Story and photos by James C. Massey & Shirley Maxwell
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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 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