the late 1890s as a lumber and shingle company.  The company did well in the lumber and building products business.  In 1906, they struck gold--Aladdin Homes contracted Lewis Manufacturing to fabricate and ship the first Aladdin Homes.  Year by year, the orders increased.  In 1913, Lewis asked for ownership interest in Aladdin Homes, and Aladdin refused.  Aladdin awarded the contract to someone else (Sterling Homes).  The joke was on Aladdin, however, since Lewis owned all the mills, lumber, and machinery necessary to produce a pre-cut home!  Lewis Homes produced their first catalog of kit homes in 1914.

"Homes of Character" 
The "La Vitello" from Lewis's 1922 Catalog.
Lots of character, and a surprising amount of room inside!
The early Lewis Homes (Liberty came later...more to follow) were touted as "Homes of Character", and the company's designs were true to that adage.  The early homes are generally quite striking Craftsmen-style homes, in contrast to Aladdin's bland lineup.  In fact, Lewis Homes was Aladdin's biggest competitor in the early 1920s (the big two were still Sears and Montgomery Ward).  Lewis homes also employed a slightly different sales model--the company contracted with local representatives ("authorized agents") throughout the country.  The company was based in Bay City, Michigan.  Subsequently, the bulk of Lewis homes are in the midwest and east.

Fire and Rebirth
A fire destroyed Lewis's lumberyard in 1925.  The company resumed operations quite quickly, though the company renamed the pre-cut division "Liberty Homes."  The company did well until the Great Depression--like every other mail order kit home company in the U.S.  Lewis-Liberty made it through on the arms of its other business interests (lumber, millwork, etc.).  Lewis-Liberty began offering mortgages in 1938 with FHA approval, resulting in a renaissance of sales.

WWII and Beyond
Liberty Homes continued operations throughout World War II, providing barracks, emergency housing and other war necessities.  After the war, Liberty continued to market pre-cut homes, despite the trend for mass-produced, mobile, and prefabricated homes.  The post WWII homes look like 1950s American suburban homes.  The company ceased operations in 1975, with a reported 75,000 homes sold throughout the company's 61 year history.




Liberty Homes Catalog, ca. 1950

It's very easy to build!!!

1960 Cover



Monday, August 29, 2011

Unusual Sears Homes

The Weird, Wacky, and Wonderful
An informal study of Sears houses yields some interesting finds.  True, most of the homes have a "Craftsmen Bungalow" style, but there are more than a few outliers.  Below, here are some of the strangest, most unique, and most interesting Sears homes.  Some are beautiful, some are quirky, some are hideous.  Everyone loves a good Side Show, so here they are:  the Sears parade of wonders!

The Aurora (top) and the Carlton.  Both were in the 1918 catalog.
Both are also DIRECT rip-offs of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Homes.
The Bryant.  Unusual modern appearance for a Sears house.
Only present in the 1938 and 1939 catalogs.
The Ivanhoe, from 1912.  A personal favorite--a craftsmen take on the center hall colonial.
The Del Ray from 1922.  A strangely proportioned 2-bedroom bungalow.
For some reason, this was one of the most copied Sears houses.

The Hollywood, from 1920.  A very elaborate dormer for a house without a second floor.
No. 126, from 1912.  It's squat and just....odd.
The Springwood, from 1921.  Or as I like to call to overcomplicate a Cape Cod.
This Victorian monster only appeared in 1909.  Lots of curves on this painted lady!
The Normandy, from 1934.  A split-level with a conical spire for an entrance.

The San Jose from 1928.  A five-room "Spanish" bungalow.  I find that tower odd--it's nothing but wasted space!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Lustron Follow-Up

A friend sent me this delightful link from Minnesota Public Radio:

Living in a Lustron, the '50s 'house of the future'

I especially love the line about cleaning it:  "I usually use car wax, because it's difficult to find house wax."

See the original Lustron Instant House post


Friday, August 26, 2011

Aladdin Homes

Cover from the last Aladdin Catalog (1954)
Aladdin Homes--The Coworker That No One Notices But Does Everything
In 1906, the Aladdin Company started selling "Readi-Cut" homes.  What makes this company different from Bennett or Sears?  Well....not much, though they managed to hang around much longer.  The company sold precut homes until the mid-1950s, and prefabricated paneled homes until the mid 1980s.  Through roughly 50 years, the company managed to change the style of their homes to fit the tastes of the current homebuyers.  Aladdin, unlike Sears, did not offer financing, labor credit or help with finding a lot--they were strictly selling structures.  Like Sears, the houses shipped via rail, though after WWII the company switched largely to tractor-trailer freight.  The other thing that made the Aladdin houses different from Sears is their....boringness.  Seriously.  Perusing over many years of these catalogs, I am astonished at how average and boring their designs are.  The 1917 catalog has like 30 variations of the same plain-Jane bungalow.  The 1954 catalog is a study in the 2 and 3 bedroom ranch house.  Though serving a very real purpose (affordable housing), the designs are really a snore.

