It’s difficult to identify mail-order homes

ELGIN, Ill. – Oh, to hear the walls speak!

It doesn’t seem like a stretch to suggest that ever since walls were invented, humans have wished they could talk. For many of those who live in places that resemble those built from mail order kits, that impossible yearning is especially keen.

It can be hard to know for certain whether a structure is a “kit house” — Sears Roebuck & Co. and a handful of other manufacturers assembled and shipped them over a period of several decades that began more than a century ago – or just looks like one. The trend faded away after the end of World War II, taking with it many answers, many utterances those walls might make, if only they could.

Laura Hernandez would be listening closely. Her carefully maintained house is the spitting image of the rendering on page 25 of the Del Rey model in “Small Houses of the Twenties: The Sears, Roebuck 1926 House Catalog,” which came with the home on North Ellsworth Street in northeast Naperville.

“There’s no mistaking it,” she said. “The detail of the floor plan is exact. The fireplace is exact.”

Distinguished by such features as an exaggerated front roof overhang, which gives generous shade to the east-facing French windows, and a trio of beveled mirrors in the front bedroom that provide a 360-degree reflection, the house does bear an unmistakable likeness to the catalog sketch. With a base price of $2,557, the Del Rey had options the original owners appear to have added, including maple flooring in the kitchen, which would set buyers back an extra $125, and storm doors and windows, for an extra $92.

While Hernandez seems to be correct that her dwelling is “one of those kit homes,” absolute proof of that has yet to be discovered. It can be hard to come by.

Elgin architectural sleuth and author Rebecca Hunter has made it her business to sort out actual kit houses and those that just appear to be. She knows of about 300 of them in Elgin – and has confirmed more than half of them – and about three dozen in Naperville, but so far she has assembled sufficient evidence to declare just six of those the real McCoy.

To those who would like to see the vintage structures preserved, Hunter’s quest has special urgency. Several of the homes she has spotted in Naperville have already been demolished and replaced with much larger, more modern structures.

When homeowners invite her into their residences to have a look around, they’re usually eager to show Hunter the original woodwork, flooring and built-ins that make their houses unique. She, on the other hand, is anxious to get down to the basement. That’s where she looks first for the clues that authenticate a suspected kit house. “The easiest (way) is to find part numbers. That’s the easiest and quickest,” said Hunter, who looks to the eaves in cellars and attics. “You should be able to stand on the floor with a flashlight and find numbers.”

When those spaces have been covered with drywall or insulation, the task becomes more difficult. Blueprints, shipping labels, county mortgage records and other paperwork are quite helpful pieces of the puzzle. But until those are found, it’s often just educated speculation, using the drive-by method.

“All I can tell you is, ‘Gee, it sure looks like the photo in the book,'” Hunter said.