Chicago Kit Houses

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Root Simple reader Nicole H sent me the Midwestern equivalent of the Pacific Ready-Cut kit home catalog I posted on Monday: the Chicago Wrecking Company’s 1913 A Book of Plans. They later, and wisely, changed the name of the company to Harris Brothers Homes.

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The catalog contains Wrightian styles like the one above.

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As well as the 1913 version of a tiny house.

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Need a barn? They’ve got you covered.

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Want to open a store? They’ve got a plan for that too.

The catalog contains customer testimonials such as this one from an early house flipper:

Dear Sirs:
We received the material for the house and was [sic] greatly pleased with the same. Everything was exactly as represented in your catalog and the lumber was of far better quality than I could have gotten here at a higher price.

Before we had the house nearly finished, a gentleman bought it and we realized a neat sum for our work. He now likes his cottage home so well he would not take double the price he paid me for it.
(signed). LILLY H. DAY

It’s interesting to see the subtle similarities and differences between these houses and the ones in the Pacific Ready-Cut catalog.

Between and Google Books, there’s a whole universe of copyright free literature to read.


108 Artist/Maker Federico Tobon


Update: Federico wrote up a blog post showing some of the things we talked about.

Our guest this week on the Root Simple Podcast is artist Federico Tobon of WolfCat Workshop. We talk about a lot of things including Federico’s art, adventures in extreme “makerdom,” sharpening tools, knots and even how to train cats!  This is an episode that you’ll want to follow along in the show notes so you can see Federico’s amazing work. Here’s some of the things we talk about:

You can follow Federico’s work at WolfcatWorkshop and he’s @wolfcatworkshop on Instagram. Make sure to sign up for his newsletter.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.



The Kit Houses of the Pacific Ready-Cut Home Company

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I’ve noticed that in ads and Hollywood movies, when it comes time to symbolize the values of comfort, family and domesticity the style of architecture chosen is almost always a bungalow built between the years 1900 and 1929. In the popular culture’s subconscious, Victorian houses are the haunted domain of serial killers and modern Dwell-style abodes house unhappy hipsters. The ur-North-American-house is a pre-cut kit house built between WWI and the crash of 1929.

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The Pacific Ready-Cut Home Company, like other kit houses manufactures such as Sears, milled and cut everything at a large central facility and shipped to the building site on the back of a truck or train. You hired a contractor to finish the home or you did it yourself. Like modern tract homes, you could customize your house with cabinet, door and window choices. I suspect that our house was a kit as there’s an almost exact copy a block away.

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Headquartered in Los Angeles, Pacific Ready-Cut was the largest kit house company in the United States. Looking through the 1925 catalog I spotted many familiar homes in our neighborhood. My friend Colin, who tipped me off to the catalog, found his own home. While I didn’t find our house, I found one suspiciously close, “Style #48,” whose floor plan is a mirror image of ours.

For those of you who own homes from this period, the Pacific Ready-Cut catalog can help solve restoration questions. I have a rule for restoration work around our house: if it’s missing replace it, if it’s broken repair it. When it comes time to replace missing features a kit house catalog can be invaluable.

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As an example of a typical repair, I blogged about fixing our built-in ironing board. Thanks to the Pacific Ready-Cut catalog I now know that it had a sleeve board and a tiny shelf. I can now add those items to the repair bucket list.

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When fixing our living room floor I discovered that what we thought was the front bedroom had a large doorway opening into the living room. The bedroom was actually a dining room with a curtain, probably like this one in the picture above.

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In our neighborhood, house flippers have taken to ripping out all the walls and built-in cabinets in old houses in a misguided attempt to make them conform to the current vogue for everything mid-century modern. As a real estate agent once told me, “people like an old house on the outside and a new house on the inside.” Let it be known (and you heard it first on Root Simple) that the mid-century modern trend is over. Soon, Eames chairs will be tossed out on the parkway to join unwanted 1970s Mediterranean headboards. The Pacific Ready-Cut Home catalog will become a kind of sacred scripture guiding us all back to sensibly constructed homes with solid and modest cabinets.

