From Sears to ASB: A Family History of Kit Houses

From Sears to ASB: A History of Kit Houses | This American House

One of the unexpected delights of buying the house in Iowa was the discovery that my dad’s 97-year-old aunt, Ethel, and her son Dwight live just 20 miles away. It’s been wonderful getting to know them both better, and to learn from them more about my family’s history and Scandinavian heritage.

It’s been especially exciting and fascinating, however, to discover that my family’s old farmhouse in North Dakota was a Sears “kit” house, just as the Dream House is a product of Frank Lloyd Wright’s similar system of “manufactured” homes. The Carlson house was a large structure, built in 1908 to accommodate a family of ten on their prosperous wheat farm. It cost a remarkable $1500 to build (which equates to just over $38,000 in 2014 dollars). Our house was built just nine years later at a cost of $2200 (about $40,000 in today’s currency).

The Sears catalog homes remained a popular, affordable option for untold thousands of American homeowners from 1908 through 1940. The American System-Built Homes, Wright’s early effort to enter the mass manufactured housing market, would not prove as successful. Only a handful of his ASB Homes were constructed before the scheme fell apart due to World War I materials shortages, and personal discord between Wright and his business partner, lumber magnate Arthur L. Richards. Wright would later reenter the “affordable” housing market with his more successful Usonian homes.

While the Dream House still stands, it’s been my understanding that the Carlson farmhouse was demolished some years ago. Or so I thought. On a recent visit with Cousin Dwight, he said that he had been told by another relative that the house wasn’t razed after all, but had been moved to some nearby town. Hmm. Do you think Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson make “house” calls?

– Michael

Image: This American House

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