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New museum exhibit showcases DIY houses

Published: Friday, Feb. 28, 2014 7:45 a.m. CST • Updated: Tuesday, July 29, 2014 9:47 p.m. CST
Caption
Downers Grove resident Ken Wolf stares pensively from the balcony of his Sears catalogue home Feb. 20. One of several "home made" houses in the area, the Downers Grove Historical Museum currently has an exhibit about the history of Catalogue homes.

DOWNERS GROVE – For half of the 20th century, a family could order the biggest signifier of the American dream from a catalog – a house.

Then, of course, they’d build it themselves.

Downers Grove has more than 200 Sears homes and other houses built from mail-ordered kits, the second most in the state, according to Downers Grove Park District Museum Supervisor Julie Bunke.

“Back then a lot of people were renting,” she said. “Some of the apartments weren’t the nicest. This offered people a way to have their own home. It was economical, affordable. You know, the average American could do it.”

And, if you built it yourself, the home could be about 30 percent cheaper than going with a home construction company.

“Sears’ claim was a man of average ability, as far a construction, could build a house in 90 days,” she said.

A new exhibit on display at the museum, 831 Maple Ave., tells the story of the homes ordered from Sears, Montgomery Wards, Aladdin Company and other catalogs, and includes a partial list of the homes still standing in town. Also of interest are the print advertisements from the era, showing the homes in idyllic neighborhoods, with red-brick, stucco, or wood exteriors and manicured lawns.

Also on display are a series of photographs from 1925 that haven’t been previously shown. They document each stage of the Himpler family’s construction of their home at 13 Second St. The home is no longer standing.

So many Sears homes were built in Downers Grove partially because of its proximity to Sears’ base in Chicago, Bunke said, but also because of the switching roundhouse and railroad spur in Downers Grove. There was room for the rail car to wait for seven to 10 days as it was being unloaded by the new home builder. Then the owner could follow the instructions to build the house themselves, or they could have a contractor complete the house.

Catalog home shoppers had many styles to choose from, as well. From when Sears began offering the houses in 1908, until the end of the run in 1940, architects had designed more than 447 different styles.

Houses ran from tiny and super-affordable, like the $191 nameless model with optional bathroom – Sears sold outhouses, too – to the opulent. The Magnolia, of which there are none in Downers Grove, featured a sun porch, a porte-cochère, grand columns and several bathrooms.

An example of the second-largest model, the Ivanhoe, stands less than two blocks from the museum at 744 Maple Ave.

The current owners, Ken and Faith Wolf, bought the home in 1990 from the granddaughter of the man who originally had it built, F.P. Towsley.

The 2,500-square foot home, plus unfinished attic and basement, features four bedrooms, a two bathrooms, and impressive crown molding and woodwork throughout.

Other than removing an unnecessary wall and built-in buffet from the kitchen to open its entrance, the family has maintained the original floor plan and style. The Wolfs removed carpeting to reveal the original wood floors, complimenting the oak trim, built-in cabinetry and other touches that lend the distinctive pre-war charm.

“When we looked at the house, we came in the back door, we came right here and I looked at all the trim, and I said ‘I want it,’ ” Ken Wolf said. “So I knew before we even got past the dining room. We’ve done a lot of work, but it still needs more.”

At the time, Sears guaranteed every part that arrived in the kits, though it probably didn’t need to. The well-built Ivanhoe at 744 Maple Ave. turns 100 next year.

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