Rocky Mount’s Sears Catalog Homes – A Significant Historical Architectural Asset – Part 1

Rose Thornton has got to be one of the most interesting people I could possibly introduce you to. For the last 15 years, she has been traveling around the county seeking and finding Sears Catalog Homes. She writes newspaper and magazine articles, makes TV appearances, lectures. and is the author of The Houses That Sears Built (2002,) and Finding the Houses That Sears Built (2004), and The Sears Homes of Illinois (2010). She’s been to Rocky Mount several times and has done a lot of our homework for us. We are really in her debt!  We have her to thank for the photographs I found in her articles while on the research trail about our Sears homes. If you missed them, please be sure and read the last three posts about the necessity to have an updated and honest inventory of our architecture properties. Click Here for Part 1

I’m bringing the Sears Catalogue homes to your attention to illustrate another reason why we must value what we’ve got before it is gone! Once I asked you to look for Ghost Signs and take photos so we can find them all and someday have a Ghost Sign Walk or something???? NOW, like a scavenger hunt, we went on as kids, when you are driving around, look for our Sears Catalogue houses. Rose Thornton says most people don’t know they’re living in a catalog home. Here is a link to an article she wrote about how to identify a Sears Catalogue house.  Click Here

Drum Roll…This Aladdin Williamette was only offered in the 1920 Aladdin catalog and THE ONLY Williamette Rose Thorton has ever seen. A perfect match….Here….in Rocky Mount.


The Sears Elmhurst looks nothing like a typical ‘kit’ home. A neo-Tudor, it is spacious and has fine features that are not available in other average Sears homes. Our Rocky Mount Elmhurst has had an addition on either side. More of our Sears homes in Part 2. I hope this has peaked your interest in what we’ve got…as the song says…so we can get on to an inventory.

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“Don’t it always seem to go -That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone: They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” – from “Big Yellow Taxi.”- Part 3

“It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.”
William Murtagh

(Dr. Murtagh is a singular figure in US historic preservation due to his immense influence on how we recognize, evaluate and preserve historic properties.)

I don’t want to over-burden you with my preservation interests, and hear you say, Stepheny, really? but my favorite novels are about good writing, and story, and when I learn something new. Hopefully, this series of posts is meeting you somewhere along the learning curve. An up to date inventory is not ‘busy work,’ but is ‘significant work’ to protect and preserve our historic properties for future generations while identifying the significant physical elements of our past.

Rocky Mount’s historic buildings tell a story of the homes and businesses of the city’s earliest residents and of the communities growth. We value our historic resources because of their beauty, because of the people who lived and worked there, and because of their relationship to the development of our culture.  They help us understand who we are in a tangible way. Preservation protects that history and contributes to a sense of place. It stabilizes neighborhoods, increases property values and addresses livability concerns.

Taking a page out of Durham, NC Playbook

Over the next few years, the Durham City/County Planning Department and Preservation Durham will be working together to update the Durham Architectural and Historic Inventory (last completed in 1982). The inventory was initially conducted in 1980 and 1981 to comprehensively look at the history, architecture and development patterns of Durham. Over 900 structures built prior to 1940 were inventoried (over 600 of which are described or pictured in the final inventory book) and brief histories are provided of approximately 30 Durham neighborhoods and their patterns of development, organized chronologically. This document does excellent work describing the social and physical historical context of the community through 1940. They are now looking to bring this work up-to-date with additional documentation of structures and neighborhoods developed after 1940. We need to do this too!

In order to aid in the collection of data for the inventory update effort, Durham Planning and Preservation Durham are putting on a series of community meetings where residents can learn how to input information into the Open Durham database to assist in collecting robust data for the inventory. This is one way to approach an updated inventory. I will suggest other ideas in upcoming posts.



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“Don’t it always seem to go -That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone: They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” – from “Big Yellow Taxi.”- Part 2

“Preservation does not mean merely the setting aside of thousands of buildings as museum pieces. It means retaining the culturally valuable structures as useful objects: A home in which human beings live, a building in the service of some commercial or community purpose. Such preservation ensures structural integrity, relates the preserved object to the life of the people around it, and not least, it makes preservation a source of positive financial gain rather than another expense.”
 Lady Bird Johnson

In Rocky Mount, NC. we’ve already lost properties that we can’t get back. Without an honest inventory of what is lived in, stands empty, is worth rescuing, can’t be saved, what is owned, rented, cared for or neglected, we’re at six and sevens in safeguarding what we’ve got. For example, do you know anything about a Lustron home? I had to do some reading, but I’m writing this post about these homes to illustrate that this is the kind of information we learn with an inventory of our historic architecture.

In January 1947, the newly formed Lustron Corporation announced that it had received a $12.5-million Reconstruction Finance Corporation loan to manufacture mass-produced prefabricated homes that featured enamel-coated steel panels. The Lustron was an all-steel house, with walls made of 2×2 20-gauge metal panels, with a porcelain enamel finish. The roof was porcelain enamel steel, and unlike traditional roofing shingles, with a lifespan of at least 60 years. Entrepreneur, Carl Strandlunds, designed these houses to help deal with the severe housing shortage after World War II. About 2,500 Lustrons were built. We have two Lustrons in Rocky Mount!