The First Catalog--1908
To look at the first available Aladdin catalog, one realizes that the company was not sure of its direction.  The houses were called "knocked-down", rather than readi-cut.  I'm guessing the marketing people changed that since most people don't want to think of their house as being...knocked down.  The catalog was short.  It contained one bungalow, three variations of "summer cottage", a "hunting lodge", a "dwelling-house" (the only complete home in the book), a boat house, and a few garages.  The "dwelling house" is pictured below.

The Mid 1910's--Picking Up Steam  
By the mid 1910s, sales had taken off and the catalog was significantly expanded.  The 1917 catalog bears LOTS of resemblance to the Sears Homes Catalog of the era.  Each house has a floor plan and an isometric view showing possible furniture placement.  The houses in this catalog look like watered-down Sears catalog homes.  The published prices were a bit misleading--the large, bolded price reflects a 5% cash discount.

The Venus.  Sears bungalow's plain out-of-town cousin.

Aladdin Colonades from the mid-1910s.

Competition with Sears  
It's no coincidence that the Aladdin Company faced some fierce competition with Sears.  The mid-1910s were the height of Sears's sales, and subsequently the height of competition with Aladdin.  Aladdin had a famous "dollar-a-knot" guarantee--if you found a knot bigger than a dime, they paid you a dollar.  In 1916, Aladdin decided to publish a book of "Home Furnishings", probably to compete with Sears.  It only lasted one year.  The furniture was very handsome, however.  See below.

The Roaring 20's  
The catalogs of the 1920s look like...houses of the 1920s.  Nice, unoffensive blase street-car-suburb houses.  Interestingly, by now Aladdin had changed its price advertising scheme:  you'll note that the house pictured below includes a very clear breakdown of what the price includes.  This is again in competition with Sears--Sears's prices did not include extras and electricity.
The Yorkshire.  Find an suburb with trees--you'll find a clone of this house.  Cute, but boring.

The 1950s--The Last Hurrah
The last catalog put out by the Aladdin company is reflective of the new taste in American housing--the ranch home.  There's very little variation in the houses in this catalog.  Only three of the houses have a partial second floor--none are a full two stories high.  Again, despite my relative dislike for them, these houses served a need--quick, affordable housing that the owner could assemble themselves.  
The Brentwood--Found in every community EVERYWHERE.
The Aladdin Legacy
While Sears had the name-brand recognition that has withstood the test of time, Aladdin Homes were every bit as successful.  Their legacy can be seen in the ad below (from the 1954 catalog).  The relative plainness of Aladdin homes leads to their blending into the surrounding neighborhoods.  They don't have the same detailing as Sears homes, and subsequently don't jump out at you.  This is why they are REALLY hard to spot.  Look at that Brentwood--you can find clones of that anywhere.  You can't tell an Aladdin from the street, unlike the Sears homes.  Nevertheless, Aladdin homes are found everywhere--probably closer to you than you realize.  The company ceased all operations in 1987.

45 Years of Aladdin Homes

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Celotex Cemesto Homes

A series of Celotex Cemestos under construction
in Oak Ridge, TN
No, there's no town there, and even if there was, the houses ARE NOT made out of carcinogens.  
I know it seems like something out of The Simpsons, but the town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, (two words, not one) was built largely for the people working on the Manhattan Project--the project that produced the first Atom bomb.  This top-secret project required lots of people, and keeping lots of people quiet is no easy task.  The solution?  Build a whole town in the middle of nowhere just for the workers and families of those involved in the project.  According to Wikipedia:

"The location and low population also helped keep the town a secret. Although the population of the settlement grew from about 3,000 in 1942 to about 75,000 in 1945, and despite the fact that the K-25 uranium-separating facility by itself covered 44 acres (0.178 km²) and was the largest building in the world at that time, Oak Ridge was kept an official government secret. It did not appear on maps, and wasn't formally named until 1949, only being referred to as the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW). All workers wore badges, and the town was surrounded by guard towers and a fence with seven gates."  The modern town of Oak Ridge has provided this page about the town's history.  

