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Historic New England Highlights Burlington's 20th-Century 'Kit Homes'


Published October 11, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 12, 2022 at 10:35 a.m.

Daniel Goltzman in front of his Burlington home, which may be a Sears, Roebuck & Co. kit house - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Daniel Goltzman in front of his Burlington home, which may be a Sears, Roebuck & Co. kit house

When architect Daniel Goltzman bought his home in the Five Sisters neighborhood of Burlington in 2013, he felt lucky. Just getting into the neighborhood was "a blood sport," he recalled while standing in front of his 1931 home. The area's small, unpretentious houses on quiet streets are within walking distance of downtown, Calahan Park and the Pine Street arts corridor. Plus, the house was well built.

"I walked in and thought, Oh, this house has really good bones and a good floor plan," said Goltzman, who owns Daniel Goltzman Design and Development.

Later that year, he realized that his Caroline Street home might be a kit house. Popular in the first half of the 20th century, kit houses were ordered from catalogs and arrived in precut components stacked in a train boxcar. Hundreds of designs for them filled catalogs issued by a host of companies big and small, including Sears, Roebuck & Co.; Montgomery Ward & Co.; Aladdin; and Gordon-Van Tine.

An advertisement for a kit home in a Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog circa 1926 - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • An advertisement for a kit home in a Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog circa 1926

Goltzman was flipping through one such catalog on display at a modest house on the 2013 Preservation Burlington Homes Tour — he served on the nonprofit's board at the time — when he spotted what looked like a dead ringer for his house: a Dutch Colonial with a gambrel roof sporting a large second-story dormer and, below, a small columned entry porch next to a triple window. The house across his street has an almost identical plan, as do more down the road.

Kit houses seem to be everywhere in Burlington. That's why Historic New England chose the city as the case study for its project "Kit Houses and 20th-Century Affordable Housing" and newly launched website, kithouses.org.

The Haverhill, Mass.-based nonprofit owns and maintains 38 houses, farms and landscapes around New England, though none in Vermont. While many of the nonprofit's properties are jaw-droppers — including the 1793 Lyman Estate in Waltham, Mass., and the 1938 Gropius House in Lincoln, Mass. — the kit houses project is part of the organization's rather different initiative to document and preserve historic affordable housing.

Charlotte Barrett, who developed the website, is the nonprofit's community preservation manager for western New England and its Vermont staff person. A Burlington resident who recently explored historic Chittenden County markets in a project titled "More Than a Market," Barrett took an interest in city neighborhoods that appear to have kit houses. These include the Five Sisters; Robinson Parkway and Henderson Terrace near the University of Vermont; sections of North Avenue; and "the Addition," the grid of 12 blocks bound by Shelburne and Pine streets and Flynn and Home avenues.

"I found that I loved walking through them," Barrett said, noting the neighborhoods' small plots and shallow setbacks. "They have such an intimate feeling, and there always seems to be so much life on the streets — kids playing, neighbors chatting from their porches."

Barrett worked with Devin Colman, Vermont's state architectural historian, and Mary O'Neil, a City of Burlington principal planner for development review, on the project. All three earned master's degrees in historic preservation at UVM. Three recent graduates of the program — Nick Agresta, Gabrielle Perlman and Connor Plumley — contributed research to the website.

As the website details, the ability to order a house and build it — or have a contractor build it — from a kit put homeownership within reach of the early 20th century's growing middle class. Farms and estates just outside town centers were subdivided to meet the housing demand, creating the first suburbs by the 1920s. Streetcars often provided quick connections.

In a 2021 Historic New England Zoom presentation, titled "Bungalow in a Box: Kit Houses of the Early 20th Century," Colman noted that, by 1908, one-fifth of all Americans received the Sears catalog at home. Catalogs touted the dream of homeownership in lush drawings of kit homes — then called "ready-cut" homes — in an enormous range of styles, with appealing names such as Shadow Lawn, Glen Falls and Graystone.

