Today, there are likely hundreds of these homes standing side-by-side with their conventional counterparts throughout Northeast Ohio. They blend in so well with the residences around them that most people — even the people who live in them — have no idea that they were ordered from Sears, Roebuck and Co. and arrived in a box.
The homes are, in a way, lost.
Sears first got into the mail-order housing business in 1908. By 1940, it quit selling homes, mostly due to the recession and all the people who defaulted on their Sears home loans. During those years, Sears sold about 75,000 homes. The simplest of them didn’t even have indoor plumbing and were little more than one-room cottages.
The nicest of them were magnificent.
When Mary and Leroy Contie of Canton leafed through the Sears catalog in the early 1920s, they weren’t interested in an ordinary Cape Cod or Queen Anne. They chose the most elaborate of the 370 models offered by Sears — the Magnolia, a Southern-style beauty with columns and a sprawling front porch. “There can be no question of its imposing appearance, graceful lines and other attractive features,” stated the catalog.
It also cost more than twice as much as a typical model: about $7,000, its extras taking it beyond the catalog price of $5,140 to $5,972.
The house was equally elegant on the inside. It still is.
Current owner Mary Cirelli invites us in to take a look. The home has the same sturdy-yet-graceful feeling as any well-built dwelling of that era. The French doors in the dining room open onto a pretty, square porch. An antique chandelier hangs above the table. The men smoked in the large living room, with a fireplace and built-in bookshelves. It leads to a sunroom with windows on three sides. Cirelli spends most of her time in yet another living space in the back of the house — a cozy den with a television and desk.
There are two staircases — the grand one in the foyer and the one tucked behind the kitchen that leads to the maid’s quarters, which has its own bath. Additionally, there’s a full bath near the three “family” bedrooms (one of which has a sleeping porch) and a powder room on the main floor.
Once the Conties chose the Magnolia, they had to put down a $1 deposit. Many people who ordered Sears homes did so through the mail. aBut it would have been easy for the Conties to place their order in person at the Sears Modern Homes sales office in Akron, the first such office to open in the country in 1919. Not only did Ohio have more sales offices than any other state (14), it’s also likely it had more Sears homes, according to Rosemary Thornton, who wrote two books on the subject, including “The Houses That Sears Built.” (The company discarded actual sales records long ago.)
About a month later, the Conties’ house arrived via train. Most Sears homes fit in one boxcar, but the spacious Magnolia probably required two. The Conties had 48 hours to unload their box car with 30,000-plus pieces, including lumber, shingles, windows, doors, heating and electrical supplies, 27 gallons of paint and a 75-page instruction book with the homeowner’s name embossed in gold on the cover. There were 750 pounds of nails. The only items not included were the bricks, cement and plaster.
About half of the people who ordered Sears homes put them together themselves, according to Thornton. The catalog promised that the average person could do the work in about 90 days, a sign of just how much the “average person” has changed. “I’m sad to say I don’t think anything like this can be done today,” Thornton says. “I just don’t think the masses would have the nerve.”
The Conties hired someone. But because of the house’s size, the job was complex, even for a professional. When their contractor needed a particular piece of wood, he had to search through stacks of materials to find it. “Sometimes it took as long to find the right piece as it would have taken to cut it,” the builder lamented, according to papers saved on the origin of the home by Cirelli.
Certainly, the Magnolia was not a typical Sears home. But it still bore the stigma of one. Thornton — who lives in Virginia, but has visited Northeast Ohio to lecture on and visit Sears homes — attributes it to the fact that catalog homes were not custom-designed by architects. They were, in effect, the earliest mass-produced homes.
Architects, who were obviously losing business, attacked Sears homes as “a violent architectural epidemic” that would eventually “give the dominant architectural tone to entire neighborhoods and indeed, to the country at large.”
They had a point. While the Magnolia is certainly a lovely home, it’s basically a four-square with fancy pillars on front. Sears homes were “watered down versions” of pure architectural styles, explains local Sears home aficionado Kerrington Adams of the Cleveland Restoration Society. So while the Magnolia borrows from early Georgian Revival influences, it’s really just an architectural hodgepodge, like all Sears homes (and like most new, mass-produced homes today).
