Rocky Mount’s Sears Catalog Homes – A Significant Architectural Asset – Part 3

It is my hope that Rocky Mount’s Sear’s homes will inspire us to consider our policies and programs that highlight and protect our treasured historic architecture.                       – Stepheny Houghtlin

I thank Rose Thornton for her tireless work in searching and finding the Sears Catalog Homes and for visiting Rocky Mount to find ours. Here is a fun fact:  Each “kit home” contained 30,000 pieces, including 750 pounds of nails and 27 gallons of paint and varnish. A 75-page instruction book showed how to assemble those 30,000 pieces. I’d love to talk to the workman that turned the ‘kits’ into the wonderful homes pictured in these posts. What do you know about the house you are living in? That knowledge would help with an inventory, which we NEED.

In reading Rose Thornton’s articles, it sounds like she made two visits to Rocky Mount, driving around without a Garmin, making discoveries of the Sears homes she recognized. It makes me think there are MORE, she just didn’t have time to keep looking. We’ll find them and invite her back for a Sears Home tribute/Preservation/shindig of some kind to share the stories of ours. Keep your camera at the ready and eyes open. I’ve ordered a book we’ll need to RECOGNIZE them. I’ll write more about having eyes to see ASAP. It makes me smile to think of us slowly driving the neighborhoods, stopping to check a possibility out. Looking for our Sears Homes is a new twist on the expression-“casing the joint.” Lovely things can happen….One of my favorite stories is the time I was standing in the middle of Beal Street taking photos of the shotgun houses. A car came round the corner, the window rolled down, and a lady said, “Honey, what you doin?” I’m taking photos because I want to write about the Shotgun houses. “Honey, you got to come and meet my Aunties. They’ve lived here a long time.” I spent a wonderful next few hours. CLICK HERE FOR THAT OCCASION.


The Plaza Model – RM’s version at the time of the photo was in wonderful condition


The Shelburne Design


The Detroit Design as seen in 1919 catalog and a nearly perfect Detroit in Rocky Mount

The Winthrop in 1919 Catalog – and Rocky Mount’s Beauty


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Rocky Mount’s Sears Catalog Homes – A Significant Architectural Asset – Part 2

“If we do not honor our past, we lose our future. If we destroy our roots, we cannot grow.”
— Friedensreich Hundertwasser
Austrian-born artist and architect

In doing research for the blog, I meet the most interesting people. Yesterday it was Rose Thornton who has provided the photographs of our Rocky Mount Sears homes. We must invite her here again for some preservation event. Today we’re in the company of Frank W. Kushel, a Sears manager, who in 1906 was given responsibility for the catalog company’s unwieldy, unprofitable building materials department. Sales were down, and there was excess inventory in warehouses. He is credited with suggesting to Richard Sears that the company assemble kits of all the parts needed and sell entire houses through mail order. In 1908, Sears issued its first specialty catalog for houses, Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans, featuring 44 house styles ranging in price from $360–$2,890. The first mail order for a Sears house was filled in 1908. Sears mail-order catalogs were in millions of homes, where large numbers of potential homeowners were able to see the different house designs and purchase them directly from Sears.

370 different models of these Catalog Homes kit houses were sold primarily through mail order by Sears; 70,000 of these homes were sold between 1908 and 1940. In the early years, the models were identified with numbers but after several years, Sears began assigning names to the various models, a convention that carried through to the end of the program. Some models were offered with variations, the most common of those being expanded floor plans and additional finished living spaces. Sears discontinued its Modern Homes catalog after 1940. A few years later, all sales records were destroyed during a corporate house cleaning. As only a small percentage of these homes were documented when built, finding them today often requires detailed research to properly identify them.

I know you are going to enjoy seeing the Sears home of Rocky Mount. Where they are is part of our scavenger hunt! CLICK HERE to read part 1   Let’s find them and note the address and add to the list any others we can find. These posts are about the need for an honest inventory: what is lived in, stands empty, is worth rescuing, can’t be saved, what is owned, rented, cared for or neglected. An inventory is in order.

The Pasadena Model and RM’s Pasadena with a few changes

The Aladdin Pomona and RM’s version with new siding-still retains original railings

The Aladdin Shadowlawn



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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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