Some could be grand — Sears' largest offering was the 10-room Colonial Revival Magnolia model, based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's home in Cambridge, Mass. — but most were modest bungalows, capes or foursquares. Nevertheless, they offered modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing, electricity and optional furnaces at a time when, in Vermont, many homes still had outhouses and woodstoves.

Daniel Goltzman's home in Burlington - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Daniel Goltzman's home in Burlington

In Burlington, a kit arrived at the waterfront rail yard and was transferred from a boxcar to a truck to be carted to the building site. Kits included everything, Colman noted: floor joists, siding, roof flashing, nails, paint. Framing components were often stamped with codes. A detailed plan showed how to put everything together.

The number of kits that became Burlington houses is not documented, but only about 400,000 were built nationwide. (Sears, the industry leader, sold 75,000 of them.) Local homeowners may find their house in a catalog — Goltzman's matches Sears' Van Page model — but that doesn't mean it was a kit house. Some contractors took the plans from one and built several more using their own building materials. Other houses were designed by architects who had Sears or other kit companies produce the components.

Confirming a kit house is so tricky, in fact, that kithouses.org doesn't identify a single one.

But there are clues. Catalogs occasionally printed testimonials about a house model by former customers who were identified by partial names and towns — making it possible to track down their houses' locations using U.S. Census information. Or the catalog might list all the towns in which a model had so far been built. Sometimes newspaper announcements of newly built houses mimicked language used in the catalogs, such as "honor bilt," a Sears motto.

Inside, a homeowner might find stamped framing components in the attic or basement (though these may be lumberyard stamps) or, during renovations, discover paper labels still affixed to the back of a house's trim. Sometimes original hardware, such as door handles, are stamped with the kit house company's name — but companies also sold these separately.

Definitive proof lies in the rare survival of original paperwork, stashed in the attic or elsewhere: order forms, shipping inventories, receipts, blueprints or an official certificate of deposit on a building materials order.

While Barrett hopes eventually to verify actual kit houses in town, the website focuses on the era's creation of walkable neighborhoods with small, affordable houses, whether kit or "plan-built," that could serve as models for developing affordable housing today. That is partly the focus of an upcoming Historic New England workshop, "Early 20th-Century Affordable Housing: Burlington's Small Houses and Their Neighborhoods," that will take place on Saturday, November 5, at the Generator makerspace. The half-day workshop will help homeowners, architects, builders and planners understand what made these neighborhoods special and how to preserve them.

Meanwhile, two ironies prevail in Burlington's kit-house-type neighborhoods. First, while the houses were made affordable in part by their modest size, they "feel small to an American family today," Barrett said.

Inside Daniel Goltzman's home - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Inside Daniel Goltzman's home

Like many Five Sisters owners, Goltzman expanded his original 1,200 square feet of living space with an 800-square-foot addition on the back. (He preserved the house's original interior woodwork, including columns in the living room and a built-in linen press in the upstairs hallway.)

Second, the neighborhoods have so successfully maintained their intimate, walkable character that they have become among the most valuable in the city. The few Five Sisters single-family houses that have come on the market in the past two years have sold for more than $500,000, according to Zillow.

"This is meant to be a middle-class neighborhood, but a normal middle-class family can't afford to live here," noted Goltzman, who lives with his wife, UVM professor Jessica Strolin, and their two sons. 

The Great Depression, followed by World War II-era restrictions on building materials, began to spell the end of kit houses; by the 1950s, construction had moved from building single houses to tract housing. Most companies selling kit houses had folded by the 1970s.

But the impact of kit houses is immense, in part because they defined the American dream. While not many were actually built, Colman said, "the fact that these companies were able to get their catalogs into so many households and plant the seeds of what the American single-family home could or should be was hugely influential. It cemented in the public's mind, Oh, this is what we should want. Which is why, in the Five Sisters, they're not all kit houses — but they all look like kit houses."

"Early 20th-Century Affordable Housing: Burlington's Small Houses and Their Neighborhoods," Saturday, November 5, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Generator in Burlington. $15-20.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Signed, Sealed, Delivered"

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