Town touting trove of Sears catalog homes Do-it-yourself: Dreamers in Downers Grove, Ill., envision flocks of tourists trekking to the small city near Chicago to tour its Sears, Roebuck and Co. mail-order houses.


DOWNERS GROVE, Ill. -- Let Oak Park have Frank Lloyd Wright -- this Chicago suburb has Richard Sears.

As tourists flock to Oak Park, Ill., where Wright designed 25 homes, so dreamers in Downers Grove envision busloads of visitors making pilgrimages to this town just west of Chicago to see 100 or so of the build-it-yourself homes the Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold through the mail early in the century.

Lisa Wisner, director of the Downers Grove Visitors Bureau, doesn't exactly claim the title "Sears Home Capital of the World" for her town, but she wants the world to know about the association.

From 1908 to 1940, Sears -- through its catalog -- sold 100,000 houses in 450 different models. The precut parts of each house were shipped in boxcars, complete with lumber, shingles, doors, windows, plumbing and a 76-page instruction manual. Anyone with a hammer, a level and a little dexterity could put one together.

Then you lived in it. Only recently has a surge of interest in the history of family homes turned mail-order houses into historical treasures.

Downers Grove claims to have about 120 identified Sears homes, but local experts on the subject say there are at least 200 and maybe as many as 300. The town is mounting an exhibit at the town museum, hiring a real-estate appraiser to inventory every Sears home in town, and planning events to spread the word.

The town used to be the end of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, and a large train yard here made it easy for residents to unload the home parts from boxcars and haul them short distances to their lots. It took seven to 10 days to unload a boxcar, and few towns had enough yard space to house them for that long.

Sears offered a range of homes, from the Goldenrod bungalow that sold for $146.25 to the top-of-the-line Magnolia, a 10-room mansion with Corinthian columns and servants' quarters, all for $5,140. Many of the homes featured arched doors, multipaned windows, and built-in cabinets and phone hutches. Today, the houses sell for as much as $300,000.

'It's got a lot of charm,' Anne-Marie Dobransky, 36, says of her Brookwood model, which was built in 1930 and had a list price of $1,328. 'The flow of the house and the size of the rooms still lends itself to modern American living.'

When she and her husband moved into their house in 1994, they discovered writing on some of the walls. They peeled off the wallpaper and found that the previous owners had used the walls as a time capsule.

'There were sketches of their gowns, their cars,' Dobransky says. 'They had made a list of the headlines at the time, what the price of bread was, the names of the people who lived there.'

That sense of history and connection with the past is part of the allure Sears homes have for young home buyers today. About 50 of them came together at the Downers Grove Museum recently to celebrate their homes and swap tales of how they discovered their homes' Sears-kit provenance.

Ken and Faith Wolf bought their Ivanhoe model in 1990 from the granddaughter of the first owner. They have the original paperwork and receipts, which show that the owner paid $2,756 for the house in 1915. When they put the house on the market a few years ago, people would come in and spend two or three hours inspecting every nook and cranny -- not because they were interested in buying, Ken Wolf says, but just because they found the house so fascinating.

'It needs a lot of work, but it's really a beautiful house,' says Faith Wolf, 39. 'It has so much character and personality.'

Though Sears homeowners are a proud group now, some of them were once a little sheepish about their homes' background. Local Sears-home spotter Bob Jensen, 68, a retired home remodeler, says that when he started telling people about their homes, they would "look down their nose at me, because they think Sears is cheap. They didn't want to accept the fact. But Sears builds a fantastic product."

Indeed, when Art and Jane Langland first heard that the house they were buying was from a Sears catalog, they had concerns about the integrity of the house. 'When we heard it was a kit home, that didn't sound too good,' says Art, 47. But he and his wife quickly fell in love with the 1921 Marina model, and they say it's the most solid home they've ever owned.

Downers Grove hopes to reap a financial windfall from its mail-order homes. Last weekend, Jensen led three trolley tours of the town's Sears homes, at $5 a person. Wisner, of the visitors bureau, is developing a self-guided walking tour with headphones.

The town also will market itself to motor-coach tours. Plans call for a guide hired by Downers Grove to board each coach and narrate an hour-long tour of the homes. More ideas are circulating, including a 5-kilometer run through the neighborhoods with the homes. Wisner says her ultimate goal is to open a Sears museum in a Sears home.

James Chapa, a real-estate appraiser whose business card identifies him as Downers Grove's 'Sears home researcher,' will spend the next year driving the town's streets. His mission: to verify, catalog and inventory every Sears home in town.

'The response to Sears houses is tremendous,' Chapa says. Attendance at the museum has skyrocketed since the exhibit on the homes opened in January. 'People are always fascinated with historic properties in general," he says. "And these are historic properties for everybody.'

The corporate view at Sears, whose headquarters is in nearby Hoffman Estates, comes from company historian Sherie Mascola. She says that Sears is pleased that its homes are a marketable asset for towns, but it won't be anointing any one town the Sears Home Capital.

For one thing, it is difficult to validate Sears homes. The company does not have any records of whom it sold the homes to or where they were built. Other companies, including Montgomery Ward and Aladdin Readi-Cut Homes, also sold mail-order homes similar to the Sears models.

Still, it pleases her, Mascola says, that 'Everybody wants to be the Sears Home Capital.'

In fact, one small town in downstate Illinois has been calling itself that for years. Carlinville, about 45 miles northeast of St. Louis, has 156 Sears Catalog Homes built by Standard Oil Co. for its workers in 1917. Standard's order was the largest ever received by Sears, though only eight models were represented, while Downers Grove claims to have 60 to 70 different models.

The administrator of Carlinville's Chamber of Commerce, JuDee Lair, says that the title of Sears Home Capital is important to tourism in the town of 5,500. Carlinville residents feel secure in their status and are not threatened by Downers Grove's bid to supersede them, she says.

In Downers Grove, Wisner is diplomatic. 'I don't think anyone is in competition,' she says. Then she adds, 'When people think of Sears homes, we want them to think of Downers Grove.'

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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