D.C., Spare This House

The D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation wants to spend $100,000 in taxpayer funds to tear down the Jesse Baltimore house, a 1925 Sears, Roebuck & Co. "kit" house at 5136 Sherier Place NW. This is a structurally sound, publicly owned property, valued at $525,000 by the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue and worth over $700,000 on the open market.

After tearing it down, the department wants to create what it describes as "well landscaped passive space" at the driveway entrance to the 14-acre Palisades Recreation Center.

Too small and close to the street to be used as a playing field, and buffered from the rest of the park by a parking lot and the old trolley right-of-way, the lot upon which this house sits would offer nothing of benefit to the park if the house were gone, and everything of benefit to the park and the community if kept intact and sold to a private buyer.

For nearly 80 years, the Jesse Baltimore house has been a fixture on Sherier Place, a historic road that figured prominently in the Palisades' development as a streetcar suburb in the 1890s. While old railroad suburbs like Garrett Park and Kensington developed in the 1880s around rail stations, streetcar suburbs like the Palisades developed in continuous, rectilinear corridors along the trolley stops, attracting working and middle-class people who found the cost of land and transportation to and from downtown affordable. For the first time, land miles away from the center of town was accessible for housing.

Had the trolley not been built along Sherier Place, Jesse Baltimore might not have constructed his Sears "Honor Bilt" kit house there, next to Stop No. 15, where he regularly boarded on his trips to plumbing jobs downtown.

Jesse Robert Baltimore was in many ways the prototype of the Sears Modern Homes customer: a man with building skills who wanted the best possible home for his family. He migrated from the rural South for the expanding economy of World War I-era Washington and most likely ordered the $2,300 model when he visited the Sears sales office at 10th and G streets NW in the mid-1920s.

He and his brother George Lewis Baltimore carefully built this architect-designed, high-quality American foursquare, Fullerton model in the summer of 1925, using Sears's 75-page instruction book to assemble the 30,000 individually numbered parts that were shipped in two boxcars to a local train depot.

The Jesse Baltimore house survives today with virtually intact original exterior features as the only authentic Sears Fullerton model in the Palisades and the best-preserved example of only five remaining Fullertons in the city. The history of this specific house and of Jesse Robert Baltimore can be traced through recollections and vintage photographs from the Baltimore family at www.lostlandmarks.org/jbhouse.html.

In 1958 the Baltimore family sold the home to the National Park Service, which rented it out until it gave jurisdiction of the property -- but not ownership -- to the city in 1971. The D.C. government subsequently rented the house to a succession of tenants, but has left the property vacant for more than 10 years.

After working for over two years to save the house through other means, Historic Washington Architecture Inc. asked the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board to enter the Jesse Baltimore house into the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites and onto the National Register of Historic Places. The landmark nomination was filed on March 22, just 24 hours before the city filed its raze permit. This action has served to protect the house from demolition until the case can be heard before the Review Board.

The Jesse Baltimore house is a marvelous example of the kit house phenomenon that permitted so many people in Washington and across the nation to build and own their homes in the early part of the 20th century. We hope the board will designate this historically significant home as a D.C. landmark and that the city will return jurisdiction of it to the National Park Service, so that the Park Service may sell it on the open market with an exterior preservation easement.

Real estate values in the Palisades have skyrocketed in recent years, especially on Sherier Place, where the average house sells for $900,000 -- $100,000 more than elsewhere in the neighborhood. There's no question the house would attract many interested buyers since Sears offered a quality of craftsmanship and design that today makes their homes distinctive and highly sought-after.

Mary E. Rowse

President and founder

Historic Washington

Architecture Inc.

At left, a view of a Sears Fullerton kit house that city parks officials are proposing to raze. Above, the model as shown in a 1926 catalogue. Only five of the houses are left in Washington.