Thursday, April 23, 2015

Sears Altona (or NOT!) in Webster Groves, MO

Originally thought to be a 1920 Sears Altona  •  829 Atalanta, Webster Groves, MO   
Original front porch was enclosed, and this is an added-on front porch.  
A wonderful find:
Three Sears Altonas, all on Atalanta Avenue in lovely Webster Groves, Missouri (in the greater St. Louis area).

April 27, 2015 Update:
As you can see from the comment from author Rosemary Thornton (below), there was, indeed, a good reason why she hadn't mentioned these three houses as Altonas during her 2002 interview about Sears houses on this street... she has good reason to feel that they are plan book designs that were very similar to the Altona, and not the actual Sears model itself. 

As you can see in her comment below, she points out that the original Sears catalogue design is for a 1-1/2 story house, and this one is clearly 2 full stories on the side that has the gabled dormer jutting out.  I was unable to see that element in the catalogue, as the photo is from the other side.  However, if you look at this photo, you can just make out the little bit of cornice end jutting out on that side... follow the yellow arrows (the real house in the photo is in Louisville, Illinois, and is from Rose's March 2012 blog post that I cite near the end of this post).


The yellow arrows point out where the roof line comes down into a cornice, and shows how the roof itself continues across the house, making that double-window dormer.  On the three houses in Webster Groves, that section blends into the full second story on that side of the house, instead of jutting out of the roof like a dormer.


So, Rose commented that this house design that I show here was a very common plan book design. I'm wondering if anyone knows which plan book this comes from? 

I would be tempted to write the new homeowners, and ask them if they had any reason to believe that this might have been an altered plan from Sears-- an option to make the upper bedrooms into a full second floor, instead of a half-story, but this Sears design was never offered as a pre-cut home... so, there won't be any marked lumber to support that possibility. The option is not mentioned in the catalogue, anyway.

What follows here, however, is my explanation of the process that I went through in (mistakenly) coming to the conclusion that these three homes were the Sears Altona model. And... what does all of this show? It shows how very tricky it is to authenticate a Sears house!

I recently ran across a little 2002 article in the Kirkwood-Webster Times, about Sears homes in this area (read it HERE).  It was an interview with noted researcher, Rosemary Thornton, back in the year that her first book on Sears homes was published (The Houses That Sears Built; Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sears Catalog Homes).  Rose was then living in Alton, Illinois, which is near St. Louis, so the Kirkwood-Webster Times snagged an interview.  In the article, Rose mentioned that folks had brought to her attention a (1935) Sears Crescent on this street, and a beautiful (1919) Sears No. 126.  

However, that same evening, I came across a real estate listing for another home on the same street -- 829 Atalanta Avenue-- and the description referred to it as "an original Sears house".  I was surprised, because I thought that, if there were another Sears house on that same street that Rose had visited, and mentioned in the article, then she would have mentioned it, too. But, she hadn't. Rose Thornton has an incredible eye for recognizing not only Sears houses, but models from other kit companies. She seems to have almost a photographic memory for these models. So, it's quite possible that she noticed and mentioned these Altonas, but the interviewer didn't include them in the article. I can't be sure about that, of course, but, that article was in 2002, so who knows. Somehow the owners of 829 Atalanta came to know that their house was a Sears home, so it may well have been Rose who informed them. But, it hadn't been mentioned anywhere since. 

The Altona as it was shown on the Zillow listing
(obviously, it has been painted blue since this photo was taken).

So, I showed the listing to some of my Sears-homes-researcher friends.  I didn't recognize the model, and neither did they, on first glance. 

But, then, the next day, I was flipping through my 1913 Sears Modern Homes catalogue, and I spied the No. 121 (the early name for the Altona). Wow! I'm sure it was the little front-gable surround above the front second-floor windows, and that little flower-box-looking section under them, that caught my eye.  It reminded me of the house on Atalanta -- but, it didn't look quite like it. 


Sears catalogue image, compared to 829 Atalanta.
The Atalanta home does not have the little dormer, and the front porch we see is an addition, in front of the original.

The house on Atalanta didn't have the little dormer on the right side of the roof.  And, it had an unexpected front porch protruding from the house, instead of the inset porch shown in the catalogue image. 

Trying to Verify the Altona

So, I set to work investigating.  Through St. Louis County Department of Revenue Real Estate information, and Google-map searching, I was able to compare the footprint and some side views of the Atalanta home, to the catalogue image. Bingo. I discovered that the footprint was a match, but that the original porch had been enclosed, and the porch seen here was added on in front of it.  With further help from the interior photos from the real estate listing,  I was able to compare the interior layout against the first-floor layout shown in the catalogue -- excellent results. 

