Arts & Crafts Architecture: Craftsman, Prairie & Four-Square Houses

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A Stroll Through Lincoln's Bungalows

Lincoln proudly boasts over a thousand bungalow houses. Here is a visual catalog of just a few of them in the Ir­ving­dale and Country Club neighborhoods
Arts & Crafts Bungalows
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The Arts & Crafts period from the turn of the 20th century to the start of the Second World War [1] is unique in Amer­i­can architectural history.

First, it was the only period in which houses that ordinary people could afford were enriched with all manner of finely crafted detail.

Rich wood trim, art glass, and colorful tile mosaics had been used in houses for a long time but only kings, potentates, and robber barons could afford them. The rest of us had to do without – at least until the Arts & Crafts movement made rich detailing the standard in homebuilding.

Second, all of the Arts & Crafts architectural styles – Prairie, Craftsman, Mission, and Four-Square – are Amer­i­can. Unlike previous house styles that were imported from Europe, Amer­i­can Arts & Crafts homes are almost completely home­grown.

The Arts & Crafts Series: Where Are You Now?

➛Arts & Crafts Architecture: Craftsman, Prairie & Four-Square Houses
Arts & Crafts Interiors: The First Comfortable House
Arts & Crafts Kitchens: The Birth of the Modern Kitchen
Recreating the Arts & Crafts Kitchen: Updating Period Design
Arts & Crafts Baths: The first Modern Bathroom
Arts & Crafts Resources: An Illustrated Guide to All Things Arts & Crafts

If you are fortunate enough to own an Arts & Crafts home, you own a gem – a true Amer­i­can original – full of handcrafted details that are rarely seen in modern housing except for the well-to-do.

That 6,000 square-foot Mc­Mansion that your boss just bought is full of 1/2" gypsum board walls, painted moldings, and carpeting over subflooring.

Yours is full of thick, three-coat lath and plaster walls, varnished quarter-sawn oak moldings with oak strip flooring over a thick pine subfloor.

Of course, your floor squeaks and his doesn't but you have to put up with a few little quirks to own a bit of Amer­i­can history.

The Arts & Crafts Philosophy

Arts & Crafts house styles did not just appear. They were part of a larger social movement that began as a revolt – an intellectual and philosophical rebellion against the heady excesses of the late Victorian age.

Victorian architecture celebrated the abundance made possible by mass production and industrialization.

Di­mens­ioned lumber, inexpensive milled trim, and good-quality moldings could be made very quickly by machines in previously unheard-of quantities and could easily be shipped anywhere in the country on its ever-expanding national railroad system.

They were used with increasing elaboration to embellish late-Victorian homes.

By the end of the 1800s century, ostentation had reached its zenith in the elaborate Eastlake-style house.

But, by then a great many people had had enough of the increasing industrialization of Western societies.

There was a widespread and growing rebellion against the numbing immensity of massive mechanization and a longing for an earlier, simpler time.

The revolt began in England, where industrialization was the most advanced and its side effects the most odious.

Largely inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, an influential moralist and social critic of the time, the Arts & Crafts Movement was just one of many forms of rejection of the dehumanizing effects of the factory system and mass production processes.

Former days of villages, craft shops, and artisans were thought healthier and more humanizing than assembly-line work in factory towns shrouded in smoke and dust.

All of these movements ultimately failed.

The Industrial Revolution did not go away or even slow down. But, before finally dying out around 1910 the Arts & Crafts Movement in Amer­i­ca spawned a stunning revolution in architecture and design that greatly influenced 20th century architecture until the Second World War.

Since this period is when most pre-war Ne­bras­ka homes were built, the Arts & Crafts home styles are generously represented in our older urban neighbor­hoods.

With the the World War, Arts & Crafts architecture, quietly but abruptly, died.

Challenged to build unheard-of numbers of houses to meet the ravenous postwar appetite for new housing, homebuilders quickly abandoned the leisurely, handcrafted detailing of the Arts & Crafts period. It was just too time-consuming and had to go in favor of new mass-production techniques that built an average of 5,000 sturdy new homes in a single day, forty million homes by 1975.

It was sad to see such wonderful craftsmanship go by the wayside but it was inevitable. The Depression and World War were over. It was a bright, exciting, new era. Amer­i­ca had changed, and so had its housing needs.

