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The Lay of the Land: Houses by Mail — The Rosetta Stone? The Book Every Kit House Lover Should Have.

Houses by Mail: A Guide to Sears, Roebuck and Company is book written by Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl. Published in 1986, it is the encyclopedia of Sears homes! Organized by house style, it lists every Sears model known up until then. Basically one house per page with information reproduced straight from the Sears catalogs in facsimile. Each page contains a catalog image and description, alternate model names or numbers along with which catalog year for which (In the early years the houses were numbered. Many were given names later on), the years offered, floor plans, alternate floor plans, models that were similar, etc. Everything you ever wanted or needed to know arranged neatly and sensibly, and easily accessible (at fingertip, as my husband would say). It is indexed by named models and numbered models. Frequently there are locations listed and an occasional testimonial all reprinted from the catalogs. In indispensable resource. I have used mine so often, the spine is broken in multiple places and a signature has fallen out.

My beloved copy of Houses by Mail. You can see the signature sticking out. I'll have to dig out my book-binding glue.
Poor book 😢
The first thing I did when my book arrived in the mail was to go through and mark all the pages where houses were built in Western New York (in the broadest sense of the term).

Western New York locales mentioned in Houses By Mail are:
Niagara Falls (Niagara) — Argyle
Black Rock (a neighborhood in Buffalo) (Erie) — Arlington
Rochester  (Wayne/Monroe) — Hazelton, #164
Hamburg (Erie) — Silverdale
Buffalo (Erie) — #306
Addison (Steuben) — Concord (aka #114, #2021, etc.)
Lancaster (Erie) — Saratoga
Dunkirk (Chautauqua) #124, #164, #225, Sherburne
Covington (Wyoming)  Westly
I discovered that the places mentioned came straight from the original catalogs and therefore could more or less be considered authenticated once they were found.

. . . and then I started searching.

Bennett Better Built Homes Testimonials: Hard Nuts to Crack

I spoke about testimonials in the prior post for a reason. Most testimonials, especially in the form of letters that appear in catalogs, usually include the name and town of the happy customer and the model name of the more-than-satisfactory house. That would be and is normal. Not so the Ray H Bennett company. Nope — the Bennett Better Built Homes catalogs reprint the letter with just the enthusiast's initials and usually the town. Usually the model is referenced in the letter, sometimes mentioned outside the letter. Occasionally there will be initials and a town. Okay. That is doable. Sometimes, though, there will be initials and the model but no town. Really helpful. In the early catalogs you get the sense that most of the letters are about the lumber purchased from Ray H Bennett Lumber Company — no kit house involved. Sometimes a garage is mentioned. A year or two in, the letters are about houses ordered.

The same letters were reprinted for years! In later years, the letters are reprinted with no date. It doesn't make sense to reprint a letter dated 1921 in a 1930-something or later catalog. It is a challenge finding these testimonial homes.

Sometimes I get lucky with the initials doing a census search (yay for wildcard searches) and sometimes it is absolutely hopeless, and sometimes it's somewhere in between and I find the house by sheer luck and determination.

This is one of the successful searches:
Testimonial letter that appears in the 1923 Bennett Better Built Homes Catalog. Image:
Now to find A. A. MacN in Troy, NY. It wasn't too difficult. The MacN really helped. And here, in the 1930 census is one Albert MacNaughton at 114 Oakwood Ave.

Albert MacNaughton and family 1930 Federal Census.

Okay. I am looking for a Ray H Bennett "Madison." What does a Madison look like?

Bennett Homes "Madison" from the 1920 catalog. Image:
I track down the address to a dowdy four-square with all interesting exterior details erased with vinyl and an enclosed porch. Still recognizable it's definitely a Bennett Madison. The proportions are right and the windows match up with the catalog image.
114 Oakwood Ave Troy, NY courtesy of Google Maps

Doing a search for the address, I came across a real estate listing from 2007 still with photos!

Courtesy of Movoto real estate listing.

Style 680 newel post and Conesus door

Detail from catalog describing Conesus door. Courtesy
Main newell post# 680. (link to catalog page).
Photo courtesy of Movoto real estate listing. 

Style "B" bookcase collonade. (click link to catalog page)
Photo courtesy of Movoto real estate listing. 

Style "B" bookcase collonade. (click link to catalog page)
Photo courtesy of Movoto real estate listing. 
Mr. MacNaughton's letter appeared in catalogs #21 (1922), #24 (1923), #30 (1925), and #34 (1926)

The Lay of the Land: A Testament to Testimonials!

There are many ways of finding and authenticating mail-order or plan books houses. Mortgage records, deeds, property transfers are pretty reliable if they can ultimately be traced back to a mail-order company. Some companies like Sears, Roebuck and Ray H Bennett offered their own financing. Less reliable are oral histories ("my grandfather built this house, blah, blah, blah.") unless they are backed up with paperwork. Sometimes the millwork, hardware or fixtures can be enough to authenticate a house within reasonable doubt, especially when a house design is unusual or unique or with no known clones. There are certain models every kit house manufacturer and his brother seem to have a version of (Sears Jewel/Wilmore, I'm looking especially hard at you!) and you can only really authenticate it with paper or specific millwork, hardware or fixtures, room dimension and build year.

