05 May 2016

Who Designed My House?!? Was It a Kit House?

I am an architect by profession. Although the firm for which I am employed does not design single-family houses, I have designed a single-family house in the past. I might never design my own personal new-construction home from the ground up as some architects do, but I do have designs in my head for an upwards addition to this current home. I currently live in a 1920's bungalow of simple and unadorned design-- although I would pine for a slightly larger-scale home with superb Craftsman details. My wife and I both love the charm and history of older homes, if it wasn't painfully clear by the existence of this blog. Whether it's this home, or another, I may yet get to direct a large-scale renovation and/or addition of an older home for our family. I have patience in spades, so for now those designs in my head remain quelled. So, in my quest for the most thorough gathering of this home's history as I can muster, a natural question occurring to me and to any older home owner would be "Who Designed My House?" It's a question that, more often than not, may have no definitive answer.

Most Homes Aren't Architect-Designed

When one considers the traditional manner in which a trained architect would design a single-family residence, this historically has been a realm reserved for larger and more custom houses. A very large percentage of older American houses have no architect in the definition of that profession, but were rather fashioned by owners or builders using very prevalent folk and vernacular forms. This is especially true in pre-railroad days prior to the 1870's or so.

Even after the advent of the railroad system, when architectural styles became less regional and were adapted more swiftly at a wider geographical scale, designs from pattern books were heavily consulted and many owners purchased floor plans. Mail-order kit houses, such as those sold by Sears, became incredibly popular in the 1910's through 1930's. Either of these two methods meant that the house design was already prepared. According to Katherine Cole Stevenson and H. Ward Jandl in their book Houses By Mail, staff architects working for the company (in the case of Sears) prepared most of the kit house designs, however many were modifications of already prevalent styles and successfully-proven house designs. The same would generally be true of today's more prevalent "cookie-cutter" subdivisions erected by home-building companies.

If you are fortunate enough to own a larger older home, there is a better chance that its original owner commissioned its design by a professional architect. Regardless of whether or not your house is a good candidate for having been "architect-designed", it is worth a trip to your local municipality's building department or records office. There, you can inquire about the permit history for your property. You just might luck out and find an original building permit (although many of these records may no longer be in existence). If you are very lucky, you might find plans. Either the permit or the drawings would likely bear an architect's name, if there was one.

Who Designed My House?!?

So, we return to this question for my singular house. In my case, the question is as perplexing as determining which owner had my home built: Jayson Stover, Harry Renninger, or Andrew Gutekunst. Frankly, both questions might have the same answer. All three men owned this building lot separately between the relatively short span of May 1922 and October 1924. Stover was a carpenter, Renninger was a real estate broker/investor, and Gutekunst was a flooring contractor who had a known partnership with carpenter William Brosz. My prevailing theory is that the house was designed and built at the earlier portion of that span, in either 1922 or 1923, although any of these three men could have been its creator.

Some time ago, the previous owner who sold this house to us mentioned that he thought that this might be a "kit house", although I have yet to find any evidence supporting that. Aside from the fact that the location near the Ardsley train station makes delivery of a house kit a distinct possibility, I've yet to find any marking on joists or other original lumber and building materials (I will discuss kit houses in more detail in the future, but for more information you can always turn to Rosemary Thornton, a foremost authority on the subject).

Despite having found no evidence of a kit house, that did not stop me from searching through scores of kit house designs, looking for a comparable. I was most struck by this example, "The Florence" sold by Montgomery Ward in their 1930 catalog:

Courtesy of Antique Home Style
Now, this is NOT the design of my house. Most glaringly is the roof over the front porch, which extends the shape of the gabled roof fully over the porch. My house has its own separate hipped roof over the porch. Nor was this mail-order design the inspiration for my home's design-- although there could have been an earlier version of this Montgomery Ward offering, my home was built several years prior to this publication in 1930. However, there are quite a few similarities to examine here:


First, on the exterior, the overall form of a 1-1/2 sory bungalow is similar in both examples. Each has a front-gabled pitched roof and a simple, prevailing rectangular shape oriented with its length from the front of the lot to the back. Each has a front porch with three piers, and just a few steps raises the porch and the main living floor above the ground. The primary difference of the extended gable over the porch in the design for the "Florence" versus the shorter hipped roof in my house was already mentioned-- in the kit house the space above the porch added a bit more attic area. Other noticable differences are that the porch piers are trimmed lumber in the kit, whereas the builder of my house used local Chestnut Hill stone. A minor difference is that the porch is entered on the front side in the kit as opposed to the side at my house.