The legacy, however, is still with us in the form of thousands of Arts & Crafts houses throughout the country, especially in the upper Midwest.

For more information on this historic period of Amer­i­can architecture, go to Post-war Housing Styles Cape Cod, Colonial, and Ranch.

Ancestor Styles

No architectural style is born in isolation. It borrows from earlier styles, emphasizing some features, deemphasizing others until a new, identifiable form emerges. The Arts & Crafts styles are no exception.

While the Arts & Crafts movement provided the philosophy and rationale, the nuances of the architecture were taken from a great many sources: late Victorian Shingle Style and other purely Amer­i­can influences such as Shaker and Southwest Spanish Mission; as well as some distinctly Asian influences, particularly the broad horizontal lines, low roofs, and well-crafted natural materials characteristic of the traditional Japanese house

The various Arts & Crafts styles also freely borrowed from each other. Although distinct and identifiable styles with some common features such as low-pitched hip roofs, minimal applied de­cora­tion, and extensive handcrafting, they each have elements unique to themselves.


But, they also blend into each other to such an extent that it is often impossible to positively classify a particular house as one or the other style. A Craftsman bungalow with Prairie elements is as common as a Prairie house with Craftsman elements. Four-Square houses freely adopted features of both.

Arts & Crafts design was also influenced by Art Deco and other "modernism" decorative styles – and just as freely were borrowed from by modernist designers.

So while these uniquely Amer­i­can styles are identifiable, and excellent examples of each can be found in Ne­bras­ka communities, most Arts & Crafts era houses are hybrids of the three main styles – incorporating many of the best features of each.

The Bungalow

There are a number of different Crafts­man-style houses, the Four-Square is actually a Crafts­man house. But the most popular Craftsman home was the simple 1-1/2 story bungalow. In fact, for most people, "bungalow" and "Craftsman house" are synonymous terms.

Just about every Ne­bras­ka town boasts at least one bungalow, most have a great many.

Historical Antecedents

The style is thought to have its roots in the native architectural styles of the Bengal in India.

During the last decades of the 19th century, English officers had small houses built in the "Bangla" style. The houses were one story with tile or thatched roofs and wide, covered verandas.

The house was introduced to Amer­i­can architecture in 1906, through an article that appeared in The Craftsman magazine published by Gustav Stickley.

It was widely adopted by period architects as an answer to the need for small, affordable homes, and rather quickly became a staple of homebuilding in both the U.S. and Canada.

Characteristics

Bungalows are modest, inexpensive, low-profile houses faced with wood siding and brick or, less commonly, stone. Wood siding was often applied in contrasting wood bands or courses separated by wide horizontal trim boards called "architrave" moldings.

They possess broad, low gable or hip roofs, usually with one or two large front dormers, wide eaves with exposed rafters, and brackets (actually called "corbels") under the eaves. Wide, open front porches were supported by heavy masonry or wood piers.

Inexpensive window glass was invented by the Victorians who used it with almost reckless abandonment in large expanses of windows. The Arts & Crafts period continued the practice.

An upscale Craftsman bungalow with a brick facade in the Country Club neighborhood, Lin­coln with a rare hip roof.

All of the typical design elements are represented: open rafter tails, heavy brick piers supporting the porch roof, and art glass windows in the hip dormer.

Most bungalows had a gable roof to increase the amount of living space on the second floor.

Any style similarity to the traditional Japanese house (above) is completely intentional. Asian influences in Arts & Crafts architecture are common.

Windows were abundant and distinctive: "4 over 1" (4 panes in the upper sash to one pane in the lower sash) or "6 over 1" double-hung. These are now commonly called "Craftsman" windows.

Floorplan

The house's condensed floor plan made use of all of the available space, minimizing hallways.

A single living room replaced the front and rear parlors, entry hall, and library characteristic of the Victorian house. It almost always had a fireplace, often set in a niche called the "inglenook".

Gustav Stickley (1858-1942)

One of eleven children of a German immigrant, Gustav Stickley was a very astute businessman but also a true idealist and a firm believer in the Arts & Crafts ethic of a simple life surrounded by useful and beautiful things.