I have included two photographs of one of those houses on Sunset Ave, once in bad shape. I took a few new pictures to prove that the Sunset Street house is obviously being taken care of now. (Our second Lustron is on Eastern Ave, corner of Pineview Cemetery. I haven’t gone to see it yet.)

A small group of Lustron owners became advocates for preserving the original condition of these homes. About 2,000 Lustron homes are still in existence in 36 states. Many have been modified with additions, remodeled kitchens, vinyl windows, composite roofs, new heating systems, sheetrock interior walls, painted exteriors, and siding. Some have been dismantled, relocated and reassembled. CLICK HERE FOR PART ONE IN SERIES

Quantico, Virginia had the largest collection of Lustrons in the country, but those 60 houses are now gone. Some were moved, most were demolished.

Rocky Mount needs to keep in mind that what is gained may be viewed temporarily as an improvement, but what is lost is lost forever. These posts are not to suggest that progress is a bad thing, only that as the revitalization process continues, we must protect our valuable architecture and the stories they hold. We NEED a current inventory!

Let’s look at one way to accomplish an inventory in Part 3 of this series.

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“Don’t it always seem to go -That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone: They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” – from “Big Yellow Taxi.”- Part 1

Rocky Mount, NC

“There may have been a time when preservation was about saving an old building here and there, but those days are gone. Preservation is in the business of saving communities and the values they embody.”
Richard Moe – Retired president of National Trust for Historic Preservation

Rocky Mount, NC has not had an inventory of its historical architectural assets since the preparation of the National Register Historic District nominations. We have no formal documentation or update to help with our preservation plans. Through a series of posts, I hope to spark your interest and support for an honest, up-to-date inventory. Do you know the show on TV – The Antique Roadshow? It’s a metaphor for our predicament. We don’t know the value of what we’ve got. The painting in the attic, the quilt on the bed, the antique silver chest….we have architecture, in some cases, like the Lustrom house on Sunset Ave, one of the few remaining in the country.

Because I grew up in Evanston, IL., the first suburb north of Chicago on the lake, this bit of information caught my attention. Though dated, it illustrates what I am sure has happened in our community as well. In 2003, The Chicago Tribune compared a new survey of historically significant properties within 22 of Chicago’s historic communities to a city-wide survey taken 20 years prior. The newspaper found that nearly 800 historically significant buildings had been destroyed over this 20-year period. According to the Tribune, the purpose of the original survey was to help the city protect its architectural heritage, but the new report demonstrated that the city failed to apply the knowledge obtained from the first survey by adding the necessary protections for these historic resources. The lack of legal protection enabled the rampant demolition of these buildings

 When talking about architectural preservation, I want you to think beyond a workman standing on a ladder, repairing a deteriorating wall. The amazing skill-set needed to restore and preserve a building is certainly a major part of the process, but without an honest inventory of where we stand, I repeat, we don’t know what we’ve got. Click Here:


While the demolitions have razed well-known individual structures…their most devastating impact
has been on the character of the city’s neighborhoods
— Chicago Tribune, January 13, 2003

TOMORROW- In Rocky Mount – The Lustron Home – an all-steel house, with walls made of 2×2 20-gauge metal panels, with a porcelain enamel finish.


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Celebrating 3 Years With You On Main Street Rocky Mount

When I write for this blog, I often think of us sitting together and talking on one of the benches along Main Street under the shade of the maturing crepe myrtles. It amazes me that later in July, it will be the beginning of three years when I started the blog. The very first post (and second-anniversary post too) was about Evan Chavez who has always been the poster child for me when I think of the theme of the blog…honoring the past and building a future. That is still what Evan and the other incredible builders, planners and dreamers are doing out at Rocky Mount Mills.

After moving here five years ago, I fell in love with a rather silent Main Street, unaware of its stories, the people who remain in the memories of the community, of its significant architecture, of the historic districts, of everything really. I had no idea who was already busy with revitalization plans and the amount of work being done. I wanted to do something about Main Street. I heard the Lord whisper in my ear, you’re a writer, you could help that way. I took myself off to meet John Jesso, Downtown Development Manager. and asked him if a positive blog would be welcomed. I’ve never forgotten what he said, “Help me change the narrative of Rocky Mount.”

This anniversary post is written for  John Jesso with my deep admiration and affection. I don’t know when a community has been so lucky to have John and his amazing wife, Stacey, arrive on their doorstep. I attended the State of the City address this year where the Mayor touted Rocky Mounts accomplishments. We have no one to thank more for this than John. He has been the positive face cheerleading for all those who have come to consider an investment or starting up a business. He has been the real estate man, the networker, the bus tour spokesman. He has cast a net far and wide to draw people here to take a look at what we’ve got. He has walked the street, opened buildings, sat face to face or talked on long phone calls, all because he believes in Rocky Mount and has made believers out of countless other people. John came from a successful business career. In business, it is what you get done, what you accomplish that is credited with success. Unfortunately, in politics, that isn’t always the case. I’m grateful for John’s support with the blog, sharing his excitement with each new success, suggesting someone I would love to know. When I left John’s office that first day, I was like a fledgling the mother bird shoves out of the nest. I know lots of stories now and am beholding to others who have taken me under their wing and talked and talked and talked. I will speak of them too in the bye and bye. But today, as I kick off this week with a 3-part series on taking an architectural inventory, my heart and admiration belong to John Jesso on behalf of all of us who owe him so much every day. Thanks, everyone for keeping me company on Main Street. If you’re not FOLLOWING, please do.