Further, my house has a projecting bay window at the left side facade. The kit house does not. Even though, as you'll see below in the floor plan examination, the remainder of the windows correspond to the same room functions, the size, proportions, and sash patterns of the fenestration do not match between the two designs. The front door is separate from all windows at my house, where the "Florence" incorporates the door in between two double-hung windows. (Note: the windows you see towards the back of my house are the rear addition from the 1940's, a piece not relevant in the comparison to the kit house design).

However, what most struck me when I found the "Florence" were the similarities between floor plans. Below is a comparison between the 1930 floor plan of the kit house design and what I believe to be the original 1920's floor plan of my house.


First, I must make it a point to myself to draft this sketch of my house more accurately. As an architect, I'm not thrilled with myself that I haven't yet taken the time to draw this properly, so please excuse the crudity of the sketch on the right.

The layout of the kit house and the original layout of my house are near identical. While I admit that I do not know this original layout for certain, I feel pretty confident based on conversation with the Cantlins' (long-time owners) daughter-in-law, who lived in my house for a few years in the late 1950's. I also admit that in a house of this size and shape, with five rooms plus a bathroom, there is not an infinite number of possible floor plan layouts. However, this is by far the most similar I have come across.

In both floor plans, one enters into what was the primary living room, with clear views through a cased opening into the dining room beyond. The kitchen was at the rear corner of the house, with access to the basement at this location. In my house one could also have proceeded directly to the backyard through a rear door, whereas in the kit house the back exit was at a landing a few steps down. The right side of the plan in both cases hold the two bedrooms, with a bathroom sandwiched between and a connecting hallway entered off of the dining room.

Now, with kit houses, the dimensions of the house, especially at its exterior, must match exactly in order to verify it as a kit house. This is due to the fact that in these kits, lumber was shipped in pre-cut sizes-- deviation from the lengths provided would have proved more costly and would have required more skill. The "Florence" measured 34'-0" x 22'-0", and my house measures 34'-2" x 24'-2". It's pretty close, but my house is clearly too wide to match up with this kit house design. The dimensions of the interior rooms also differ from that shown in the "Florence" design, although not by as much as is implied by my drawing.

So It's Not a Kit House-- Who Designed It?

Well, I suspect that due to the carpentry skills either of the men (Stover, Renninger, or Gutekunst) themselves, or their association with carpenters, that an existing design from some source was chosen and modified to suit the builder/owner's taste. It was not a kit, but was built-to-suit without significant elaboration, although the use of the stone piers indicates to me that the builder took some license. I hope to continue to hack away at some of the questions surrounding the house's history, and who knows, perhaps further details about this house's origins will come to light.

4 comments:

  1. My house is almost the same as yours. The main difference is lack of a closet in the front bedroom (the bathroom is made larger) and two chimneys for coal burning. Your stairs is my kitchen pantry since I'm a one story only. I found a date in the attic signed with lumber crayon "Gowen June 1920" there is also a "Gowen" marked in the crawl space.

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  2. ... we built an bedroom/bathroom addition on along the back wall. One of the considerations was building a bedroom to make a 1 1/2 story. I would have put the stairs exactly where yours are, because that was the most logical place for them. Maybe that's one reason these houses look similar, you take that rectangle's shape, try to put two bedrooms in it and the pieces naturally fall into place.

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    Replies
    1. Very interesting David! The plan above is actually what I believe to be my house's original floor plan-- ours has a back addition as well, dating to the 1940s. I've often contemplated future plans to expand living space into our attic accessed from the stairs you mention.

      Do you have any photos of the markings you found in your attic? Gowen, interestingly, is a species of cypress found in California, although not used today for lumber. It also could reference a builder/carpenter. Feel free to email me, I'd be interested to hear more.

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