An Old Flower Blooms
Original Sears kit house in Denver regains its Victorian charms.
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Harry Kushniroff saw the potential the first time he drove by the house. He also saw the work it needed. And so, he passed on the stately old place at West 41st Avenue and Harlan Street in Denver, Colo. A year later, he happened to drive by again, and there it was, still for sale.
"I thought, I can't believe it's still for sale. Even though it needed to be painted, it was solid. There were no major cracks in the foundation. Even though it hadn't been lived in for three years, all the woodwork was there, all the doors, door knobs, everything it would take to put the house back to its original condition... You don't find that all the time."
That hardly impressed Harry's wife, Gretchen. Pregnant with her first child, she took one look at the place and said forget it. For starters, it was much too big. And there was no plumbing or power — at least not the kind of plumbing and power Gretchen was used to. The exterior was an awful shade of pink, and out back lay all kinds of junk, chicken coops and a claw-foot bathtub.
"No way were we going to live there," she says. "My parents and everyone around us said, 'You guys are nuts.'"
Because Gretchen didn't want to live there, Harry planned to use the house, which came with five rental units, as investment property. But first, he had to get it in livable condition. For eight months, he spent days at his job in a real estate office, and evenings, sometimes until 1 or 2 a.m., working on the house.
He recalls it as a time of endless work in which he and Gretchen saw each other only in passing.
"When we bought it, the water lines were completely corroded shut," Harry recalls. "The bathrooms were terrible. It had electrical to the house, but it had what are called zip cords — one plug in a room with cords running along the walls. The whole property was run down. Every one of the windows had to be reworked. We had to fix a lot of plaster walls, and in the entrance area, I steamed off eight or nine layers of wallpaper. Most of it was paper, but some was frocked. Some very ornate. It was amazing. It probably took me a good month just to get all the junk out that was not part of the original house."
But as work progressed, Gretchen began to have a change of heart.
"Once we got some electric in here and I could see, I started walking around ... The more you get used to something, it gets smaller. The more Harry worked on it, I thought, 'You know, we could live here.'"
That was in 1985. The Kushniroffs, now a family of four, spent many days restoring the old Victorian to its original glory. And they learned a few things about the property along the way.
Built by a European businessman back in 1906, it was originally a carnation plantation. The second owners, the Jenkins, bought the house in the 1920s. The house stayed in the family until the Kushniroffs bought it, making them only the third owners in nearly a century.
It was a member of the Jenkins family who filled Harry in on the home's history.
"He told me, 'You may find the Sears mold around here that was used to make all these concrete blocks.' He said that this was a kit when it was built. Everything was shipped here. That's why everything blends and matches so well. I never did find the mold, but we saw another house similar to this in Chicago — same mold, same kind of block, same everything."
What makes the block unusual, Harry says, is the size, a full 24 inches wide and 8 inches high, and the beveled edges on each block.
"On bricks today, when they strike them, the strike is indented. But this was struck so that the concrete had a rounded mortar joint. They must have had a tool that made it round."
While the couple never found the mold, they have no doubt the house is an original kit house. Sears offered the kits during the early part of the century with prices for the materials and plans for a six-room bungalow or cottage well under $1,000. In the 30 years the kits were available, Sears offered 450 models and sold more than 100,000 kits.
Inside, the house features the original black walnut floors, old ornate hot water registers, window seats, many of the original windows and two fireplaces, one of which appears to be marble, but is, in fact, an import from England.
"It's glass baked on metal," Harry says. "It's so ornate. To get as precise as they did, it must have been an art form back then."
For more information on Sears homes and the Arts & Craft movement, check out these books and internet sites.
Houses by Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company By Katherine Cole Stevenson
Sears, Roebuck Catalog of Houses, 1926: An Unabridged Reprint By Sears, Roebuck and Company
Lori Tobias writes for Scripps Howard News Service.
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