His starkly simple geometric "New Furniture" designs defined not just the Amer­i­can Craftsman furniture style but how the houses of the period were decorated and appointed.

The classic Craftsman Interior with extensive, plain woodwork and simple but beautiful materials throughout is the product of his intention to create an interior that was a fit setting for his furniture.

He believed that well-designed and well-crafted surroundings would make life better through "perfect simplicity."

His furniture reflected his ideals of honesty in construction, and truth to the materials. The plain surfaces of his wood furniture were devoid of carvings, moldings, and other embellishments and relied solely on the character and beauty of the finished wood itself for decoration. Mortise and tenon joinery was exposed to showcase the structural quality of the work. His furniture company, Craftsman Workshops, was very successful, eventually becoming a national force with showrooms in New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

To showcase his designs but also to give voice to his ideas for better living, he began publishing his own magazine, the Craftsman, in 1901. It featured furniture designs and house plans, poetry, biographies, and current events as well as articles on decorating, organization, ideas for better living, and social philosophy.

The magazine greatly influenced public taste and perceptions of beauty but it had even more impact on Amer­i­can design professionals, becoming the voice of the entire generation of Arts & Crafts designers that followed Stickley's ideals.

It opened directly into the dining room, which also served as a multi-purpose family room. The dividing wall usually was only five feet high so the rooms were connected visually enlarging the sense of spaciousness.

The kitchen connected to the dining room through a swinging door that provided easy access but kept food odors out of the rest of the house. (These have usually been removed now that kitchen ventilation is available, and most are lost but the swinging door hardware often remains attached to the door jamb.)

The Influencers

Stickley's The Crafts­man magazine routinely published plans for bungalow homes, which were available free to its readers and could be used anywhere in the country.

Although a number of attempts to catalog Stickley Bungalows have been made, the full extent of Stickley's influence will probably never be known since he urged homeowners to modify plans to fit their needs, and they did with abandon. So, identifying a house as a Stickley design is often nearly impossible.

Stickley was probably the most influential but hardly the only proponent of bungalow homes.

Bungalow designs were spread by the practice of buying plans from illustrated catalogs and plan books.

Stickley himself published collections of his plans from the magazine in

Other influential plan books included:

Many of these books are still available from used booksellers and on Google Books and should be required reading for anyone remodeling or planning to reproduce an Arts & Crafts home.

The Prairie House

The Prairie-style house was a product of the Prairie School of architecture that was centered around Chicago at the turn of the 20th century.

This new style of housing was coined the Prairie style after a 1901 article in the Ladies Home Journal by Frank Lloyd Wright entitled, "A Home in a Prairie Town."

According to architecture historian Dixie Legler: [2]

"It was a new look for a new century. Low, ground-hug­ging houses with refreshingly spacious interiors under sweeping roofs, leading to terraces reaching out to nature, all dressed in the colors of the prairie in autumn and simplified with built-in furniture. A group of idealistic young architects in Chicago, led by Frank Lloyd Wright, had succeeded in their quiet revolt against the fussiness of Victorian houses. Gazing toward the horizon, they saw the prairie as the perfect metaphor for redefining the Amer­i­can home."

Antecedents

Architects of the Prairie School sought to redefine Amer­i­can housing by designing homes with low horizontal lines and open interior spaces in deliberate contrast to the Victorian Era's tall, narrow houses with closed-in interiors.

Victorian housing was the creature of Eastern cities with small, constricted urban lots.

Prairie houses were children of the Great Plains; low, wide structures better suited to its almost limitless horizons.

Ja­pan­ese and Amer­i­can South­west influences are most apparent in this Arts & Crafts style, more so than in the various Crafts­man houses.

Characteristics

Rooms were often divided by glass panels or low cabinets rather than walls to increase site-lines, making the houses seem more spacious than they actually were.

The first Prairie houses were usually finished in lime plaster with wood trim or sided with horizontal board and batten. Some later Prairie homes used decorative concrete blocks – a new and exciting material at the time with which architects experimented regularly.

The open floor plans of Prairie homes took on many forms: Square, L-shaped, T-shaped, Y-shaped, and even pin­wheel-shaped. Furn­i­ture was often either built-in or specially designed by the architect to fit the style of a particular house.

Popularity

Few Prairie-style homes were built without the involvement of an architect.