But Sears fought back, lobbying against architects in its catalogs. “This elegant book will convey more ideas to you in five minutes than an architect would in a year,” the 1908 catalog boasted. And, just like looking on the Internet for house plans today, it was a lot cheaper.
Not everyone was persuaded. Thornton, who often drives around a community looking for Sears homes, thought she found one in Virginia. When she knocked on the door to tell the homeowner, an elderly lady, she was “highly offended,” remembers Thornton. “There were people who considered it to be a house of lesser reputation,” she says.
The criticism illuminated a class divide. For many people, a Sears home was a practical solution. They wanted their own home, and Sears allowed them to have it — at a reasonable price. But there were also people paying for architect-designed homes in Shaker Heights, Cleveland and Lakewood. And those were the kinds of people who looked down on Sears homes.
“They were considered common,” says Steve Ludeke, who owns the Ardara model in Cleveland Heights. “Not quite vulgar, but common. Only a commoner would get a catalog house.” Sears was like the Wal-Mart of today, he adds.
Mary Contie, whose husband was an architect before he became an attorney, surely recognized the distinction, but admired her Magnolia nonetheless. She always spoke fondly of the home, even decades after she’d left it, according to Janice Contie, her daughter-in-law. Mary always loved nice things — elegant draperies, Oriental rugs, quality furniture. The house was beautiful, too.
What Mary left out of her reminisces about the home was that it came in a box. In fact, she never even told her son, who spent the early years of his life there. Leroy Jr. found out only after his mother died. “It was like she was ashamed of it being a Sears home,” says Janice, 86. “It was like it just wasn’t ...” the thought trails off as she searches for the right word.
At any rate, about 10 years after the Conties moved into their Sears home, they moved out — to a house that they built on an empty lot right next door. It was not a Sears home.
“Now,” Janice points out, the Magnolia they left is “a prominent house.”
That’s true, but it took decades. After the initial excitement about and criticism of Sears homes, they were largely forgotten. There were wars and recessions. Homes changed hands, people died, history was lost. Today, Thornton guesses that only 10 percent of all Sears homes have been identified. Adams’ list of Sears homes that have been found in Northeast Ohio has fewer than a dozen addresses on it.
Now, 100 years after the first Sears catalog offering homes came out, the hunt is on. Thornton says she gets calls and e-mails from homeowners all over, hoping she will authenticate their Sears home. One man who attended a lecture she gavein Chicago claimed that proving he lived in a Sears home would increase its value by about $10,000.
Partially, that’s because there’s a kitschy lore surrounding them; they’ve become coveted pieces of Americana. Also, their incredible quality has made the homes last long enough to enjoy their renaissance.
Sears homes were often better built than other houses of their day, according to Thornton. The lumber sent by Sears was from old-growth trees. “Just the density of it,” she says —“Try to drive a nail through it. In many cases, you can’t.”
“The quality on the houses are great,” adds Ludeke, the Cleveland Heights Sears homeowner. “All the windows are still working after 80 some years. The quality of the materials is very high. The floors are very even for an almost 90-year-old house. Little things like that.”
But, while nobody questions the sturdiness of a Sears homes, most families today don’t find them exactly modern. The Macfarlanes own a Princeville in Bay Village (see sidebar). It met their needs — until they had twins, at which point they added on. Before the project, they had one bathroom.
“One bath is misery by today’s standards,” Thornton quips. “I think the biggest thing is that our lifestyles have changed so the typical person with two children and 4.8 billion toys will not find a Sears home livable.”
For Mary Cirelli in her huge colonial Magnolia, it’s more than enough space, even though she’s filled every inch with pictures and pretty things. (She uses one room, the former maid’s quarters, as a “memory room,” full of photos, mementoes and gifts. We leave with a Slovak cookbook.)
Cirelli first noticed the house in the early ’80s when she was out campaigning for City Council (she’s still a member). It was falling apart, literally, as part of the roof had collapsed. Still, its potential was evident. She wanted the home.