Catalogue footprint image, vs the footprint shown on the St. Louis County DOR Real Estate page.
 Then, I decided to take a drive to Atalanta Avenue, on my way home from work, and snap a few of my own shots (the shots you see of the house when it is painted blue, are my original shots this past week).  However... what else did I find?? I found that there were two other houses right by this one, that I'm sure are also Altonas. One is to the right of this one, and one is to the right of the Crescent (that makes it about 4 out of 5 or 6 houses in a row, that are Sears houses, three of the same model). I'll show those in a moment, but first, the photos comparing against catalogue images:

There's no denying the similarity.  Look at those huge cornice returns, the layout of the side windows, and... there it is... the enclosure of the original porch (there where the long, slim window is).

VoilĂ !  The enclosed front porch.  There is the little skinny window you see on the outside.

Follow the colored arrows.  Living Room (Parlor) and Dining Room.

More colored arrows ;)  Dining Room, headed into pantry, a teeny view of the kitchen, and the two entrances to stairways...
the ones behind the door head down into the basement.

A different view of the Dining Room... note the stairs and the double windows.

Kitchen!  It looks like a section of the pantry was converted into a powder room.  The sink and window above it are just where the catalogue floorplan shows them to be.

More Altonas!

The (probable) Altona at 829 Atalanta was built in 1920.  Of the other two I found just near it, the one next door, at 833, was built in 1910, and the one that is just a few doors away, at 843, is shown to have been built in 1920.

This is a bit odd, because Houses By Mail (Stevenson and Jandl, page 111 -- available HERE) shows the No. 121 / Altona as being in the 1911 through 1918 catalogues. I first wondered if what happened here, is that the original house was built in 1910 or 1911, and then that same owner used his his blueprints to build the other two, in 1920. However, 843 Atalanta is the reverse footprint, so... I don't know! Additionally, I notice that there is another Altona with a build year of 1910: it is listed on the page of the Sears Archives website for Sears Homes Enthusiasts that shows a list of owners of certain homes.  Apparently, there is a 1910 No. 121/Altona in Bayport, N.Y. (Long Island):

entry from the Sears Archives page of Sears Homes Enthusiasts, available online HERE.


I compared the side views of all three houses, to compare window layout, and look for those lovely cornice returns.  I compared their footprints from the DOR listing. Everything checks out to show that these houses seem to all be the size and look of the Sears Altona.

1988 Renovation

Unfortunately, it looks like the original 1910 house, at 833 Atalanta, had remodeling done in 1988, and, as you can see from the outside, all of the original cedar shake siding, as well as the beautiful details around the top left windows. was done away with, and replaced with vinyl or aluminum siding. The front porch was also enclosed, making a smooth-across-the-front, plain vanilla, look to the front of the house.

Here are views of all three of the Altonas on Atalanta Avenue, showing the cornice-return, double-windows side of the house:
833 Atalanta • 1910 -- with all of the character stripped away!
(You can see 829 Atalanta right next to it.)

843 Atalanta • 1920

829 Atalanta • 1920

And here are shots showing the other side of the house, with the same window pattern on all three:

843 Atalanta


829 Atalanta

833 Atalanta
As always, I must add that I have not been able to authenticate that these three are Sears Altonas, because I haven't seen blueprints, a mortgage or deed record, or seen marked lumber (any one of those would cinch it).  But, I think that all evidence presented here supports the strong probability that these three wonderful homes are Sears Altonas.  

A few more views:
The 1910, with its newer plain-vanilla front.
At least spring has sprung, and the setting was gorgeous the day I took this photo.

843 Atalanta, has the least changes to the front -- the original porch, unenclosed,
and some lovely decorative wood treatments. It is the reverse floorplan from the other two.


Here are the matching backs of 833 (yellow) and 829 (blue) Atalanta.
(By the way, that cellar hatchway also matches the Sears Altona floorplan.)


If you're interested in seeing a few more Altonas, Rose Thornton has a blog post from March of 2012, showing several. Click here to read that.

If you have photos of a Sears Altona, I'd love to see them. Feel free to leave a comment below.  

p.s. I haven't forgotten about the great-looking Crescent and the magnificent No. 126 also on this street, and pointed out by Rose Thornton in her interview.... another post to come, showing those :) UPDATE:  Rose's most recent blog post shows the Atalanta Avenue No. 126 that she located back in 2002. Isn't it beautiful? Here's the post.