Deciding to build an entire town virtually overnight resulted in some problems--most notably, speed.  ENTER:  The Celotex Corporation.  

The standard Celotex Cemesto home.
The Celotex Cemesto House  
Celotex is the coporation, Cemesto is the notable building product that the house is made of.  Cemesto was used for the walls of the house.  It is a thin (1 and 1/2" thick) Celotex (pressed cardboard) board coated on both sides by asbestos cement.    Asbestos was still the miracle material--shapeable, lightweight, and fireproof.  The basic Celotex Cemesto home was a small, 2 bedroom Cape Cod, similar to the original Levittown home.   The major objective in Oak Ridge--speed.  The Celotex homes went up very quickly--important when you figure the government was rushing to create a super-weapon to end a devastating worldwide war!  The generic Celotex house is pictured at right.  Its telltale features are the front porch (the rectangular wood dressing) and the obvious paneled construction.  

Diagram showing the simplicity of Cemesto construction.
A Post-Apocalyptic Building Material?  
In 1943, TIME magazine published this article about the product of Cemesto.  Apparently, Celotex's president thought that the war would bring an end to the major cities, and there would be a need for quick construction as the world rebuilt, he of course, thought that Cemesto would solve everyone's problems.  While his vision of smoking, uninhabitable cities did not come to fruition, the post-war housing shortage did come to be.  

The Celotex Downfall  
Asbestos causes cancer.  We all know it.  BUT, in 1943, we didn't know it.  Nevertheless, numerous court decisions ruled in favor of people diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-exposure-related diseases.  The U.S. portion of the  Celotex corporation was eventually absorbed by Dow Chemical.  The UK company still makes insulating products.  

Aerial view of Oak Ridge

A Celotex Ad from Popular Science, 1929

Another style of Oak Ridge prefab that used Cemesto
Cemesto house
Celotex Cemesto home under construction

More construction.

An updated Cemesto in Oak Ridge.  These are actually advertised as "Cemesto Style".

Monday, August 22, 2011

One-Hit Wonder - Loizeaux

Loizeaux's Plan Book
Lots of different companies cashed in on the building boom of the late 1910s and 1920s (as my growing stack of old home plan books will attest to).  Tons of lumber companies followed the model set by Sears, Gordon Van Tyne, Wardway, Bennett, Aladdin, and others by publishing their own books of plans.  Loizeaux, based out of several locations in New Jersey, was a lumber and building supplies company that decided to expand their customer base by encouraging people to buy plans from them...plans that could then be erected with their materials, of course.  This plan book seems to be geared more toward the builder, given the amount of advertisements for building system products in its pages.

The Designs
The designs look like typical homes of the 1920s--modest, 2, 3, and 4 bedroom homes with nice curb appeal.  Some have a more "bungalow" appearance (ripping off Sears's popularity).  A large majority of the homes are neo-colonial, tudor or Dutch colonial.  There are a few oddities that reflect a Spanish Mission style.  Even though the homes are obviously designed for the middle class, most of the homes have a "service entrance", indicating that people still had maids or other house servants.  A large number of the homes have "sun rooms" or "sun porches", which were just rooms with extra windows.  People believed in the healing power of the sun at this time--even hospitals of the time had "sun porches" where patients were encouraged to convalesce in the healing rays of the sun--melanoma not withstanding.  Below are a few favorites.  Be sure to scroll down and see some of the ridiculous advertising.

Check out the rear entry--you had to walk through the kitchen or a bathroom
AND a bedroom to get to the living area from it.  

A "tudor"-styled home.  Small, but charming.

This is NOT...I repat...NOT a Sears home.


Here we have a "Combination Bath".  I've never seen anything quite like it.  Requiring a large piece of the floor to be removed, I'm guessing this was discontinued due to the large amount of people killing themselves by slipping, falling, and/or drowning.
Here we have a "modern solution to home heating".  A furnace that can be put right in the living room--and no need for ductwork!  Who doesn't want a whole-house furnace right in their living room.  Get this--it would burn (according to the ad) hard coal, soft coal, coke, or wood.  At $97, there are cheaper ways to kill yourself or your loved ones via carbon-monoxide poisoning or burning.
An ad for tile.  Look at the ceiling in the kitchen (top picture).  Why on earth would you need a tiled kitchen ceiling?  Pie fight, anyone???
Yes, please show me how to take my Victorian home and make it look hideous!!!  Sadly, as the old Victorian homes fell out of fashion, this was done a lot.  The one on the bottom is particularly ugly.  How to make a Victorian into an Eastern European housing block.

Not outrageous--this was the original rear cover.