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Old-House Online » Old-House Tips, Restoration Stories, & More » Historic Places » Historic Neighborhoods » Sears Houses in Hopewell, Virginia

Sears Houses in Hopewell, Virginia

A visit to Hopewell, Virginia, reveals a remarkable array of houses straight out of the Sears, Roebuck catalog.
Story and photos by James C. Massey & Shirley Maxwell

    There are several Sears Old English-style designs, including this Cambridge, which was produced only in 1930 and ’31.

    There are several Sears Old English-style designs, including this Cambridge, which was produced only in 1930 and ’31.

    One of the Old Dominion’s least-celebrated architectural gems is Crescent Hills, in Hopewell, Virginia. It boasts an enviable collection of stylishly eclectic houses—many of which came right out of the pages of a Sears, Roebuck catalog.

    The small industrial city of Hopewell was born in 1911, at the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers, halfway between Petersburg and the state capital at Richmond. A project of E.I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company (now better known as the chemical giant DuPont), the town was initially an unimposing gaggle of dynamite-factory buildings and low-wage workers’ bunkhouses. When the onset of World War I brought a demand for smokeless gunpowder, however, DuPont’s business literally boomed, and Hopewell became the world’s largest producer of the guncotton and chemicals needed to make it.

    Housing Surge

    With a potential workforce of 20,000 people, the question for DuPont became: How to house this staggering population surge? The company acted quickly to establish two adjacent villages for laborers, using Aladdin Readi-Cut houses for laborers, factory managers, and their families. In 1918, though, when the war came to an end, the bottom suddenly fell out of the guncotton business, and the town seemed doomed. But DuPont managed to sell its admirably located holdings to several other manufacturing companies, the most important of which was the Tubize Artificial Silk Corporation, a pioneer in rayon production.

    The Van Jean model of Sears’ Honor Bilt homes is in the popular Dutch Colonial style, common in the 1920s and ’30s.

    The Van Jean model of Sears’ Honor Bilt homes is in the popular Dutch Colonial style, common in the 1920s and ’30s.

    Hopewell prospered mightily through the 1920s, spawning several attractive subdivisions that remain intact and well-cared-for today. One of the most impressive, Crescent Hills, was the brainchild of an enterprising developer, M.T. Broyhill, who appears to have set about his work with a Sears Modern Homes catalog in hand. Crescent Hills was a model late-1920s subdivision, six city blocks in area, with large, well-graded lots set within an appealing gridiron pattern of concrete-curbed streets, planted median strips, and sidewalks.

    The houses lining the streets are sturdy, commodious, and engaging representatives of the favorite styles of the eclectic, between-the-wars decades of the 1920s and ’30s. Not surprisingly, most look very much like the popular models featured in the mail-order, ready-cut house catalogs that proliferated during the era—prominently including such titans of the pre-cut housing industry as Aladdin, Montgomery Ward, Gordon Van Tine, and, best-known and most successful of all, Sears’ Honor Bilt Modern Homes.

    All-In-One Orders

    This typical circa-1930 design is probably a Sears Fair Oaks, modified by the builder—but only documentation would prove it.

    This typical circa-1930 design is probably a Sears Fair Oaks, modified by the builder—but only documentation would prove it.

    All these companies provided not just house plans, but also the makings of the house itself—from lumber, flooring, and wallboard to kitchen sinks and bathtubs, cabinets, doorknobs, and drawer handles, right down to nails and paint. Anything that could be shipped with reasonable economy by rail showed up at the building site, complete with plans and instructions, ready for construction. Masonry—brick, stone, and stucco—was the exception to this rule, because it was more economical and practical to procure those weighty materials locally. Lumber was precision-cut at the mill, to the exact dimensions and in the exact amounts required.

    It was an economical approach with a reliable assurance of quality and durability. The ready-cut house manufacturers boasted, justly, that their buyers got great houses at the most reasonable prices. Local builders, or even the homeowner himself, could erect the building without fear of failure, although it was also possible to secure the services of a Sears contractor to guide the construction. Some alterations to the buildings were common. The materials themselves were of such impeccable quality that, even today, the designation “Sears house” is enough to bring significant added value to a real-estate listing.

    A popular Colonial Revival design, this Lexington model was sold from 1921-26.

    A popular Colonial Revival design, this Lexington model was sold from 1921-26.

    Architects in strategically located Sears field offices were prepared to assist clients in customizing stock plans to suit the building lot or meet special needs of the homeowner, often reversing the plan or altering window and door placement. Some changes were harder to achieve, however—the location of chimneys, for instance, was rarely moved, and the exact exterior dimensions of the building remained constant. (Consequently, both of these features sometimes have been used to bolster the Sears attribution of particular houses.)

    Best of all from the home buyer’s vantage point, Sears stood alone among the ready-cut house manufacturers in one important aspect—only Sears provided financing. Sears’ mortgages were an irresistible lure to thousands of buyers before the Great Depression’s flood of foreclosures drove the company out of the mortgage-lending field.

    Sears’ Eclectic Offerings

    Sears designs sometimes varied from year to year; this Lexington is from the 1928-33 period.

