‘As a town, we’re a little enclave of Sears houses’

By Megan Fleming

If the walls of many State College homes could talk, they would tell you that they were hand-picked from a catalog.

Companies like Gordon-Van, Aladdin and Sears Roebuck and Co. sold plans and materials for homes out of catalogs — known as “mail-order houses” — that were shipped in full to the purchaser at the beginning of the 20th century.

“As a town, we’re a little enclave of Sears houses,” said Eric White, a director of the Highlands Civic Association.

In this day and age, Amazon and other online retailers have made goods arriving on millennial’s doorsteps more and more popular. But home-delivery of items is hardly a new idea. From 1908 to 1940, Sears, for example, sent out more than 70,000 mail-order homes around the country.

White said he didn’t know about mail-order houses until 1976, when he was looking to purchase property in the area and the previous owner mentioned the home he bought was a “Sears house.”

State College saw an increase in mail-order houses in the 1930s when both the residential and university communities were growing. At the time, the homes were affordable to buy and easy to order. Prices ranged from $1,000 to $5,000.

According to the 1992 State College Historical Property Survey, one of the first Sears houses in the area was built in 1920 by Arthur Cowell, the head of the Landscape Architecture Department at Penn State.

“He customized his mail-order home by lowering the windows so that his young children could see gardens he had designed for the property,” according to the survey.

Picking the unique details of a mail-order house was only the beginning. After the foundation was complete, the necessary materials were sent in staggered shipments and assembled by either the homeowner or a private contractor. Each shipment was labeled and came with detailed instructions for assembly.

Sears offered a full refund if purchasers were not happy with their home.
Jim and Susan Shincovich live on East Fairmount Avenue, where there are three Sears houses in a row.

The couple decided to research mail-order homes after living in them in Florida and State College. They also said a third home where they lived in Pittsburgh years ago may have been a catalog home.

Susan estimates that more than 50 percent of the homes in the area are mail order houses.
According to the College Heights Neighborhood Walking Tour, materials for the houses came from several sources and were delivered to State College via the Bellefonte Central Railroad.

One shipment might include paneled doors from Newark, N.J.; hardware and window shades from Philadelphia; paint from Summerdale; bathroom fixtures from Camden, N.J.; and wood shingles from Detroit.

Many of the mail-order houses in State College feature stone on their facades because they were built when Old Main was being rebuilt in 1929 and the stone was already quarried and on campus.

“People took advantage of the availability of the materials and the laborers, and that’s why you see so many stone houses around here,” Susan Shincovich said.

These mail-order houses are all over the area, you just have to know what to look for.  There is a big rod iron “S” on some chimneys to indicate the house was purchased from Sears. Other homes are easy to spot because of their popularity.

“As you walk around town you will start to notice the same style house,” White said. Each style house had a name in the catalog. White’s house was called a Gainsborough, and the Shincovichs live in a Stratford.

The College Heights, Holmes-Foster and Highlands neighborhoods are all listed under the National Register of Historic Places, in part because they “contribute to the architectural history of developing State College and offer a full range of early 20th-century styles,” according to the borough.

Almost 90 years later, these homes and their historic impact still line the streets of State College.

Megan Fleming is a Penn State journalism student.

NOTE: This article was written for and published in the CDT on October 10, 2017.