Priced to Move

A plumber built this house in the Palisades neighborhood in 1925 from a kit he purchased from a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007

A do-it-yourself Craftsman-style Sears kit house, painstakingly assembled in 1925 by its owner, is up for grabs in Northwest Washington -- not for a price but simply for the taking.

The two-story house, assessed by the District tax office at $813,950, has been boarded up for more than a decade and hardly looks like the showplace depicted in old Sears catalogue drawings. A plumber named Jesse Baltimore put it together -- all 10,000 parts -- with the help of a 77-page Sears, Roebuck and Co. instruction book. He was among thousands of people across the nation who bought the company's house kits decades ago.

Neighbors advocating demolition declared the house an eyesore years ago. But preservationists hailed it as an important symbol of how Washington's working-class neighborhoods developed after World War I. The preservationists wanted to keep the house right where it sits in the Palisades neighborhood.

Now the city, which has jurisdiction over the structure, is putting the issue to rest. The D.C. Parks and Recreation Department is seeking bids from anyone who has the means to move the house -- a project that experts estimate could easily cost $150,000 -- and a vacant plot of land on which to put it. The solicitation ends Nov. 5, after which the city will turn over the house to the winning bidder.

If there is no successful proposal, the District's acting parks director, Clark Ray, said the city is poised to demolish the 1,940-square-foot frame structure. Razing would be allowed under an agreement signed by the National Park Service, which owns the land on which the house is located.

That, preservationists contend, makes the bid solicitation process a sham.

"The cost to move it and the cost of land in D.C. . . . makes this not very plausible," said Rosemary Thornton, author of "The Houses That Sears Built" and "Finding the Houses That Sears Built." "I would say this is the architectural equivalent of giving somebody a dose of morphine. It may feel good, but it's really just a palliative measure. It doesn't solve the problem."

The city's move to find a taker for the house, at 5136 Sherier Pl. NW, was triggered by the refusal of the District Historic Preservation Review Board to declare the structure a historic landmark. The board voted 6 to 3 on Sept. 27 to reject landmark status for it. Board Chairman Tersh Boasberg said that selecting several examples of architecturally intact Sears catalogue houses in D.C. might make a case for a multiple nomination of similar buildings for landmark status. "Randomly picking one . . . doesn't rise to the level of landmark," he said. "It wasn't unique."

Such status had been sought by Historic Washington Architecture Inc., a group headed by Mary Rowse. Her research into local catalogue houses turned into a passionate drive to save the Jesse Baltimore house when she learned in 2002 of a move to knock down the structure. The Palisades Recreation Center Advisory Board had approved a resolution urging the city to demolish the house as part of a master plan to improve Palisades Park. The entrance to the park is partially obscured by the house.

The controversy pitted preservationists against park proponents and neighbor against neighbor in recent years, turning such community events as the annual Palisades July 4th parade into political showdowns. For several summers, Rowse and her supporters, including members of the Palisades' Advisory Neighborhood Commission, collected signatures at the parade urging the house be designated a historic site. Meanwhile, park proponents demonstrated, wearing T-shirts and carrying red signs declaring: "Finish the Job: Remove the House."

The house has been vacant, weathering the elements, for almost 15 years, since a stint as a city-run group home and a half-way house. The District was given jurisdiction of it in 1971 by the National Park Service, which bought it from Jesse Baltimore in 1958. Prior to that, it was the Baltimore family's home.

Rowse's research showed that Baltimore built the house in three months in 1925 after ordering a $2,294 kit from a Sears homes catalogue. He had bought land in the Palisades because property far from the city center was more affordable and because the trolley line, which ran right behind his house, allowed him to commute to his job downtown, Rowse said.

"The Jesse Baltimore House is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of development in the District of Columbia," Rowse said in a statement to the city's Historic Preservation Review Board. Even more importantly, she said, the house is the best and most architecturally intact example of a documented Sears "foursquare" house in the District.

There are fewer than three dozen documented Sears houses in the Palisades and an estimated 300 in the city, said Rowse. About 90 percent of the estimated 75,000 Sears houses sold across the country still stand, according to Thornton, who supported the preservation effort.

Rowse and her supporters, including land use attorney Richard Nettler, wanted not only to preserve the house but for the National Park Service to take back jurisdiction and sell it to a private owner who would be required to restore the house on-site.

Moving houses is an expensive but not uncommon exercise, said Howard Decker, an architect and former chief curator of the National Building Museum. In the case of a Sears house, he said, it would be worthwhile.

"A Sears house has real historic value and historic significance," Decker said. "Underneath all the wrapper, there are some skin and bones that have fair historic value."

Jimmy Ervin, chairman of both the Palisades Recreation Center Advisory Council and the Friends of Palisades Park, said the groups hope that "somebody can step up and move the house to a lot, if it truly does have value."

"We're as interested in preserving the character as anyone in the community," Ervin said. "It's just unfortunate that that house sits right at the opening of a park."

Whether the house is moved or demolished, Ervin said the groups are ready to work with D.C. parks officials to design an attractive street-front entrance to the park that would include green space, landscaping, perhaps a small gazebo, some benches and the redesign of the parking lot.

"We're anxious to get back to work and look at the plans," Ervin said. "I applaud the desire to preserve, but we felt this issue was hijacked a little bit from us."

Given the preservation board's decision, Ervin said he hopes the controversy surrounding the house and divisiveness within the neighborhood fades away.

"Hopefully, this puts it to bed for a lot of people," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company