9 comments:

  1. I like your use of the colored arrows! Makes things a lot clearer for the reader.

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    1. It helped me to follow my thoughts when I was comparing, too :) Thanks for your comment!

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    2. The #121 was first offered in 1908. So a 1910 build date is within reason. Maybe the homeowners have some information that might help you confirm these are Sears houses--slide notes under their doors!

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  2. Fantastic post. The #843 house still shows some of the charm of the catalog design, although your first example, the now blue one, has the largest amount of its original features intact. The walls and details just look so much nicer with the cedar shakes and proper window and door trim! I would love someday to see one which still has those beautiful classical columns from the catalog drawings. Haven't read Rose Thornton's 2012 post yet -- off to do that. Great work! You have a good eye!

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    1. I do love those cedar shakes! Always!
      Glad you enjoyed :) I think you'll see that the Altonas in Rose's post are not in the original condition, either... she had a good eye for spotting them!

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  3. Actually, those aren't Altonas on Atalanta in Webster Grove, MO. See the full 2nd floor on that's shown on the left side of that first image (829 Atalanta)? You can see this full 2nd floor at 833 Atalanta, too.

    The Sears Altona is a 1-1/2 story house. The house shown in the image above is a pattern book house. The absence of the shed dormer is a dead give-away.

    This pattern book house (shown in the three images on Atalanta) was a hugely popular house in the Midwest. When I'm tooling around Missouri and Illinois, I always pull around to that OTHER side. If I see the full 2nd floor, I know it's the pattern book version, and not a Sears House.

    If you google 315 E. Main Street, Grafton, IL you'll see this "Fake Altona" (pattern book house). Again, it has the full two-story and no shed dormer. Grafton is just across the Mississippi from St. Louis.



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    1. Wow! I knew that it was a big red flag that you had not mentioned these three houses in that interview about houses on Atalanta Street. I couldn't see at all that other side of the house design, in the catalogue. And, the few that I found on your blog had so many alterations, that it was hard to use them to compare. I do see now, though!

      See? This is a perfect example of how difficult it can be to identify these houses and this is why I always add the disclaimer that I have not been able to verify the house's authenticity as a Sears home. Thanks so much for your comment, Rose!

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  4. Hi there,

    I'm the previous owner of 829 Atalanta.... I was told by the owners from whom I bought the house that it was a Sears home, and the neighbor a few blocks down the street (843 Atalanta, opposite orientation) had the Sears catalog listing of the house.

    Yes, the original porch was boxed in, and another one added. I can tell you that the 1920 date of building may likely just be an approximation. The house itself upstairs is partly 2 stories, and partly 1 1/2. Also, where the front dormer window on the roof *would* be, there's an awkward little tiny door access to the area above the porch. I don't think this was deliberately part of the original plan, because that room already has its own ample closet elsewhere. In fact, I always wondered if it was a door or window that had been boxed in because it made the roof easier to build, even before seeing the potential Sears examples.

    Regardless, I've recently sold the home, and the new owners are going to either: 1) Re-side and build an addition onto it, or 2) Tear it down and build a massive new home.

    It was wonderful living there, and the house certainly had its charms, but the lack of any outside wall insulation, and the slightly-odd floor plan were too much to deal with, not to mention keeping up the original cedar siding!

    Glad that the house has been enjoyed by others!

    -Emily

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    1. Emily, thank you so very much for leaving this comment! I'm sorry that I did not see it, to reply sooner.

      Your former house has caused quite a bit of discussion in the world of Sears house enthusiasts :)
      We would be completely thrilled if we were to learn that the previous owners (or you) had seen blueprints showing that the home was designed by Sears, or if, by any chance, shipping-label stickers might have been found on the back of woodwork around windows or doors (perhaps discovered on woodwork that might have been removed during any renovations?). Is there any chance that anyone at either 829 or 843 has ever seen that kind of thing?

      If not, we're thinking that the previous owners, and the owners of 843, might have made the same mistake that I made, and not realized, from the catalog image, that the left side of the house was 2 full stories, instead of a pointed gable, like on the right side.

      If the previous owners, or the good folks living at 843 or 833, have any information like that mentioned above, I would be absolutely delighted to hear about it. They could leave me a message here, or email me at searshouseseeker / at gmail.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

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