Architecture
12:25 am
Sat January 11, 2014

Historic House Is Yours Free, But There's A Catch

Originally published on Sat January 11, 2014 7:53 am

This little house is looking for a home.

In the past five years, 600 single-family homes have been demolished in Arlington, Va., many to make way for larger houses, according to a preservation group. One architectural firm is so determined to save one 1920s Sears kit house from demolition, it's giving the house away for free. But there's a catch: the buyer would need to pay to move it to a new location.

The 960-square-foot house is a Wellington model, a style of home Sears sold by catalog in 1926 through its mail order Modern Homes program. Preservationist Eric Dobson stood in the freezing cold in front of the house recently, flipping to its picture in a replica of a Sears catalog, and explaining the process.

"You would order everything from your light fixtures, to your lamp, [the wall covering], kitchen cabinets, the whole thing, whether you get a garage or not. And then it just shipped to you," Dobson says.

The property owner bought the plot for $750,000 but doesn't want to live in the tiny bungalow. It is cute and inviting with its original fireplace, and a living room, dining room, two bedrooms and a kitchen. Paola Lugli and Paola Amodeo are the architects for the client who bought the land. They wanted to preserve the house rather than tear it down.

"So we thought, why not?" Lugli says. "Let's move it."

They'd like to go further than just preserve the historic building, she explained. Such a house could also be used as a coffee shop or an art center.

"We are from Italy and we respect historic structure," Lugli says. "We want them to have continued life, new life, different life."

Dobson is with Preservation Arlington, which featured the house on its website. He says there are between 100 and 200 kit houses in Arlington County, dating back to when it was a working class community, but they are disappearing. Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold more than 70,000 of the mail order homes between 1908 and 1940. There were more than 400 styles, ranging from dignified, multi-story models such as The Ivanhoe, to the three-room, no-bath summer cottage called The Goldenrod.

Cynthia Liccese-Torres, Arlington County's historic preservation coordinator, says the homes were very popular in the area because there was a rail line nearby.

"The materials would be delivered, and then whoever was purchasing the kit would have them shipped to the building lot," Liccese-Torres explains. She thinks it is important to preserve the house because it is part of Arlington's character. "This typifies the types of homes that were originally built here and being able to reuse it just shows how they are still viable, even in the 21st century."

But Lugli's partner, Amodeo, says moving the house will be quite a project. The house would need to be lifted off the foundation, without its two porches, placed on a truck and moved. A contractor would need to disconnect and cap off the utilities at its current location, which is not cheap.

"Just to put it on a truck and move it locally, it's about $30,000," Amodeo says. That estimate doesn't include any work needed once the house is at the new site, such as a foundation for the house. Such a thing couldn't be done in Europe.

"In Italy, everything is built out of concrete and brick," she laughs. "You couldn't just lift a house."

Lugli is certain it's feasible to move this little Wellington model, though it won't be simple. "Obviously there's a little work involved," she admits. "Just a tad."

Despite the challenges, the architects have received nearly 150 emails about the Sears house; they're scheduling meetings in hopes of finding it a new home.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

People order shoes, laptops, all kinds of stuff over the Web these days, but in the early 1900s Sears, Roebuck and Company sold kits to be made into homes. In Arlington, Virginia, one was set to be bulldozed, but an architectural firm is so determined to save it, the house is being given away for free. NPR's Allison Keyes explains.

ALLISON KEYES BYLINE: Preservation buff Eric Dobson and architect Paola Lugli stood in the freezing cold on the lawn in front of the 960 square-foot house flipping through a replica of a Sears catalog.

PAOLA LUGLI: You guys said it's a Wellington? I think it's...

BYLINE: It is a Wellington, a style of homes sold by Sears in 1926 through it's mail-order modern homes program. Dobson explains how it worked.

ERIC DOBSON: You'd order everything from your light fixtures to your lamp, the wall covering that would go on there, kitchen cabinets, the whole thing; whether you get a garage or not. And then it was just shipped to you.

BYLINE: The house is small but cute, with a living room, dining room, two bedrooms and an unfinished basement. It's also got its original fireplace. Lugli's client bought the property for $750,000 but didn't want to live in the house. Architect Lugli and her business partner decided they wanted to preserve the bungalow rather than demolish it.

LUGLI: So we thought why not move it. Let's move it.

BYLINE: She says they were thinking of something more elastic then simply preserving it or demolishing it. Maybe someone could use it as a coffee shop or an art center.

LUGLI: We are from Italy and respect historic structure and we want them to have continued life, new life, different life.

DOBSON: We have somewhere between 200 of these in Arlington County.

BYLINE: Preservationist Dobson says the little houses date from a period when Arlington was a working-class community, but they're disappearing. What was then called Sears, Roebuck and Company sold more than 70,000 of the mail-order homes between 1908 and 1940. Arlington County's historic coordinator, Cynthia Liccese-Torres, explains that railroad lines are one reason the small bungalows were so popular in this area.

CYNTHIA LICCESE-TORRES HISTORIC COORDINATOR, ARLINGTON COUNTY: There was a train stop not too far from here, and so the materials would be delivered and then whoever was purchasing the kit would have them shipped to the building lot.

BYLINE: She thinks it's important to preserve the house because it's part of Arlington's character.

COUNTY: This typifies the types of homes that were originally built here and being able to reuse just shows how they're still viable even in the 21st century.

BYLINE: But Lugli's partner, architect Paola Amodeo, says moving the house is a project.

PAOLA AMODEO: The house as it is gets lifted off. All the walls, the doors, everything comes with it. And you put it on a truck and move it.

BYLINE: She says it won't be cheap either.

AMODEO: Just to put it on a truck and move it locally, it's about $30,000.

LUGLI: It's 24 feet wide or by 36 about that, so it's feasible. Obviously a lot of work involved.

BYLINE: Just a tad.

(LAUGHTER)

LUGLI: Just a tad, but yeah.

BYLINE: The architects say they've got nearly 150 emails and they're scheduling meetings about the Sears house. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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