One of the most fun ways (at least for me) are TESTIMONIALS!  Testimonials pop up everywhere — mail-order catalogs, newspaper advertisements, special advertising media like posters, postcards, and flyers. Sears utilized all of the above. In the back of their current catalog, they frequently had a special spread of photos and testimonials of houses built by John Q Public.

Two-page testimonial spread from the 1921 Sears, Roebuck Honor Bilt Modern Homes catalog. Photo from

(I've looked numerous times in the LaSalle section of Niagara Falls but can't find it. It might have been torn down, of course.) Photo from
The ads and special sales slicks were usually regional also which enables a "collector" like me to search for a certain area. One of the original Sears house researchers, Rebecca Hunter compiled a good number of testimonials in her book,  Putting Sears Homes on the Map: A Compilation of Testimonials Published in Sears Modern Homes Catalogs 1908-1940.

Manufacturer Gordon-Van Tine published a special brochure just of testimonials called, Proof of the Pudding!  Local North Tonawanda roofing and shingle manufacturers Creo-Dipt and Weatherbest published fully illustrated catalogs with photos of actual homes with the owners' names, cities and what was used on the homes. These all make it easier and more likely to find the houses.

Creo-Dipt catalog. I traced the house in the photo to 920 Highland Ave, Pelham Manor, NY
 I'll have more of all of these in the future. Stay tuned.

A Sears Love Fest on Love Road

When Sears, Roebuck ceased their mail-order home operation around 1940 (the year of their last mail order kit-home catalog), that didn't mean that they left the housing market all together. They just shifted focus. I'm not going to go into the history here but will send you over to Sears Homes of Chicagoland and to the blog post, Yes, Virginia, Sears Homes Were Built After 1940. 

The Niagara Frontier was one of the numerous areas chosen for a new Sears, Roebuck Home Club Plan community, specifically the sub-division Grandyle Village in the town of Grand Island in Erie County. 

Not a history nor geography lesson but opposite North Buffalo and up to Niagara Falls and Canada, the Niagara River splits in two and voila! you get a 33.3 square mile island before the Niagara reconnects further north. That is Grand Island. Most of Grand Island remained underdeveloped for decades (my husband says that he only remembers Fantasy Island, an amusement park, and sand flies on Grand Island when he was a kid). To this day there is no ferry or boat service connecting it to the mainland. In 1935, however, a bridge was built on the southern end of the island connecting it to the Town of Tonawanda and rapid development or planned development of the area started and in 1936 the sub-division Grandyle Village was born.
Buffalo Courier-Express February 2, 1936

Buffalo Courier-Express October 24, 1937
Development didn't happen over night and Sears, Roebuck got involved in 1940-1941, choosing Grandyle Village as a perfect location for its "Sears-Home-Club-Plan". (Full page advertisement in the Niagara Falls Gazette 1941 — click here to see full-page ad).

Buffalo Courier-Express May 11, 1941

Buffalo Courier-Express May 12, 1941
Ad in Buffalo Courier-Express August 10, 1942
That perfect location is a 2 block stretch of Love Road between East Park Road to Stony Point Road. Out of 56 planned houses, one has to presume that all 50 houses advertised were built. Not all of them survived the march of time.

Google view of Love Road. All of the houses with the exception of one are the Sears-Club-House-Plan houses.
There were about 8 styles offered and Love Road seems to have about 5 different style built. 
1520 Love Rd. Photo by Sarah Mullane.
{A very old woman came out of the 1520 Love Road when we were there. DH and I spoke to her. It was her parents' house and I was trying to get more information from her, but she would only talk about property taxes (too high) and wanting to move someplace cheaper.}

1519 Love Rd. Photo by Sarah Mullane.

1608 Love Rd. Photo by Sarah Mullane.

1626 Love Rd. Photo by Sarah Mullane.

1619 Love Rd. Photo by Sarah Mullane.
1518 Love Rd. Photo by Sarah Mullane.
For more photos of all of the Sears, Roebuck houses on Love Road, Grandyle Village, please click on the link below or under "Photo Albums to the right.

A Sears Westly in Williamsville

Even though Sears, Roebuck didn't open their first office in Buffalo, NY until 1929, their houses had a presence (albeit small) in Buffalo and her surrounding towns and suburbs for at least a decade if not more before that.

One of the prettiest and most popular houses Sears offered was the Westly, a bungalow with a balconied dormer, "Sears" columns, and the well-known (though not exclusive to Sears) 5-piece brackets. The Westly first appeared as #264B206 in 1913 and made its last appearance in 1929. It is first called The Westly in 1918. 1920 seems to be the transition year as it is offered with two floor plans — the default floor plan has two windows on the second floor in the rear of the house while the earlier floor plan with four windows on the back is offered now as alternate plan. Eventually it will only be offered with the two windows.