    Sears designs sometimes varied from year to year; this Lexington is from the 1928-33 period.

    Most catalog house companies offered tried-and-true designs that were generally a decade or so behind the stylistic curve, relying heavily on early 20th-century standards like bungalows and Foursquares well into the 1930s. Sears kept up with the times, giving customers a wide range of currently fashionable houses to select from, with considerable architectural sophistication for the price. In the late ’20s, that meant the Eclectic Revival styles: Georgian, Dutch Colonial, Cape Cod, Old English (Tudor), and Spanish Revivals. Most of these revival styles are represented in Crescent Hills, alongside the perennial bungalows for which Sears was famous.

    Because Crescent Hills was a middle-class neighborhood meant for management-level employees of Hopewell’s various companies, its houses, while not grand, were substantial and eminently comfortable—often even elegant. In keeping with Virginia’s tradition of masonry construction, many of the homes are red brick or stucco, a variation from the more usual frame construction that was easily accommodated by Sears designs.

    Crescent Hills’ formal, symmetrical, two-story Georgian Revival houses, for instance, are most often brick, enriched by prominent columned entry porticos that may boast small balustraded decks atop their flat roofs. Side porches often elongate the front façade, lending it increased importance. Crescent Hills has at least one Dutch Colonial, distinguished by its large double-slope gambrel roof on which a full-width, continuous dormer lights the second story.

    The Walton is similar to numerous bungalow designs of its era.

    The Walton is similar to numerous bungalow designs of its era.

    The most picturesque of Sears’ contributions to the small district are the Tudor Revival, or Old English, houses. Quaintly asymmetrical, with steeply sloping catslide roofs, constructed in frame, stucco, or brick, often with some half-timbering, these may be found in one- or two- story versions. Low-slung bungalows with multi-gabled fronts and prominent, square-pillared porches display Craftsman details that reflect the earlier years of the 20th century.

    Not every Crescent Hills house is a Sears creation, though many have been reliably identified as such. Some others may have been the work of talented local builders who imitated Sears examples; others still may have come from other catalog sources. But does that really matter? What’s more important is the ineffable grace of a neighborhood so steeped in its own time that, after all these years have passed, it is truly timeless.

    Published in: Old-House Journal April/May 2012

    { 12 comments }

    Barbara Dennison March 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Do you have old copies of The Old House Journal? My brother in law, Dr.Parks Adams told me that they did a story of their house and featured the kitchen on the cover of your fall, 2006 issue. It was “How do you take on an un-saleable ,disintegrating house, restore it live in it for 30+ years and then leave?” That is when they moved to Forest Grove, Oregon. I am interested in getting a copy of that issue. Please tell me if that would be available and how much it will cost.

    Donna Bakke August 31, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    I have been identifying Sears homes for almost 10 years now and I must say that most of these homes are NOT Sears homes. The Walton is but the houses ID’ed as Lexington, Fair Oaks and Van Jean are not.
    Homes should be a spot on match to the Sears catalogs or should have stamped lumber or it should be indicated on the deed.
    They cannot kinda sorta look like a house in the catalog – it’s like saying a hamster is a gerbil because it sorta looks like one.

    Lara September 23, 2012 at 8:42 am

    Some of the houses featured in this article clearly are not Sears homes. Hopewell needs to have an architectural historian authenticate some of these alleged Sears homes–simply assuming that a house has been “modified by the builder” is absurd.

    The last paragraph of this article really frustrated me. “Not every Crescent Hills house is a Sears creation, though many have been reliably identified as such. Some others may have been the work of talented local builders who imitated Sears examples; others still may have come from other catalog sources. But does that really matter?”

    What does it matter??! So promoting blatant misinformation to the public is considered okay? Then I’m going to say my house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and give house tours to the public. Because what does it really matter?

    Doug March 8, 2013 at 9:44 am

    I must agree with some of the other comments. Those houses identified as the “Lexington” model are clearly not Sears kit houses. I’d say that the most obvious reason… the Sears catalog describes “pre-cut” lumber, cypress sheathing, etc. Uhmmm…The houses pictured above are BRICK, and they never had front dormers as pictured. (I own a Sears Lexington and have the original shipping labels and blueprints).

    Shari Davenport May 6, 2013 at 6:00 am

    Sorry you guys really missed the mark on these houses. To keep this post short, I shall simply refer you to Rose Thornton’s blog posts, complete with photographs and first-person inspection reports on these homes, located here –
    http://www.searshomes.org/index.php/2012/08/29/one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other/ – also here, http://www.searshomes.org/index.php/2011/03/21/hopewells-historic-sears-homes-well-sort-of/ – and here – http://www.searshomes.org/index.php/2011/03/21/hopewells-historic-sears-homes-part-2/ and finally, here – http://www.searshomes.org/index.php/2011/03/21/hopewells-historic-sears-homes-well-sort-of-part-3/. That should cover it pretty well….

