Keys Homes
Sunday, March 17, 2013
House history mystery

By BARBARA BOWERS Special to The Citizen

When Marlene Park Ridgeway stopped by 1324 Newton St. last month, she couldn't confirm what Michael and Leslie Christatos want to know: Is their house, built in 1921, a Sears Modern Home?

"Marlene grew up in this house and remembers that what is now our laundry shed was the playhouse her father, Ivan Park, built for her, but she said she was too young to remember anything about the house's construction," said Michael. "I've researched the house since we bought it in 1998, and some details support that it might be one of the popular mail-order models."

Amidst Michael's searches, he discovered an exact replica of "our termite-eaten front door."

From Sears' present-day stock of housing parts and materials, he ordered the new door that boasts an oval-beveled window found among the 447 different housing styles for which Sears, Roebuck and Co. pre-cut and fitted materials between 1908 and 1940.

The appeal was to budget conscious, first-time homeowners, although the assembly kits came with plans and instructions, which shrunk construction time up to 40 percent, and the balloon-style framing and drywall greatly eased the mechanics of construction for any homeowner.

Of the 100,000 or so Sears houses, thousands survive in varying degrees of condition and original appearance, but the Christatoses home doesn't precisely fit any of the molds. Perhaps a mix-and-match among Sears' many designs, one thing's for sure; 1324 Newton is a standout for its roof line.Giant, three-window dormers built into all four sides of the first-floor hip roof create three rooms on the second floor, which are then topped with another hip roof.

From its corner location at Newton and Florida streets, the angular charm of the multi-tiered hips, which start on the bungalow-style front porch and ascend to the rooftop, makes it more than an attractive Sears house design. It would have to be a deluxe Sears design because dormers are an expensive way to get a usable second floor.

The dormers may have been added at a later date -- possibly when a porch was enclosed with Jalousie windows to create the first-floor bedroom and bath -- but the foyer and staircase appear to be original, and they're naturally lit by the second floor's southwestern dormer, which suggests the dormer must be original, too.

Other features in the four-bedroom/two-bath house support the possibility of Sears origin -- but maybe not. For instance, the leaded-glass cabinets (sans doorknobs but complete with finger pulls) designed in the Craftsman style were popular in mail-order models. However, the natural oak wood accents in pillars and baseboards; the newel post, stairs and handrails in the large foyer are unusual high-end touches.

Although Sears wasn't the only company transporting do-it-yourself houses by train, beginning in 1911, its Modern Homes catalogs also included interior design ideas, such as the picture rails high on the walls of the 15-by-15-foot living room, its oak fireplace mantel and stained-glass windows on either side.

"We kept everything we thought to be original like the living room's plaster-ceiling medallion, which we matched in the dining room," said Leslie. "We don't know why the dining room's was missing."

Gone missing, too, was a shower head that disappeared during a time in the late 1990s, when the Christatoses rented their house.

"It was made in 1898 by JL Mott Iron Works in New York," said Michael. "We were on a mission to find that shower head so we hired local private investigator Dave Burns, who located it within 24 hours."

One mystery solved. And after returning the Mott shower head to its rightful place, the couple matched it with a similar one they installed when they renovated the second-floor bath.

Obviously, the antique shower heads don't fit the time frame of Sears' house models, and unlike architecture's more permanent design elements, interior design can shift on a whim. Take the fabulous chandelier in the dining room, which the Christatoses ordered from a contemporary Horchow catalog: 100 years from now, if the chandelier is still in place, it will likely add to the house-history mystery as much as, well, the kitchen's hidden room.

With no windows and a secret entry, Leslie said "we initially found the little room when we moved the refrigerator. For years we used it to store wine, then with the kitchen renovation this year, we more appropriately accessed it through a pantry."

A hurricane hole? Maybe a safe room on Hell Street?

Hell Street?

"Neighbors say Newton was known as Hell Street back in the 1950s," said Michael. "One thing Marlene confirmed when she dropped by, was that some of her Park cousins were at odds with kids from other nearby streets. I imagine them as young Marlon Brandos, on the waterfront, but probably on bicycles."

Barbara Bowers is a Key West writer and host of a radio talk show about owning and maintaining property in the Florida Keys. To suggest a home to be featured in the Keys Homes section, send an email to Homes listed for sale may not be considered.

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