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Kidding aside, I really think we need a small house movement rather than a tiny house one. Why not just start building these perfectly good early 20th century houses again?

A big thanks to Colin for the tip on the catalog and on a article in the LA Times about the Pacific Ready-Cut Company. Which, before its demise switched to manufacturing surfboards! The Times article notes that there are thousands of Pacific Ready-Cut Designs not shown in the 1925 catalog I linked too.


A Rolling Miter Saw Stand


I’m spending the summer ticking off a long list of “things I should have done twenty years ago.” At the top of my list (but probably not Kelly’s) was building a rolling miter saw stand with collapsible wings to hold long pieces of wood. For years I balanced lumber off the too-short metal ends of the saw. The result? Inaccurate cuts and the risk of a trip to Kaiser’s excellent Sunset Boulevard adjacent emergency room.

There’s a plethora of great designs for miter saw stands on the interwebs. I settled on one by Jim Straud in Popular Woodworking Magazine as it made use of a rolling cabinet, a plus when your shop is tiny. Our garage consists of two Model-T sized spaces encased in a concrete bunker at the bottom of the hill on which sits our house. When I’m working on a large project I roll the tools into the empty space where I park our car.

Straud’s plan has you make a cabinet. I skipped that step and reused a cabinet I picked up at my local Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Note to LA and Oaklanites: the Reuse People of America shop also has as many cabinets as there are cars on the 405 at rush hour. There’s no need to make more! I had to buy a few pieces of wood to complete the project, but was able to make use of a large scrap of 3/4-inch melamine I had stacked in the corner of the garage. I added some wheels to make the cabinet mobile.

I painted the cabinet with homemade chalkboard paint so that I’ll know, at a glance, what’s in the drawers. The next step will be to add the adjustable stop. Perhaps I’ll also motorize the wings so that my miter saw stand can soar over the Los Angeles landscape like the Dude in The Big Lebowski dream sequence. Or maybe I’ll just fix the piece of wood I mounted backwards and only noticed when I took the photo for this blog post (extra points if you can find it). Then there’s the “improve my terrible handwriting” project. As Chaucer put it, “The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne.


The Return of the Portière?

We live in a house with a glass front door that looks straight into the bathroom. Add to this problem two cats who love to bang open the bathroom door and you’ve got a recipe for an embarrassing encounter with the UPS man. Could a portière be in our future?

A portière is a curtain that hangs in a doorway. It has a dual function: privacy and heat conservation. It stands in where a door would be clunky and inconvenient. Unfortunately, other than the beaded curtain fad of the 1960s, the portière seems to have disappeared. Was it because those beaded curtains messed up your big hair?

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Though, it should be noted, the beaded curtain predates Ann-Margaret:


But I digress.

Image: Amagase.

Image: Amagase.

The Japanese have a version of the the portière called Noren (暖簾) that can be found both inside and outside homes and businesses. According to Wikipedia,

Exterior noren are traditionally used by shops and restaurants as a means of protection from sun, wind, and dust, and for displaying a shop’s name or logo. Names are often Japanese characters, especially kanji, but may be mon emblems, Japanese rebus monograms, or abstract designs. Noren designs are generally traditional to complement their association with traditional establishments, but modern designs also exist. Interior noren are often used to separate dining areas from kitchens or other preparation areas, which also prevents smoke or smells from escaping.

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 8.40.47 AMThe August 1903 issue of Gustav Stickley’s The Craftsman has a few pages devoted to portières. At over $200 each in today’s dollars, these were luxury items. [1]

IMG_3126The very same portal that allows our UPS driver a full view of our bathroom has the telltale evidence of a past portière. In the doorway you can see the holder for a curtain rod that once held a portière.

In the name of modesty, I’ve added the portière to my long house restoration bucket list.