The style was popularized in pattern books and illustrated magazines but it was, as far as we can determine, never offered as a mail-order kit.

The Prarie style did not receive the widespread builder acceptance of the Bungalow and Four-Square houses, and are consequently much less common in our communities. The few that do exist, however, are usually little gems and well worth preserving.

Influence on Later Styles

The Prairie House is the only Arts & Crafts style to penetrate the great post-war housing boom.

Wright's own work had already incorporated many Modernist elements into Prairie architecture by the 1930s. Improvements in construction technology allowed architects to evolve the Prairie style into something approaching Mid-Century Modernist architecture by the early 1940s.

Modernist design added few new or innovative elements to the vernacular, contenting itself with merely continuing and extending the pivotal design features of the Prairie School.

Roofs got flatter, windows grew larger until whole walls were made of glass. Houses were even more horizontally oriented, to the point that some modernist houses almost disappeared into the landscape. But the Prairie antecedents of these modern houses are clearly evident.

The American Four-Square

In 1890 there were no Four-Square houses in Ne­bras­ka. By the end of the First World War in 1918, there were thousands. Where the style came from is somewhat of a puzzle.

Bungalow and Prairie styles can be traced to specific architectural schools or historical ancestors.

But the Four-Square style seems to have no precise parentage, no renowned architectural advocates, no underlying design philosophy, not even a distinct school of thought.

It just got built.

Origins

No one knows who built the first four-square or where it was built. Theories abound as to its architectural genesis, but no definitive answers are forthcoming.

One such theory is that it appeared when builders squared off the Folk Victorian house, stripped it of its elaborate orna­mentation, lowered the roof pitch, extended the eaves, and added Arts & Crafts-influenced interior features and a big front porch.

Or perhaps it was the already square Italianate Victorian design that was the architectural genesis of the style. Remove the cupola and gingerbread; replace the tall Victorian windows with Arts & Crafts-style windows, enlarge the porch, and the result is a Four-Square house.

Still others believe that it is, in fact, a refinement of the traditional rectangular two-story colonial re-popularized by the Colonial Revival school in the last quarter of the 19th century to celebrate the Centennial of the founding of the country.

Builders squared off the colonial, appended a porch, lowered its roof. and applied Craftsman detailing.

We think that the true story is much less exotic.

The Four-Square is just the builders' two-story version of the popular Craftsman bungalow.

Homeowners liked the simplicity, open floor plan, and interior efficiency of the bungalow but many buyers wanted a larger house.

The Four-Square was the builder's solution: a two-story bungalow: preserving the essential design elements of the classic bungalow while adding a full second floor.

Architectural Significance

However, it came to be, this distinctive house has become one of the most recognizable of Amer­i­can home styles.

A classic Four-Square cannot be anything but a classic Four-Square. There is no other house design that resembles it.

Today, it is well regarded by architectural historians as one of the icons of Amer­i­can residential architecture.

But, recognition was long in coming.

For decades the Four-Square was mostly ignored by the architectural community as just an uninspired, builder-designed curiosity: chunky, rectangular, symmetrical, unassuming, and plain as an old shoe.

It was thought to have little style and no architectural significance.

The style did not even have a name until 1982 when the term Foursquare was coined by Clem La&ahy;bine, founder and editor of the Old House Jour­nal [3], and Patricia Poore (the Journal's current editor) in their article entitled "The Com­fort­able House: Post-Vict­or­ian Dom­estic Arch­itec­ture".

Labine and Poore pointed out that the true importance of the Four-Square lay not in any significant architectural feature or revolutionary design innovation but in its extraordinary livability and simplicity.

Two Amer­i­can Four-Square houses with cedar clapboard siding and hip roofs in the Ir­ving­dale area of Lin­coln. Both this house and the house below were built by the same builder, on the same block, probably from a mail-order kit.

In contrast to other localities, Four-Square houses in Ne­bras­ka usually do not feature the typical horizontal band between floors nor different siding on the upper story.

The style has its own folksy attraction, however, a particular aesthetic appeal that is hard to describe in strictly architectural terms.

As our chief designer observed:

"It is the jovial, rotund, country grandma of houses: broad, squat, and plain, with neither style nor pretension but with limitless warmth and comfort.

