Navigating the Kit House Territory // Dipen Patel

03/7/2018

Photo by: Dipen Patel

Abstract: Could you have really ordered a house by mail? How would this be possible? Everyone seems to have their own take as to how these homes were built in Volland. In order to finally put an end to the debate, this blog combines the evidence needed to prove the existence of a kit house.

Audience: The kit house has become a collectable on a local and national scale. Many locals are willing to go through the hassle of moving these kit homes because trying to mimic the same vernacular would be near impossible today.

"Navigating the Kit House Territory"

 

As soon as I lost cell phone signal, I knew; I knew that this would be an unfamiliar place, somewhere I wouldn’t normally explore. It’s funny how our mind works sometimes, drawing conclusions based on things you have experienced or seen. Often times we can be surprised by a person or a place when our assumptions turn out to be different than reality. As my navigation system told me to turn right, I couldn’t help but wonder where I was going as the familiar sounds of a car’s rubber tires against the pavement gave way to a gravel-paved landscape. My cruising speed slowed down to a mere 20 mph and my mind began painting a picture of a movie scene. Finally, I heard the navigation say those magic words, “your route guidance is now finished,” while I turned down the only road in Volland, KS.

 

This time, my mind wasn’t crazy, and I wasn’t making the wrong assumptions. Although this very first memory of Volland is from a few months ago, I can still recall it today. It is safe to say that my first impressions of the place were not so great; after all I was never a farm boy. I grew up in a suburb of Kansas City and to be in rural America like this was quite odd. Everything about it was uncomfortable, and the only things that seemed to make sense were the Volland Store and Railroad, whose trains flying by every so often would still help give life to this place.

 

I remember the subsequent weeks clearly and my curiosity with this peculiar place grew. I wanted to know more about the inception of Volland and what drew people to this place which I myself did not find appealing. After searching in the library, conducting interviews, and researching online, it became clear to me that the town was established due to necessity: a place for cattle to be loaded onto trains, bound for Chicago slaughterhouses and a place for steam engines to deliberately rest. Volland, as was the case with many other towns in Kansas, was established conveniently at a place along the tracks where steam locomotives must stop to allow their engines to cool down before continuing their journey. The Chicago Rock Island & Pacific company had created a depot in Volland in the mid-1800s which helped the stop become a shipping point for cattle moving in and out of the Flint Hill pastures. The Volland store was erected by the Kratzer brothers soon after and the store fueled life into the town until the mid-1950’s.

 

This still left an open interpretation as to how the other residential structures came to be. No matter where I looked, it seemed that everyone had their own take as to how these homes got here. It became clear that there had been some modifications to the original homes, mainly in the form of additions to accommodate a more modern family. Some believed the original homes were “kit homes”. I didn’t think much of that phrase at first, but my curiosity led me to post on basecamp (the classes communication forum) describing my findings. While some colleagues were skeptical that homes in Volland could have been kit homes, a case study on House #1 only shows overwhelming evidence to prove it as such.

Is House #1 truly a kit home?

 

To understand if this myth is truly confirmed, plausible, or busted, I set out to research the kit house. An article written by Kate Wagner in McMansion Hell outlines the steps in determining if a home is a kit model. These homes were basically a house that you could order from a catalog, and have it shipped to your building site, where “every piece of lumber, siding, doors, windows, columns, etc. were produced to exact precisions in a factory, numbered for easy assembly, and sent to the site by rail.”1

 

Here is the evidence that House #1 in Volland is, in fact, a kit house:

 

1.       Time Period

Most kit houses were sold as affordable homes at a time where most middle class families were living in “townhouses, tenements, or a rural, agrarian setting” 1. These kit home catalogs became so popular with the new invention of mass production that any average middle-class family could now afford their own home. Kit homes reached their peak popularity during the early 1900’s, in places like Volland which would be the perfect candidate. The store and town were just coming into focus and as the population grew, folks were looking for a place to live.

