Valerie Leonard’s small Arts-and-Craft-inspired bungalow is packed with 100 years of memories. It sits on a leafy street in Northwest Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood. A wide porch overlooking a grass yard and sidewalk is bedecked with a pair of gliders and a ceiling fan.
The house was chosen from a picture in a Sears mail-order catalogue and built in 1922 by her grandparents.
Owners cherish kit houses for gracious proportions, architectural detail, character they convey to the streetscape and sturdiness.
Leonard and her father, James Leonard, 95, sat in the living room one recent morning reminiscing how well the house has stood the test of time. “Nothing major ever had to be done. It has had the most ordinary maintenance,” she said.
“I painted, patched plaster holes in the wall and refinished the hardwood floors,” she added. “That’s the beauty. It was so solidly built at the beginning, it’s still perfect today.”
Some neighborhoods protect them; others don’t, and they can be torn down or altered beyond recognition.
More than 200 kit houses are authenticated in the District. They stand in a semi-ring pattern along the city edges in Palisades, American University Park, Chevy Chase DC, Cleveland Park, Takoma DC and into Maryland along two streetcar lines, one on MacArthur Boulevard and one running up to Chevy Chase, Takoma Park and College Park.
There are probably an equal number in Alexandria and Montgomery and Arlington counties. “Overall in the metro area, maybe 2,000 were built; inside the Beltway, about 600, and 450 to 500 might still be there,” said Catarina Bannier, a real estate agent with Evers & Co. and a kit house expert.
“Sears is often used synonymously with kit houses because the Sears name and catalogue are iconic,” Bannier added. But other companies — Aladdin, Lewis, Gordon Van Tine, Montgomery Ward — also offered kit houses. Even Harry Wardman, the local developer known for rowhouses, built a few Aladdin kit houses on spec in Bethesda.
When people bought a kit house, they received plans, instructions and every item needed to build. Only the foundation would be constructed on site.
Leonard’s grandparents, Alfred and Rebecca Hanson, chose the Walton model for $2,500. “Materials were delivered by rail and trucked to rural Cleveland Park,” Leonard said.
“Thirty-to-forty thousand pieces came. Lumber was numbered, cut to size and stacked so it could be unpacked in the order needed. Windows, roof shingles, nails, screws, floorboards, trim, sheet rock, plaster sheets, paint, doorframes, roof, light fixtures, medicine chest, china cabinet. Everything,” Bannier said. “It was intelligently assembled. Imagine a giant Ikea kit but better organized.”
The lumber fit together, and the house would be stable. “There was no cutting on site and therefore no human error in measurements, which is why these houses last so long,” Bannier added. “Each had the perfect dimensions with accurately sized pieces. It was all incredibly precise.”
The Leonard house is unique because it has been preserved as it was built. It wasn’t gutted or super-renovated. It stayed in the family.
Leonard’s great-grandmother bought the house for her son and daughter-in-law and sold it to them for a nominal sum. “That’s fascinating,” Bannier said, “because until the 1970s, it was really hard for single women to get a mortgage. When you look at historical mortgage data, you see many were given to single women in Washington. You don’t see that in other parts of the country. That’s the kind of thing we learn from kit houses.”
Leonard’s grandmother left the house to her three daughters, one of whom was Leonard’s mother. Leonard’s parents sold it to her in the late 1980s.
Original features abound in Leonard’s three-bedroom, one-bathroom house.
“The scale of things was smaller then, but that proves how little one needs to be comfortable,” Leonard said. “I still use the cedar storage boxes built under the windows in the master bedroom. They were designed for blankets, but you can also sit on them and look out to the front yard.”
Radiators topped with metal covers are positioned under the windows and are wide enough to sit on. “This is where we sat as children. Three or four sat here with our elbows on the table,” she said, pointing to the dining-room radiators.
The house has nearly 20 double-hung windows with four vertical panes in the upper glass, including in the garage doors. “All with original rippled glass, which was how glass was made in those years and gives such a nice effect,” Leonard said.