No house says 'welcome home' like the wide, smiling front porch of the classic Amer­i­can Four-Square."

It is also one of the most Amer­i­can of house styles.

With the exception of our northern neighbor, Canada, where the style is almost as popular, no other country has Four-squares in any significant number.

Characteristics

It is without question a "folk" house, utterly devoid of affectation of any kind. A spacious two-story dwelling with a low-pitched, hipped roof and wide, overhanging eaves, its square or nearly square footprint is perfect for making the most efficient use of city lots.

Simple, symmetrical Four-Square homes were less costly to build than earlier, more complicated designs with protruding wings and complex rooflines.

The efficient interior layout used the least amount of material for walls, and the symmetrical hip roof simplified and sped construction.

Its Midwest origins are evident in its features. It is designed for the vagaries and extremes of the quickly changing weather of the Amer­i­can Prairie.

Its low-rise hip roof collects snow, a natural insulation in the winter, and its wide eaves protect the house from blistering summer suns and driving rains for which the Great Plains are justly famous.

Typically, each floor contains four rooms, one neatly tucked into each corner. Arranging each floor in quadrants eliminated the need for long hallways and made the most efficient use of interior space.

On the first floor, an entry foyer, living room, dining room, and kitchen divide the space. Upstairs, three bedrooms and a bath surround a small foyer at the top of the stairs.

The houses are very efficient to heat and cool, often designed so that the upstairs and downstairs are distinct climate zones separated by a door at the top or bottom of the stairs. The downstairs was heated by day, and the bedrooms at night.

First-floor registers were often designed not to close off heat but to redirect it to the second floor.

Lavish use of double-hung windows – often as many as 30 windows – made it possible to completely ventilate the house on cool summer evenings for sleeping comfort, eliminating the need for the sleeping porch common in many Victorian house designs.

Japs Fire-Bomb
Omaha's Dundee
Neighborhood
Several Dogs Startled

August 18, 1945

An incendiary bomb attached to a paper balloon that had floated across the Pa­ci­fic and halfway across the Un­it­ed States in a jet stream exploded above the corner of 50th and Un­der­wood in Oma­ha's Dun­dee neighborhood with a loud bang and bright flash. It did no damage but woke up most of the neighborhood and set dogs to howling for miles around.

The incendiary bomb was attached to a large hy­dro­gen-filled balloon set adrift across the Pacific as part of a Japanese army plan to set West Coast cities ablaze.

Japan launched more than 9,000 balloons between November 1944 and April 1945. The 5,000-mile journey took about three days.

Most did no harm. Only a few reached North Amer­i­ca and most of those fell harmlessly in western forests and on empty prairie.

Many failed to explode such as the bomb found in Schuy­ler, Ne­bras­ka in February 1945 and another in Laurens, Iowa.

Americans were asked to keep quiet about the bombs to deny the Japanese army any information about their range or effectiveness.

The Omaha bombing came three days after Japan had already announced its surrender on August, 15. The formal peace accord was signed on September 9, 1945, in Tokyo Bay aboard the battleship U.S.S. Missouri.

Two weeks after the Dundee explosion, a pregnant woman and five children on a Sunday school picnic were killed in Oregon by a bomb they found lying on the forest floor.

Theirs were the only known deaths caused by the bombs and the only deaths attributed to enemy action in the continental United States since the Amer­i­can Civil War of 1861-1865.

Exterior Finishes

Four-squares were built with a variety of exterior finishes, including brick and narrow-strip wood clapboard siding. A few feature shingle siding or stucco but these are relatively rare in Ne­bras­ka. Brick and stone facings, while uncommon elsewhere, are fairly usual here.

The second story was often finished in a different siding than the first - shingles over clapboard, for example. A wood band usually separated the two treatments.

It often had front and sometimes side dormers in its pyramid-shaped hip roof.

Its entrance was the focal point of the front facade, distinguished by a large oak door, often with sidelites.

Interior and exterior spaces of these houses were typically linked by a full-width front porch with massive, and very distinctive, pillars supporting the porch roof.

