Made to Order
Many American Dreams Came Out of the Sears Catalog, Including Do-It-Yourself Houses
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 6, 1995
Orange County Edition

Imagine what Orange County must have been like in the 1920s: The “war to end all wars,” as WWI was known, was over; there were vast areas of open land for building. People were moving here from other areas of the country, and there was optimism in the air.

In this environment, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold prefabricated houses by mail-order. Its catalogue featured 80 models, from the Glen Falls house at a pricey $4,904 to the Selby at $629.

Although the kit-home program had been available as early as 1909, it was in the years after the war that it was most successful.
By 1926, 34,000 houses had been sold nationally; by 1934 there would be more than 100,000. Sears offered loans as well as houses, so the Depression hit it hard. By 1934, Sears was out of the housing business.

These mail-order houses still line the streets of older Orange County cities such as Santa Ana, Orange, Anaheim and Huntington Beach. Unpretentious, sturdy and of an ambiguous “American” architecture style, they were built to last.

And last they have, as Melanie and Dean Gittleson of Huntington Beach can attest.

A year ago, the Gittlesons moved into a Sears home that was built in 1925, when people were moving into Huntington Beach in

“In 1919, the population of Huntington Beach was 1,600,” says Barbara Milkovich, a historian specializing in community history.
“Because of the discovery of oil, the population grew to around 7,000 permanent residents with 5,000 ‘wandering’ by 1923. These were young families who had to have shelter. The Sears homes were perfect for them.”

To purchase a catalogue house in 1925 was easy. You sent a check to Sears with a filled-out form detailing which house you
wanted, with up to 100% financing available.

For your money you got: lumber, lath, millwork, sash weights, hardware,
nails, paint, tarred felt, roofing material and building plans. For a little extra,
you could consult with an interior designer.

In downtown Huntington Beach the train tracks ran parallel to Main Street,
so buyers could go downtown, get the pieces for their house off the train,
transport them to their lot and put everything together–a job they might
hire a local carpenter to help do. The Gittlesons’ house is made of redwood,
although different lumbers were used in different parts of the country.

Their home was built the year before oil drilling was allowed within the city limits. Soon, there was a proliferation of wells, and the area was drilled out quickly, Milkovich says.

Many people had wells in their front and back yards. There are two capped-off wells on the Gittlesons’ property. Among the many projects they’ve tackled since moving in was cementing over one of those wells.

The Gittlesons’ house, one of the more modest Sears models, consists of two bedrooms, a living/dining room combination, one
bathroom and the kitchen.

The house was originally around 800 square feet, with a lean-to next to the kitchen for storage. There is a small detached garage at the rear of the property.

The Gittlesons have put everything in the house back to its original state except for the kitchen, which they modernized and enlarged 200 square feet, and the bathroom, which they also updated.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t restore the redwood floors since they had been painted too many times, the last time dark red,”

Gittleson says. “We have kept all the original molding and built-in cabinets, and we took the casements off the windows and
restored the cables and weights in them so they now work. The hardest part was finding the replacement hardware. But we were able to restore the hardware that we found. “Restoring this house was a labor of love,” says Gittleson, who heads US Marketlink, an Internet worldwide web consulting company. Melanie Gittleson is a certified public accountant.

As they have worked on the home, their respect for its history has grown. Sometimes it has felt like a treasure hunt.

“There was a hedge in back that was completely overgrown with a huge pepper tree in the center of it,” Dean Gittleson says.
“When we redid the yard, we found buried in the hedge: skis with leather bindings, a bag of silver quarters from the 1960s, pop bottles from the 1950s, a 48-star American flag and tin cans that had not rusted out. In the attic, we found liquor jugs that must have been used during Prohibition.”

The home was built and occupied by the Bruce family until 1989, when the family matriarch died in her 90s.

“They had been here for so long (that) it had a lot of warmth and history to it. Neighbors tell us stories about kids and grandchildren
playing in the yard and all the fun everyone had,” Dena Gittleson says.

After the owner died, her children inherited the property and sold it to a developer.

The developer, who paid $475,000 for the house and its double lot, rented it out. It ended up going into foreclosure, and in 1993, the Gittlesons were able to buy it for $250,000.

Although they say getting a good deal on the purchase price has made it worth it for them to fix it up, it has been a struggle.

They moved in when their baby girl, Shannah, was 10 days old. There was no electricity or heat.

The house had been left to decay, so all the walls had to be stripped of mold, and the electrical wiring had to be completely redone.

A couple that had rented the home before raised chameleons and other lizards.

“They liked to keep the house humid, so when we came in and started restoring the house there were lizards coming out of the closets and walls. Between that and the spiders and bugs popping out of the overgrown yard, the place was like a jungle,” Gittleson says.

“I’d never restored a house before. I’d restored Corvettes, but that’s significantly different since you don’t have to live in them when you’re doing it.”

The couple say they are enjoying living in their small, sturdy house that was survived earthquakes, floods and fires.

“This is a comfortably sized house for us and our children,” Gittleson says. “We feel we have the best of all worlds: a traditional home, large front and back yards, a quiet neighborhood near the beach and a house that has a long history of people laughing and being happy in it.”