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House in a Box: Local First Grade Class Gets Creative With History

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House in a Box: Local First Grade Class Gets Creative With History

I take my place before Corinna Woita's first-grade class at Harvey Clarke Elementary School and flash a nervous smile: "How many of you have ever bought something from Amazon?"

Hands shoot up into the air as I am instantly peppered by dozens of stories. My smile widens.

"Well, did you know that people a hundred years ago liked to shop just like you? But they didn't have computers or the Internet so they used catalogs. Who's ever shopped with a catalog?"

The room goes silent. And I suddenly feel ancient.

"Imagine," I explain to kids younger than the iPhone, "that Amazon was a giant book. And from that book, you could choose the things you wanted to buy. A hundred years ago they didn't have Amazon. They had Sears Roebuck & Company. And you could buy almost anything from their catalog – sewing machines, clothes, chickens and tractors for farming. You could even buy a house."

That's right, a house. Based upon nothing more than an artist's rendering and brief description, one could purchase the home of their dreams set to arrive at the nearest train station. It came, of course, in 30,000 pieces contained in two boxcars and ready to assemble like the world's most fantastic Lego set. Everything from the flooring to the exterior paint was included. One need only supply the foundation, masonry, and a plot of land.

Sound crazy? During the first half of the 1900s, more than 100,000 Americans bought such kit houses. And Sears Modern Home was at the forefront of this housing revolution, selling plans from 1908 to 1940. More than 447 house plans were available during its 32-year reign, with prices ranging from $500 for a simple bungalow to more than $5,000 for a mansion complete with servant quarters.

I hold up a plain little box stuffed with building materials. "Alright," I say. "Who wants to build their own kit house?"

Computer kids power down

Gladly, the answer is everyone. The room comes alive with the sound of craft sticks spilling over desks and onto the floor. All around me exuberant 6-year-olds morph into architects. Creativity flows as abundantly as Elmer's glue. One girl's desk is covered in the stuff. I cringe as I look at the teacher, wondering if she is silently cursing my name. But sandwiched between three first-graders, "Mrs. Woita" is the picture of serenity. I sigh with relief and then arm myself with a wad of paper towels.

Billed as the answer to affordable housing, kit houses were marketed to the middle class. With materials mass produced and pre-cut, kit houses were cheaper and faster to build than conventional houses, saving up to 40 percent of construction costs.

Kit houses also made use of new and less expensive building materials such as drywall and asphalt shingles. These innovations made kit houses more fire resistant and better insulated. Modern amenities such as electric lights, indoor bathrooms, and central heating were also huge selling points for Sears Modern Homes.

In addition to being both affordable and modern, kit houses were fully customizable. This often makes them difficult to identify today. One could add masonry, change dormers, or even reverse the entire original plan. Without documentation to prove it, it's almost impossible to know for certain which of our historic homes were delivered in a box.

Fortunately for us, there is one home in Forest Grove whose unorthodox past survives in historical records. And chances are you've passed it by without ever suspecting it was a kit house. The beautifully kept, unassuming Broderson House at 2204 A Street was built in 1924 by Art Broderson as a gift for his wife. While records indicate he purchased the "Builder Bungalow" model, it is not definitively known which plan he used.

And the question of whether there are other kit houses in Forest Grove is a topic of debate among local historians. Given that there were at least 11 kit-house companies in the US – all with a myriad of customizable plans – knowing for sure is not easy. Perhaps that's what the owners of kit houses wanted. Better to be remembered for the attractive, modern home that one built than for the fact that it came discounted in a box.

Kit-house interest fades

Despite the success of the concept and its growing popularity among Americans, the Great Depression doomed most kit-house companies. Portland's own Fenner Manufacturing Company was an early casualty, fading from the historical record in 1928.

It wasn't until after World War II when Americans were ready to start building again. And fast, inexpensive tract houses were preferred over the craftsmanship of a kit house. The story of kit houses doesn't end there, however. There has been a resurgence of kit house companies in recent years. Cabins, tiny houses, and even custom-built homes that meet LEED Gold certification are offered by a host of online retailers.

In the midst of the chaos, Woita gathers her class like chicks to a hen. "Let's make our own Sears catalog," she says. "When you're finished, come tell me the name of your house."

She pulls out a clipboard and begins to write as her students, in turn, present their creations. There are at least three Pikachu houses. Two kids have made rather adorable dogs. And then there are the builders — kids so intent on seeing their vision completed they can hardly be parted from their project. I stand in awe of their work. I wonder if, in a small way, this is how builders of kit houses felt, looking with pride upon their ideas brought to life.