Popularity

Large tracts of Four-Square homes were built and still exist in older Lin­coln neighborhoods, particularly in the old "streetcar suburbs" in the Near South, Ir­ving­dale, Count­ry Club, Beth­any, Col­lege View, Uni­vers­ity Place, and Have­lock; but the design was nearly universal and can be found in remote farmhouses as well as in the urban core of nearly all Neb­ras­ka cities.

Omaha has several Arts & Crafts neighborhoods including our favorite, Dundee, which houses the Happy Hollow Historical District.

The Four-Square was a popular mail-order ready-cut kit house style along with the Craftsman bungalow.

Sears alone offered a dozen different kits and other manufacturers as many as twenty. It arrived crated in a boxcar with a "free", step-by-step, instruction manual and all the parts pre-cut and numbered for "easy assembly" (uh-huh!).

Revival Styles

Colonial home styles never really die out in Amer­i­ca. They wax and wane in popularity, but never entirely disappear. Waves of revivals have swept the nation from time to time.

The first followed the Cent­en­nial Exhib­ition of 1876 in Phila­delphia celebrating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Dec­lara­tion of In­de­pen­dence.

The years following the exhibition saw a rekindled interest in all things Colonial and a rebirth of Colonial architecture and decorative motifs in the middle of the high-Vic­tor­ian era, particularly in New England and the Mid-At­lan­tic States.

The relative simplicity of the architecture was a stark contrast to the elaborate themes of late Vic­tor­ian architecture.

The Arts & Crafts period saw its own, more modest, revival that resurrected symmetrical Colonial floor plans with both classical and colonial decorative motifs.

Federal architecture, with its trademark Palladian window, is one common example of this style.

Tudor designs with exteriors incorporating exposed beams, thatch or shingle roofs, and rough-hewn, primitive stonework is another. Tudor styles survived the Arts & Crafts period, lasting well into the post-war building boom of the 1950s and '60s as a variation on the ubiquitous Cape Cod house.

Colonial houses built during the actual Colonial period rarely included elaborate exterior decoration.

Most of today's Colonial design motifs actually originated during the Vic­tor­ian Era when architects looking for simpler schemes for revival exteriors freely adapted classical Greek and Roman design elements that included columns and arches.

These, then, became the "Col­on­ial" style.

Col­oni­al interiors of the Arts & Crafts period were similar to but more restrained than those of the Vic­tor­ian Era, closely following the period's emphasis on craftsmanship and the use of high-quality materials rather than applied decoration.

Ready-cut Houses

By 1910 a growing number of companies offered pre-fabricated (or what were then called "ready-cut" houses), shipped by rail.

Do You Own A Mail Order House?

Thousands of houses during the Arts & Crafts period were built from pre-cut kits manu­fac­tured by Sears, Roe­buck & Co., Alad­din, and other ready-cut kit makers.

Kits weighed about 25 tons, included a detailed assembly manual, extensive blueprints, and 10-30,000 individual pieces.

Sears sold them from 1908 to 1940. It offered 447 architect-designed models.

Most were priced from about $725 to $2,500, although some larger models like the Verona two-story Dutch Col­on­ial that included almost every amenity, even flower boxes under the windows, sold for more than $4,000.

Sears sold over 70,000 kit homes before the program was discontinued.

So many mail-order kit homes were built in Ne­bras­ka that the odds a pretty good that your pre-1940 home is a kit house.

If so, congratulations are in order. You own one of the best-designed and -built homes in Amer­i­ca. Here are some clues to look for.

  1. Look in your attic, basement, garage, and crawlspace for blueprints, shipping documents, or the assembly manual. These were often tucked in out-of-the-way places. The documents will reveal the name of the company that made the kit, and the model number.
  2. Compare the front and side views of your house with published plans and illustrations. Look at the overall configuration, roof style, type of porch, and placement of the front door and chimneys. These are unlikely to have been modified. Windows, on the other hand, were sometimes moved around or omitted, so they are of less help.
  3. Compare your floor plan to similar plans in pattern books and mail-order catalog illustrations. Keep in mind that rooms may have been added since the house was built, and porches may have been enclosed.

