Magazine article Humanities

Built in a Day

Magazine article Humanities

Built in a Day

Article excerpt

Capturing the Era of Catalog Architecture

The Aladdin catalog tempted would-be homeowners with dream homes they could build themselves. These were affordable homes for the average American, but they carried upscale names: the Jasmine, the Brentwood, and the Pasadena.

Aladdin claimed they could be "built in a day." That wasn't quite truea week, or two, or three was more likely. But built they were-fifty thousand of them. Along with bigger firms such as Sears, Aladdin changed the architectural landscape of twentieth-century American architecture.

The story of Aladdin is now being pieced together by scholars at Central Michigan University's Clarke Historical Library from business records, catalogs, and architectural drawings, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The corporate records are the gift of an anonymous donor, who bought a warehouse and simply found them there. They include fifteen thousand drawings, two hundred linear feet of business records, and a complete set of the annual catalogs. University staff members have had to work carefully to retrieve the papers, many of which were damaged by water. The documents cover the life of the company from 1906 until it ceased operations in 1982.

"The Aladdin records have scholarly significance because these are the houses people aspired to live in," says Frank Boles, director of the Clarke Historical Library. "Average Americans don't aspire to own a Frank Lloyd Wright house, really."

The records show how Aladdin and other companies marketed precut buildings for whole new neighborhoods and then for the creation of entire new towns. A single home was replicated again and again across the countryside. Aladdin, based in Bay City, Michigan, sold catalog homes across the country, as well as in Canada and England.

Precut homes made a lasting impression on the United States, according to Robert Schweitzer and Michael W. R. Davis, authors of America's Favorite Homes: Mail-Order Catalogues as a Guide to Popular Early 2t)th Century Houses. With their simple styles, they represent the majority of American houses built in the first half of the twentieth century and the majority of those lived in throughout the century.

Aladdin began when William T. Sovereign, a lawyer by training, took note of a friend's success in selling "knocked down" boats by mail. Sovereign reasoned that if the parts of a boat could be machined ready-to-ship and nailed together by an amateur, houses could be sold the same way. Sovereign enlisted the help of his brother, Otto, who worked in advertising. Although they weren't designers, the Sovereigns were comfortable as entrepreneurs: Their father made his money in Michigan's booming lumber business.

Taking over their mother's kitchen as a design studio, the brothers sketched out a simple wooden building that could be put to a variety of uses. They contracted with a local sawmill to produce this precut building, printed a two-page catalog, and were in business. As with any small business, money was tight. Boles tells the story of how Otto realized that if he got an advertisement to a newspaper right on its deadline, the paper had no time to do a credit check and, rather than lose the business, would run the ad anyway. The Sovereigns took advantage of that insight to place a small, one-time ad in the Saturday Evening Post. A week later they heard from their first customera man from Detroit who needed to build three houses and three barns for his family on their new land in Idaho. The Sovereign brothers had both order and payment by the end of the day, and the Aladdin home was on its way.

The business went well. By 1915, sales had reached $1.1 million. The 2,800 homes Aladdin sold in 1918 constituted 2.37 percent of the housing starts in the nation. In 1926, production reached a peak of 3,650 units.

It was a competitive market between Sears, Ward, and Harris of Chicago, Gordon-Van Tine of Davenport, Iowa, Hodgson of Dover, Massachusetts, and three other Michigan firms, Mershon & Morley, Lewis, and Sterling. …

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