    Shari Davenport May 7, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    After detailed comparison with the original documentation from Sears regarding the Van Jean, it comes down to this – that’s not a Van Jean. Too many specific differences, that would not be simply alterations of the original plan, and just because it’s a Dutch Colonial Revival style, and Sears offered some Dutch Colonial Revival style models, that does not mean you can automatically say therefore, this is a Van Jean. The logic does not apply like that. The front porch is wrong, the sidelights on the front door are wrong, the second floor window pattern is wrong. More info with close up photo comparisons? Here – http://www.searshomes.org/?s=Van+Jean. Those are differences that matter.

    The homes identified as the Lexingtons however, will take further investigation, such as identifying interior features that go along with the original floor plans, measuring the footprint, finding marked inside lumber, etc., in order to verify their provenance. On a side note, the fact that the home is built with brick does not automatically disqualify it, nor does the outer appearance not matching exactly as far as dormers are concerned. Sears own historical references indicate, and I quote, “Each of the designs, though, could be modified in numerous ways, including reversing floor plans, building with brick instead of wood siding, and many other options.” (http://www.searsarchives.com/homes/history.htm)

    Considering that it is already been substantiated that Virginia’s homes in general being built from brick is quite a regional standard, (I was raised in Southeastern Virginia, and brick homes are the norm, and they are EVERYWHERE) plus Sears was providing that option, does not support the argument that merely being a brick home automatically disqualifies it. The Lexington was offered twice, once each in two decades, in two substantially different exteriors and interior floor plans. It was certainly possible that the original homeowner did not build it himself, and had the contractor add the dormers when the home was built. Or, perhaps the original homeowner WAS a contractor who did it himself. Or maybe it’s not a Lexington. Too many possibilities that need to be substantiated by further investigation.

    Unfortunately, there is a LOT of investigation and research that needed to be done in order to write a more accurate, informative article on these historic homes. Considering the historical importance of the homes in question, why would you even think such a question as “does it really matter?” is legitimate? That’s a sad cop-out to justify lazy journalism. I am disappointed that such as article was even published. And I am not alone.

    Shirley Maxwell June 5, 2014 at 11:42 am

    The best way to understand Crescent Hills is to recall that it was a planned development. The article is about Crescent Hills, and a careful re-read assures me that the text is valid and accurate. As to the Sears issue, our text is accurate, with adequate warnings about proving the house to be fully authentic Sears ready-cut, built exactly as offered. However, there were many variation—by Sears, by purchasers, by builders, and by subsequent owners over the years. To find unaltered ones is not the norm. Sears did indeed refer to using brick or cement block, and made appropriate adjustments in price for masonry houses. In any case, the foundation and basement were up to the purchaser. These houses were also sold with materials that were not ready-cut, at a lower price, and some even as prefabs. It is reasonable to assume that some people used only the plans—purchased or “borrowed”—to suit their needs. Sears also did custom versions of their houses. Obviously, building documents, etc., are the ultimate proof. However, we feel the core matter is the design basis, allowing for these variations. Insisting on total conformity to the catalog is too restricting to allow a full understanding of the significance of Sears and other ready-cut houses.

    Rosemary Thornton July 27, 2014 at 10:02 am

    Most of the houses you’ve identified in this piece as “Sears Homes” are not.

    It’s just wrong to continue to promote these houses as kit homes when it’s so obvious that they’re not even in the ballpark.

    History deserves better.

    Rachel Shoemaker September 23, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    Inaccurate. So many errors in that recent statement by the author. I identified, or matched, several of those Crescent Hills homes to pattern book homes which are NOT kits. Pattern book plans were often used in planned developments too.
    I don’t understand why people are not interested in the truth?

    And yes, HISTORY DESERVES BETTER!

    AIM September 23, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    “Not every Crescent Hills house is a Sears creation, though many have been reliably identified as such. ”

    Who made these identifications? A few of the houses in the area clearly match the Sears catalog models. But most of these houses “identified” as a “Sears creation” bear little or no resemblance to the models that they purport to be. One has to question the person who first claimed that these houses are Sears catalog houses when most of the houses don’t even have a passing resemblance to the houses that they purport to be.

    I don’t believe anyone believes that a house that isn’t a 100% match for a catalog house couldn’t be a Sears house – IF – there was some other evidence that the house was from Sears, such as a Sears mortgage, or blueprints, or stamped lumber, or shipping labels, or historical photos, or historical documents (newspaper articles, family history, etc.). Or one could show that the house matched the Sears model in details on the interior (doors, millwork, lighting, bathroom fixtures) or exterior (brackets, decorative elements.) that otherwise would be lacking from a pattern book house or a house built from borrowed plans. With enough information, there are many ways to make an educated guess about the origin of a Sears catalog house. But there seems to be zero evidence of this in Hopewell.

    Have those who have identified these purported Sears house been able to provide any other evidence that would support the claim that these homes are from Sears? Why have so many owners of Sears catalog homes been able to successfully document their origin but only in Hopewell is nothing to be found that would show that these homes were from Sears?

    Dee January 31, 2015 at 2:05 am
    Dee January 31, 2015 at 2:13 am

    The Richmond Times dispatch covered the Sears houses in Hopewell. To tell the author of this article he or she is wrong isn’t correct.



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