May 2013 O.Henry

Page 60

Great American Beauties The kit home was a true innovation, the path for millions to home ownership. Today, across the Gate City, they are hidden treasures By Jim Schlosser • Photographs by Cassie Butler


t all came together for Todd McCain during a party at his house at 318 West Bessemer Avenue. A guest happened to mention that his sister lived in a house in Chapel Hill almost exactly like McCain’s and that it was a “kit” house — meaning it was shipped in pieces by rail and assembled by the numbers. Earlier, McCain had heard that a house exactly like his stood in Danville, Virginia. It turns out that all three houses are “Brentwoods” — two-story kit houses mail-ordered from the 1917—19 catalogue of the Aladdin Corporation of Bay City, Michigan. But forget any images you might have of modular or prefab homes. The Brentwood is an Arts & Craft style house fit for any upscale neighborhood in any American city. The catalogue depicts stunning


May 2013

pictures of how the Brentwood and other Aladdin models look, with roomby-room diagrams. The mail-order homes in the Aladdin catalogue tend to look cozy with gables, turrets, eaves, dormers and other fancy architectural touches. One model, the Lamberton, looks like a house Hansel and Gretel might have occupied. McCain’s home even features a porte-cochère, a fancy term for a porch-like structure attached to the house. Cars and, once upon a time, carriages, stopped under porte-cochères to let out people. Aladdin and other kit builders, including Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, sent by rail the entire house, including plaster for the walls, roofing, flooring, nails, paint and clapboard for the exterior or cedar shingles. The buyer supplied the land and foundations. The lumber was pre-cut and The Art & Soul of Greensboro