 

2.       Delivery Method

The close proximity of the railroad is a major sign that the kit home was a  likely choice for Volland residents. These homes were typically only delivered by the railroad since infrastructure & technology was not yet that advanced (yes, we take Amazon Prime for granted). It is safe to assume that these orders would be delivered to the railroad depot within a few weeks as soon as the houses would be ordered from the catalog. It is much harder to know how they lifted these pieces of housings to the building site, but it can be assumed that they were shipped in smaller packages for delivery by horse and wagon or even automobile. House #1 is approximately 500-600 feet from the railroad line and in that era the kit house could have been transported to its current location.

Map of Volland, KS and it's proximity to the railroad track

Photo: Google Maps

Volland Train Depot where the houses would have arrived

Photo By: Otto Kratzer

3.       Markings

Perhaps the biggest sign of a kit house is the markings used to stamp the different components of the home as “each kit contained 10,000–30,000 pieces of house and the framing members that were marked to facilitate construction”.2 Much like an Ikea furniture set today, these markings helped the average person  build the house using the set of instructions that would come with the home. As we started to deconstruct the interior of the house, it was clear that this home was indeed a kit house. Each layer and component that we peeled off the building had a unique stamp or code that indicated where each piece should go. The following series of images are proof of these findings.

A. Window & Door Trim

The window & door trim was the first element to be removed and documented during the deconstruction process. While not every single piece was marked, it might have just been enough to mark 1 set, since mostly all windows in the house were repeated elements. Here you can see the markings “B309 SIDE CASING”.

B. Typical Studs

As the plaster & lath started coming off, the stud markings started to reveal themselves. Most of these studs are marked with a label called “STUD S9” which was most likely used to indicate that they were to be used as framing members.

Photo by: Dipen Patel

Photo by: Dipen Patel

C. Top Plate

Exposing the studs also exposed the markings for the top plate, as seen here “TOP PLATE S11-8-3". While there were no bottom plate markings, it is safe to assume that this could have been on the opposite side of the stud as it was nailed to the floor.

Photo by: Dipen Patel

D. Rafters

These markings are a true sign on a catalog home. You can see the different rafters labeled “Rafter D3, Rafter D4, Rafter D5”, as they vary in size, these rafters were most likely placed exactly to the catalog specs.

Photo by: Dipen Patel

E. Roof

Even the roofing pieces have been stamped and labeled. The picture on the left shows “ROOF-S4B” indicating the wooden strips that were used to span between the rafters & hold up the plywood sheathing above. The image on the right labeled “ROOF-9-9-” were used to stabilize the ceiling as these 1x4’s connect the rafter to the ceiling joists.

Photo by: Dipen Patel

F. Shiplap Siding

Through the marking “SHIPLAP S11” we can also confirm that the siding of the house is still original and has not been replaced. After tearing off the lath and plaster, this was one of the last markings that appeared. Similar to the window trim, the siding was not stamped on every single piece but since the pieces are similar, a few stamps were all that were necessary.

Photo by: Dipen Patel

The evidence is clear that Volland, Kansas falls comfortably into kit home territory, and that House #1 is a kit house. I will continue my search for the model number and plans of this particular kit house, although an exact match may be difficult for various reasons. Most people assume that the only manufacturer of the kit house was Sears Roebuck; there were in fact many different companies that sold these types of homes in the early 1900’s. As we carry on towards completion of the project, we want to be sure to restore the kit houses’ original design intent that many people find so appealing. We have already started to reach our goal by removing the additions that were tacked onto House #1 overtime.

Photo Left by: Karl Ndieli

Photo Right by: Dipen Patel

As we work on the house, we will continue to respect what came before us, while also incorporating current construction methods, techniques, & styles.

Written by Dipen Patel

Works Cited

 

Wagner, Kate. "The Mail Order American Dream: An Introductory Guide to Identifying Kit  Houses." McMansion Hell. January 09, 2017.

Thornton, Rosemary. “Do You Have a Sears Kit Home?.” The Arts and Crafts Society. 2007