It took a tragedy for her to get it. Her second husband, who died four years ago, thought the house would help lift her spirits after her son was killed in a car accident. It was for sale, and they bought it.
Cirelli has tried to track down other Magnolias, but has found only two. She and her late husband visited one, located in South Bend, Ind., years ago, but found it had been severely modified. The owners had taken off the front and back balconies and put Mediterranean-style decorative wrought iron over some of the windows. They’d also covered the home in aluminum siding. Thornton says she’s heard of a Magnolia in Alabama, but it’s falling apart. There’s also a variation of one, made of brick, in Pennsylvania.
All of which means that the house Mary and Leroy Contie ordered from a catalog is most likely the nicest remaining example of the finest home ever produced by Sears.
Cirelli, who saves all of the information she can find on the home, is proud that she lives in a Sears home. But she was taken with the home and its fluted columns long before she knew its background.
“This house is you, Mary,” people tell her. And she agrees.
Location: Lake Road in Bay Village
Current owners: Lena and Ted Macfarlane
Catalog price: $810 to $1,794
Catalog boasts: A “dandy” Arts and Crafts bungalow with good-sized closets and “thoroughly ventilated” bedrooms.
Inner beauty: Stained glass windows, a staircase landing with a corner window seat
Kid crunch: When their twin boys were born in 2004, the Macfarlanes needed more space. A new master bedroom, family room, mudroom and attached garage were added, using the same thick trim and Arts and Crafts styling as the rest of the home. “When we lived here before kids,” notes Ted, “it was totally adequate.”
Location: Cleveland Heights
Current owner: Kathleen Cooey
Year built: 1929
Catalog price: $827 to $2,150
Catalog boasts: A bungalow that “bespeaks richness and comfort”
Longtime love: Cooey, who grew up just down the street, always had an eye for the house. When she moved back to Cleveland from college to take a teaching job, it was for sale. “I got so lucky,” she says.
Don’t anger the Argyle: Only once during Cleveland Magazine’s visit does Cooey criticize the house. But, as she is describing her problem with the garage door, a framed picture of the house falls over on the bookshelf, knocking another picture frame to the floor and breaking it.
Current owners: Cindy and John Konscak
Year built: 1920s
Catalog price: $858 to $2,391
Catalog boasts: “A popular, inexpensive and graceful bungalow,” the Elsmore has five rooms and one bath.
Style: Arts and Crafts
Built-in charm: The dining room is the owners’ favorite space. It has a bay window with built-in cabinets on either side.
Surprise: The Konscaks didn’t find out the house was a Sears home until after they’d signed the purchase agreement. They had no idea that Sears had sold home kits and were “fascinated and excited” to find out more.
Location: East Erie Avenue in Lorain
Current owners: Loretta and Dr. Donald Lehocz
Year built: Around 1926
Catalog price: $2,461 to $4,347
Catalog boasts:“A high-class home of the Dutch type of colonial architecture.” This home “always satisfies the owner and is adored by everyone in his locality.”
Mystery solved: When she bought the house in 1985, Loretta had no idea it was a Sears product, but she knew there was something special about it. “Whoever built this house really knew what they were doing,” she’d say. “They thought of everything.”
Specifically ... Loretta appreciates the clothes chute, built-in ironing board and upstairs mirrored closet doors that fold out to form the kind of three-sided mirror found in clothing stores.
Location: The Ridgewood neighborhood of Canton
Current owner: Mary Cirelli
Year built: 1922 or 1923
Catalog price: $5,140 to $5,972
Catalog boasts: “Leading architectural authorities declare that this type will continue to win favor for hundreds of years.”
Familiar facade: The Magnolia is modeled after the famous home in Cambridge, Mass., where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed many of his poems and where George Washington was based during part of the Revolutionary War.
That’s fitting: Because Cirelli, a Canton councilwoman, is about as patriotic as you get. “I’m a coal miner’s daughter, and I was born on the Fourth of July,” she is fond of saying.