Lumber Marks

  1. Look for stenciled markings on floor joists and rafters in the attic or basement where they are exposed. Companies marked their lumber differently, so the type of marking can tell you who made the kit.
  2. Sears used a code number system to mark lumber. Each piece was marked with a letter and number for each size of board, so all boards of the same size would bear the same code number. Aladdin marked its lumber according to where it was to be used. (For more on Sears marks, see Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Marked Lumber).
  3. Look at original mortgage or purchase papers, building permits, and utility company records for clues as to the origin of the house.
  4. Don't forget newspaper archives. Many communities required building permits and land sales to be published. Look for articles about new home construction, especially if it mentions that the home is a Redy-Cut kit home. The quality of Sears and Aladdin homes was such that builders often built the kits on spec, knowing there would be considerable interest in the home simply due to the reputation of the company.
  5. If you have a local historical society or association devoted to the preservation of period homes, they often have considerable research material and experts who can authoritatively determine whether your home is a kit.
The nice people at Antique Home Style have put together a handy index of ready-cut house plans from the major manufacturers, including Sears. Will­iam Rad­ford, Wards, Lew­is Man­u­fact­ur­ing, and others. Well worth a look.

Kit homes were a giant step up in affordable homebuilding.

They were "assembled" on-site by the owners or local builders from lumber already cut to the correct size at the manufacturer's mill.

Everything from nails to millwork, even paint, was shipped on pallets to the nearest rail terminal, then trucked to the building site, in the early days by horse- or mule-drawn wagons.

Lumber and trim, pre-assembled doors, windows, and moldings, even cabinets were carefully numbered to match the plan books that guided assembly.

It made construction faster, and therefore less costly, although the common claim that a ready-cut house replaced 10 carpenters was probably an exaggeration.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. began selling its "Modern Homes" from a catalog in 1909 and others soon followed – Mont­gom­ery Ward (Ward­way Ready-Cut Homes), Alad­din Homes ("Re­di-cut" Houses), and Gor­don-Van Tine Com­pany also offered extensive lines of kit homes.

The cost of a typical bungalow kit in 1915 was about $600.00 (about $18,000 in inflated current dollars).

Most of the companies selling kit houses self-financed the mortgage used to buy the kits, and much of the profit from selling kit homes was not in the price of the home, but in the profit from the mortgage interest. This helped keet kit prices affordable.

Due in part to the widespread availability of plan books and ready-cut kits, Bungalows, like Four-squares were seldom built with the assistance of an architect.

A builder got comfortable with a certain style and floor plan and built the same house with minor variations in detail over and over again – often on the same block.

For more information on how most pre-war Amer­i­can homes were built see A Brief History of Homebuilding.)

Many builders specialized in building kit houses and built nothing but.

The reputation of ready-cut houses for quality was such that the fact that a house was a ready-cut kit was a strong selling point.

Buyers sought them out, and builders advertised the ready-cut origin of the houses as proof of their quality.

The fact that they were often offered at 20% or more below comparable site-built houses was also a strong buyer inducement.

Arts & Crafts Interiors

The Arts & Crafts period produced the first truly comfortable houses that regular people could afford.

They were well-lighted, ventilated, heated, and pleasantly decorated, with the ultimate convenience of indoor plumbing.

The paradox of the period is that this level of modern comfort was made possible by the very thing that Arts & Crafts idealists despised – industrial mass production.

The virtues of village living where skilled artisans created beautiful things in small, human scale, craft shops using hand tools and traditional methods of one-of-a-kind manufacture might have been the heart of the Arts & Crafts philosophy.

However, these notions, appealing as they might have been intellectually, were already woefully outdated and wildly impractical even as the Arts & Crafts movement began in the late 1800s… (Continues)


Footnotes:

1. The Arts & Crafts period started in England around 1860 and had crossed to the United States by 1880. By the time the movement reached its peak of influence in the United States, around 1910, it was already dying out in England and most of Europe. In the U.S., its impact on architecture and design continued until it began tapering off in the early 1930s. By the eve of the World War, it was already being supplanted by several modernist schools that heavily influenced Post-War architecture.

2. Dixie Legler, Prairie-style: Houses and Gardens by F. L. Wright, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1999.

3. The publishers of the Old House Journal have generously given permission for Google to catalog and reproduce back issues in the Google Books collection. Browse the collection starting here. If you are an old house owner but not an Old House Journal reader, you are missing out on a wealth of valuable information. To subscribe, go here, and welcome to the Old House community.

Rev. 02/10/24