CLICK HERE TO READ -John Jesso -Saluting Rocky Mount’s Codega



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Twin County Hall of Fame Museum – After the Lights Go Out!

How long has it been since you’ve thought about Johnny Gruelle’s famous Raggedy Ann & Andy stories?  Visiting the Twin County Hall of Fame Museum with Jane Gravely and Lanny Shuff, I wasn’t fooled for a minute. The framed smiling faces of the Inductees were quiet as I gazed at them, but at the end of the day, when the lights are turned off and the last person’s footsteps fade away, you will never convince me otherwise,  the Museum Dance begins. Gathered in one place are the most interesting, highly respected, gifted and civic-minded citizens of Nash & Edgecombe Counties. Wouldn’t you love to listen to the nightly reminiscences of the times in which they lived and greatly influenced? Here are the history makers, the businessmen, and woman, sports figures, the musicians — imagine the music! Think of the educators and the political debates. Think of the privileged living members of The Hall of Fame, allowed to draw from the wisdom and advice of those who have gone before. Can you think of any company you keep more prestigious than these wonderful people?

You MUST visit The Twin County Museum and Hall of Fame to mingle with these amazing people. The Museum is currently located on the first floor of the historic train station in downtown Rocky Mount. Its purpose is to preserve the history of the Twin Counties and recognize and honor the citizens of Edgecombe and Nash Counties. Those who have made broad and lasting contributions to the betterment of the community or who have brought recognition to the community through their accomplishments. When you visit, don’t expect to hear this august group talking, that only happens after the lights go out.

Raggedy Andy did not speak all day, but he smiled pleasantly to all the other dolls. There was Raggedy Ann, the French doll, the little Dutch doll, the tin soldier, Uncle Clem and a few others…Marcella had played in the nursery all day and of course, they did not speak in front of her…But as soon as she left the room all the dolls sat up in their beds. When their little mistress’ footsteps passed out of hearing, all the dollies jumped out of their beds and gathered around Raggedy Andy…The Dutch doll dragged the little square music box out into the center of the room and wound it up. Then all, holding hands, danced in a circle around it, laughing and shouting in their tiny doll voices.  


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Historic Preservation Commission – A Door is a Door is a Door Or Not! – Part 2


“Why are you insisting on these rules and regulations, when I’m the good guy here. I’m fixing an otherwise over-looked house that is spiraling downward. I am willing to put money into the project to improve the neighborhood. There’s a boarded up house, for heaven’s sake, next door.”    -An objection from Stepheny’s writing world

My first reaction to an objection like this is, “Lordy, give them anything they want! Who can deny the great need of the houses in the historic districts for rescue efforts that will breathe new life back into them? I mean, will the tides reverse themselves if an unpainted fence stays up? BUT, if we lose sight of the large picture –the presence of neighborhoods that are defined by their historical significance, which is a strong feature of Rocky Mount, we ignore the role our historic districts play in the success of any revitalization efforts.

When it comes to the guidelines for our historic districts, you might say, it’s a crazy distinction. “A door is a door is a door.” but remember, preservation assumes that all historic features, materials, etc. will be kept where it’s humanly possible. Therefore, these historic features must be restored or repaired and maintained into the future. Preservation values the origin of a building and its occupants over time and assumes that all evidence of them will be preserved, as well as the original character of the structure.

The HPC was conceived not only to help protect the integrity of the historic districts but to HELP  those who are investing in these districts. They’ll grant an extension of time for planning. They have economical alternatives to suggest and resources to pass along that are acceptable places to purchase building materials. (Putting in a plug for Preservation Rocky Mount’s Salvage Store at 910 Falls Road that is open on Friday & Saturdays 10-12. or by appointment (252-985-1804 and filled with materials from deconstructed houses. It’s better than a candy store.)

There are reasons why guidelines for historic districts pay off.  We have a spill-over from Raleigh that is making its way East, arriving in Rocky Mount along with other newcomers from an amazing myriad of places, (ask the people at the dog park where they came from). Today, people want their homes and workplaces to be unique and distinctive—exactly the kind of distinctiveness, character, and sense of place that historic preservation districts provide. When you ask what buyers are looking for, you’ll hear walkable communities, authenticity, and charm. Investors recognize that Rocky Mount has exactly what people want today. There must be a margin of profit for them. The other side of the preservation coin is rehabilitation; fixing up a deteriorated historic property. Like preservation, it puts a premium on retaining and repairing historic features but allows more leeway for repair and replacement of elements that have been severely damaged by time.

I’ll write more about this two-sided coin soon. I hope I haven’t bored the socks off you with this topic. I ask that you keep it  on your radar screen, to think about and problem solve. Thanks!




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