House designs

Assembly Required: A Brief History of 20th Century Kit Home Designs


Courtesy of BTHL

This article is part of a monthly series that explores historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building technological heritage library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Learn more about the archives here.

The concept of the kit house probably originated in the United Kingdom, but after the introduction of these mail order residences to the American market in the late 19th century, they became synonymous with the American dream.

Advertised in manufacturing catalogs, the typical kit house offered buyers pre-cut materials to assemble in permanent residences and could be shipped nationwide. Although the earliest versions were mostly simple wooden structures, by the turn of the 20th century Sears, Roebuck & Co. and other manufacturers were also supplying all heating, electrical, and plumbing components. (Concrete, brick, and masonry were not included and usually sourced locally.) Eventually, manufacturers began to market these kit homes as “vacation cabins” and “bungalows” to expand their use and convenience. applications.

Today, the BTHL houses a comprehensive catalog of publications of architectural house plans dating back to the 1800s. See an organized timeline of these structures below.

Sectional Portable Houses, DN Skillings and DB Flint, Boston, 1861
Boston-based DN Skillings and DB Flint marketed the ease and speed of building its buildings. “The construction of these buildings is so simple that two or three men without mechanical knowledge or building experience can assemble one IN LESS THAN THREE HOURS,” the catalog proclaims. The company offered specific configurations for plantation houses, officer quarters, schools, chapels, car sheds and specialized designs for hot climates.

Forrest portable homes, L. Forest & Co., Minneapolis, 1883
L. Forest & Co. claimed to offer “the cheapest, strongest and warmest portable homes on the market.” Since some of the company’s clients were immigrant settlers from the Upper Midwest, the structures had to provide “sufficient heat and stamina to cope with the harsh climate.”

Boulton & Paul, Norwich, England, 1888
This extensive catalog offers “portable buildings” made of wood and iron to serve as houses, verandas, greenhouses and farm buildings. Most of the wrought iron options feature stylistic treatments typical of the Victorian era with heavy use of galvanized corrugated iron.

Illustrated catalog of products manufactured and supplied by WC Sper Ltd., London, 1903
As “horticultural suppliers,” William Cooper Sper also offered designs for iron houses, cottages and bungalows, as well as churches, chapels and missions. The portable buildings were marketed for export and touted as “suitable for all climates – the colonies, South Africa and India”.

Aladdin’s Houses, North American Construction Co., Bay City, Michigan, 1915
The Aladdin Co. pioneered 20th century pre-cut kit homes. It survived until 1982 and was relaunched as GreenTerraHomes in 2018. During its peak years in the 1920s, the manufacturer offered a variety of styles including Craftsman, Bungalow, American Foursquare, Colonial Revival and possibly ranch houses.

Hodgson portable homes, EF Hodgson Co., Boston, 1916
Operating from 1892 to 1944, EF Hodgson Co. was a prolific retailer of vacation cottages in the Northeastern United States. While vacation cabins were its main product, the company also offered small farm buildings such as chicken coops.

Bolted cottages patented “Presto Up”, Harris Brothers Co., Chicago, 1923
From an early start as a demolition contractor for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Harris Brothers Co. grew into a major supplier of building materials with a line of kit homes in the early 20th century. This catalog presents “holiday cottages” with a patented “bolted” construction system.

Book of Houses, Gordon-Van Tine Co., Davenport, Iowa, 1941
Gordon-Van Tine Co. offered many designs using “premium lumber” for its kit home customers, but also had a special home planning service for customizable options.

Liberty pre-cut houses, Lewis Manufacturing Co., Bay City, Michigan, v. 1940
The Lewis Manufacturing Co. was one of three manufacturers of kit homes in Bay City, Michigan, and was the first producer of Aladdin Homes. The company survived the Great Depression and continued to operate through World War II (WWII) with military contracts, producing over 70,000 homes before closing production in 1975. This post-war catalog features small one-story homes to meet the growing demand for affordable housing. housing after the war.

Your general welcome panel, General Panel Corp. of California, Burbank, California, c. 1950
This catalog features a unique model designed with “step saving efficiency” that came “complete, ready to move.” In addition to the residential design, the publication offers detailed illustrations of the construction and installation methods of the panels.

Albee pre-cut houses, Albee Homes, Middleburgh Heights, Ohio, 1960
This catalog features a variety of “Architect-designed” ranch-style kit homes, with an option inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright.


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