Local neighborhood regulations help preserve kit houses. Residential and commercial property owners in the Cleveland Park Historic District don’t have free rein to make changes. “If you’re hoping to enclose a front porch, add a story, build an addition bigger than the original house or replace the original with a larger structure, the neighborhood isn’t for you,” said Carin Ruff, executive director of the Cleveland Park Historical Society (CPHS).
Approval is required from the DC Historic Preservation Office to change building exteriors, and the CPHS Architectural Review Committee and local Advisory Neighborhood Commission also review proposed changes.
Only designated historic districts can protect the integrity of kit houses. Cleveland Park is one of 13,594 historic districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places, which is the country’s official list of sites, buildings, structures and objects recognized for preservation.
Over time, many kit houses disappeared. “They’re knocked down to make way for bigger homes or destroy-renovated, which means renovations that gut rather than restore,” Bannier said.
Indeed, the plight of Tom and Marj Riley in Vienna, Va., exemplifies what can happen when a community lacks strong protections for historic homes.
The Rileys are the second family to live in Babcock House, named for Charles Babcock, librarian for the Pan American Union and a former Vienna mayor. In 1922, Babcock looked at pictures in a Sears catalogue and selected the Roanoke model for $2,000 to $3,000.
“The house pieces were delivered on two flat-bed railroad cars and wagoned to the property,” Tom Riley said. “We bought Babcock House from his grandson in 1986.”
They like the soundproof walls, double-glass doors between the living room and porch, and the simplicity of design. “The living room is the same size as the master bedroom,” he said.
Marj Riley loves the dining-room corner china cabinet, and he likes the solid wood door with original turnkey bell and hinges and the grate that moved heat from the basement furnace to the second floor. “That was central heating,” Tom Riley said.
Fairfax County has a Historic Overlay District Ordinance to protect historic areas, but there is no overlay in Vienna. Even if there was, the house isn’t registered as a historic structure and is outside the town border.
The Rileys plan to move to a retirement community and fear the worst when they sell their three-bedroom, one-bath Colonial. “We’ve decided to put the house on the market in January and don’t know if it will survive,” Tom Riley said.
The Babcock house can be razed, as was the old house next door, where a much larger one is going up.
A kit house is a record of homebuilding, marketing and selling. “It’s a link between the pieces, from lumber in the Midwest to the railroad distribution network that delivered it to the city to development of a neighborhood,” Ruff said.
“In Cleveland Park kit houses connect history on a hyper-local level to national trends. They show us what ordinary people bought during the 1910s and 1920s,” she said. “Not big, wedding-cake Victorians the neighborhood is known for. They’re more typical of regular people, government workers, bookkeepers, military and white-collar professionals. Modest houses that could be put up economically by builders doing infill development.”
Builders can make renovations or construct a new house in a respectful way. That means hiring an architect who works with the integrity of the neighborhood, specialist craftsmen and specialty restorers. “But that’s always more expensive,” Bannier said.
“Kit houses need owners who appreciate the scale on which people lived 90 or 100 years ago. They need people who will care for each and every house part that came on trains from far away,” Ruff said.
Leonard fits the bill.
“I’m the devoted owner of a sweet little house, and I intend to keep it forever,” Leonard said. “But I’m always on the lookout for a subsequent-generation taker — nieces, nephews, great-nieces, great-nephews — to take it over one day.”
Audrey Hoffer is a freelance writer.
Kit house owners often bond over a shared history of their homes. Online communities offer a forum for exchange of stories, pictures and even specific structural items.
Catarina Bannier, a kit house expert in Washington, recommends that if you want to restore or replace parts of your house — for example, porch columns — first check the period resources such as the relevant mail-order or building materials catalogues for the model/year of your home. Many of these can be found online at www.archive.org or via special-interest groups and researchers.
Once you know exactly what you want or need, turn to firms that specialize in vintage house parts, architectural salvage or reclaimed materials.
You can send a request to the kit house community for the distinct ones you seek.
●A Facebook Kit House group welcomes inquiries and requests to join.
●Mozer Works in Takoma Park, known for old-style window restoration and house renovations: www.mozerworks.com or 301-920-1900.
●Second Chance in Baltimore, a nonprofit business that sells salvaged and reclaimed items from teardown houses, www.secondchanceinc.org or 410-385-1700.