The kit house on Sherier Place was, by definition, not unique. The plans and materials were ordered from a Sears catalogue, and a plumber named Jesse Baltimore put the pieces together in 1926 near the trolley line that ran through the Palisades.
Now the house -- an eyesore after years of abandonment -- sits at the intersection of conflicting pressures: a long-held desire by many residents to remove the structure to increase green space at a park and a growing viewpoint that says modest, working-class houses from the 20th century -- particularly catalogue houses -- should be considered historic and are worth saving.
"It's the 'grandmother's house' theory of historic preservation: We all tend to have an interest in houses two generations past," said Rosemary Thornton, author of "The Houses That Sears Built," one of several books published recently that have helped spur interest in catalogue houses. "A while back, it was the 'painted ladies,' the old Victorian manses, that everyone wanted to save. Now there's an increasing awareness that Sears houses are a very significant part of our history."
The timing of all of this is described as either merciful or exasperating by those with conflicting views of the fate of 5136 Sherier Pl. NW.
The National Park Service bought the house in 1958 and turned it over to the District government for its use in 1971. Under that arrangement, it became a halfway house, a group home and -- for at least the past decade -- an empty, boarded-up blot on the neighborhood landscape.
As part of a master plan to improve a park that sits directly behind the property, some residents with the Palisades Recreation Center Advisory Council advocated tearing down the house to create a welcoming street-front entrance to the park; the entrance now is a driveway beside the house. In spring 2002, the Northwest Current community newspaper ran a photo of the house accompanying a column advocating demolition.
One person who saw the photo was Mary Rowse, a Chevy Chase resident whose 10-year-old hobby of identifying catalogue houses led her to form Historic Washington Architecture Inc. She recognized the house's design from the pages of a reprinted Sears catalogue she had collected. It was the Fullerton, a two-story, six-room house that sold for $2,294 in 1925. And unlike many of the surviving kit houses she'd spotted in the Washington area, this one had few visible alterations.
"I thought, 'Gee, if I tell them it's a Sears house, they'll all want to save it,' " Rowse said.
Instead, the Palisades Citizens Association voted to tear down the house. Tom Ditonto of the 5100 block of Sherier Place said most neighbors agreed that demolition was the most sensible means to achieve the longtime goal of park improvement. Working with the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, a landscape architect was hired, and the house's days seemed numbered.
"We believe we were days away from demolition," said Mark Binsted, chairman of the Palisades Recreation Center Advisory Council.
But Rowse and some like-minded supporters filed an application to try to get the house listed with D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites and subsequently with the National Register of Historic Places, an act that effectively squelched demolition efforts. They want the house sold to a private buyer, with an exterior preservation easement to prevent structural alterations. Preserving the house and improving the park and surrounding neighborhood, Rowse contended, are not mutually exclusive.
Because the land is owned by the federal government, it is first the Park Service's obligation to determine whether the property is historic. Working with the D.C. Historic Preservation Division, the agency has hired a consultant to evaluate the house and is expected to submit a report on its findings this year. It will determine whether the house's historical importance qualifies it for preservation.
"It's somewhat questionable in terms of its historic status," said Lisa Burcham, the District's state historic preservation officer.
Rowse and others with her group said they believe otherwise. They researched the house for their application and believe that its story and that of its original owner vividly illustrate the history of the neighborhood.
Baltimore was a self-made man who raised a family in the house during the 32 years after he ordered it from Sears. He was one of the founders of the community that emerged in the shadow of the trolley line, they said, and it doesn't matter that few current residents have heard of him.
"Jesse Baltimore is not George Washington, and that's the point," said Rachel Thompson, who has lived in the Palisades since 1997 and supports saving the house. "This house, this man, are absolutely representative of the context and spirit of how this neighborhood was built."
And such links to the origins of the community are increasingly rare, say those who want to save the house. Touring the neighborhood, Rowse pointed to an address nearby on Potomac Avenue. The day before, a small bungalow sat on the lot; this day, it's a pile of rubble.
"What's going to go up there?" Rowse asked. "I'll tell you -- something much bigger."
Rowse and many in her corner say that developers are buying small properties -- many of them with kit houses -- and replacing them with large McMansions that they contend ruin the character of the neighborhood. Rowse said that such structurally sound houses as Baltimore's are vanishing at too rapid a pace throughout the city and that they have become somewhat like an endangered species. The history and charm of neighborhoods like the Palisades are vanishing with them, she said.
"Sears houses aren't as common as people think," Rowse said.
She said there are fewer than three dozen documented Sears houses in the Palisades and an estimated 300 or so throughout the city. Thornton said about 90 percent of the estimated 75,000 Sears houses sold across the country still stand.
Those numbers don't strike some Palisades residents as indicative of imminent extinction, just as Baltimore doesn't strike them as a particularly important figure in their neighborhood's history. Binsted, an architect, said that although his neighborhood has many desirable attributes, distinctive architecture isn't one of them. The history that Baltimore brought to the house, he said, could be equaled or eclipsed by the original owner of almost any house in the neighborhood.
"He lived there for 30 years, retired and moved away," Binsted said of Baltimore. "That's not a particularly strong neighborhood history. They try to play up the blue-collar nature of this, but you could point to about every house here and talk about that."