From the 1916 Sears, Roebuck catalog.
From the 1923 Sears, Roebuck catalog. 
Well in Williamsville, a small village located in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, there is a very pretty, charming Westly.  Our friend Mark told us about it because a friend of his, a ceramic professor at Daemen College, purchased the house in 2004, restored it and sold it a few years later. According to Mark, his friend has the Sears, Roebuck documentation so I can pretty much safely say it's been authenticated. It's on a corner lot in a particularly quaint part of Williamsville. In true Buffalo style, the dormer balcony has been enclosed but you can still see the original windows behind the outer glass. County and town records put the build year as 1922. It is the earlier version with the four windows on the second floor rear.  It is located at 178 Arend Ave.

Sears Westly 178 Arend Ave. Town of Amherst Assessment photo. (So pretty in the snow)

Photo Sarah Mullane 

Photo Sarah Mullane 

Side view. Photo Sarah Mullane 

Four windows on the second floor rear makes it the earlier version. This house has an addition. Photo Sarah Mullane 

Enclosed dormer. Photo Sarah Mullane
Enclosed dormer. Photo Sarah Mullane

You can really see the original windows and siding. Photo Sarah Mullane
Detail of bump-out, dormer, and columns. Photo Sarah Mullane

Detail of bump-out, dormer, and columns. Photo Sarah Mullane

Bump-out. Photo Sarah Mullane
Porch detail. Photo Sarah Mullane

Column details. Photo Sarah Mullane

Porch detail. Photo Sarah Mullane

Column detail. Photo Sarah Mullane

Mark's friend says that there are many Sears houses in the immediate area, but I have only found two Ray H Bennett houses in the surrounding blocks. More on those in another post.

A Wardway Model Home - The Cranford in North Tonawanda

Growing up in "downstate" New York,  Montgomery Ward was not on my flight path. New Jersey malls were usually anchored by Sears, Roebuck and J.C. Penney and my freshman year in North Carolina didn't widen my department store horizon to include Wards. I never lived beyond the Eastern Time Zone -- beyond the land of Bamberger's, B. Altman, Abraham and Strauss, and Alexander's (in addition to the usual suspects).  Boy! am I aging myself! Anyway . . .

From various accounts it looks like Wards opened a home division in Buffalo in about 1930 and they built model homes in both North Tonawanda in Niagara County and Buffalo in Erie County in the fall of that year.  While the Buffalo model home was well advertised with multiple articles and announcements,  the North Tonawanda house just had a handful of ads in local Niagara County newspapers.

The model that was chosen in North Tonawanda was the Cranford, a charming home with six rooms and a bath and the house was built at 253 Oelkers Street, North Tonawanda, NY. (a little NT trivia - Carl L. Oelkers was City Engineer from 1915 to 1943 with 1933-1934 off for WPA work.)

So far these are the only advertisements I have found for the Cranford.

Niagara Falls Gazette, September 20, 1930. 

The North Tonawanda Evening News, September 20, 1930

According to the 1940 census, 253 Oelkers was occupied by the Matthews Family-- Harold L., Edna, sons Duane and Bob, and mother-in-law Minnie Schultz. Also according to the 1940 census, they were there in 1935 so it is a good guess that they were the first owners. The  Matthews lived there at least through the death of Harold Matthews in 1972. In the latter part of the 1970s, 253 Oelkers was inhabited by the Kirsts.

I initially took some screen shots and was planning on eventually going to NT to take real-life photos (there are a lot of Bennett homes there) when I saw that it was up for sale and was having an open house!  So armed with a copy of the two ads and the catalog page, I drove 20 minutes and went to the open house.

It is a surprisingly large and (not-so-surprisingly) very charming house. Most of the original details like the hardware and lighting fixtures are gone. There is still the original telephone nook and heat vent. Outside the half-timber details have fallen victim to vinylization. Doors have been replaced. The upstairs wasn't open to the public (or at least it was blocked off and I didn't ask), but I took a few photos of the interior and many of the exterior.

Wardway model home, The Cranford, 253 Oelkers St North Tonawanda, NY built September 1930. (photo Sarah Mullane)
Windows match up nicely. (photo Sarah Mullane)

Original telephone nook in the dining room off of the kitchen. Rather high up on the wall, one would have to stand! (photo Sarah Mullane)
Vent beneath the telephone nook. (photo Sarah Mullane)
Dining room windows. Underneath the autumn decor is a decorative wooden box valance that the Real Estate agent told me the daughter of the second owners remembers from her childhood. Whether or not it's original, I can't say. I have something similar in my 1920s kitchen. (photo Sarah Mullane)

Looking down the stairs from the kitchen to the side door. Stairs to the basement on the left.
(photo Sarah Mullane)
Photos from the landing at the side door looking up to the first floor. Closet at the top, dining room on left. (photo Sarah Mullane)

View from dining room to living room. You can see the phone nook high up on the right.
(photo Sarah Mullane)

Dining room from Living room through to the back porch. Kitchen on left.
(photo Sarah Mullane)
View of Living room, front door, stairs to the right, telephone nook in dining room. (Photo courtesy of Hunt Realty.) 
Stairs to the second floor from the living room.(photo Sarah Mullane)
Kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Hunt Realty)

Image from the 1930 Wardway catalog