The landscape of America is to this day dotted with pre-fabricated houses, kit cabins, modular units, and other “instant” houses. It has long been the American ideal to build ones own house but the reality has become in the last century that not all are able to do so be it for reasons of honest ineptitude, lack of desire, lack of time, and basic lack of skill. During the 1920s though (immediately following The Immigration Act of 1924) and just prior to the Great Depression men who were on the bottom of the corporate ladder but had a small amount of money and a huge desire to build a home here in America enabled “instant” homes to skyrocket in both popularity and sales. One of the companies that profited from this early DIY-esque building boom was the Ray H. Bennett Lumber Company of North Tonawanda, New York.
I first heard of the Bennett Pre-Cut House in an episode of Boardwalk Empire on the HBO channel. As Agent Nelson Van Alden (played by Michael Shannon) is remaining off-grid from his former federal security employer he settles with his émigré wife in an early subdivision filled with small bungalows crafted by Ray H. Bennetts company and referred to as “Bennett Pre Cuts”. Almost immediately I became fascinated with the idea of homes in the style of Sears & Roebuck being built in a factory, packed on pallets, and shipped via rail car to a Northeastern destination to be assembled by sub-contractors and working class stiffs. A small amount of research taught me that like Sears and Aladdin, Bennett sold kit homes from currently popular plans. His carried names such as the Flanders, the Cloverdale, and the Cleo. Once ordered, each house was crated and shipped from Tonawanda to its new owner. Bennett Homes (many still in existence today) are concentrated in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, as well as into the upper Midwest.
The introductory page of 1920 catalogue states:
“Today, more than ever before, people are seriously considering how they shall live. They realize that the inspiration of home, next to religion, is the greatest in life … The dainty cottage, the inviting bungalow, the comfortable Colonial, the cosy story and a half, these are the leading homes to-day … Bennett Homes, Better-Built and Ready-Cut, satisfy every desire and every need of home-lovers, for the dwelling-place which shall possess charm, convenience, and endurance to the greatest extent consistent with the desired investment.”
The most expensive home in the catalogue is “The Colonial”, at $4243.05, though if you paid in cash there was a 5% discount. According to the US Inflation Calculator, in today’s dollars that would be $51,887.49. The least expensive home (considerably smaller) is the “Kenmore A”, at $804.91. It should be noted, however, that these prices do not include delivery. The prices also do not include bath fixtures or extra kitchen cabinets, though they were available to purchase. Not only were the homes were pre-cut, they were even “notched for easy assembly”.
Below is a picture and plan of “The Colonial” courtesy of Keith at Instant House.
Bennett Pre-Cuts as well as other mail-order house were marketed by mail order catalog from 1906-1982. The selling company provided building plans and materials to construct the home. The materials were provided either as bulk lumber, or more commonly as precut framing boards. The latter were known simply as “kit” homes. What is so fascinating to Americans today (who seem to be consumed by one-stop shop hardware box stores) is that buyer received all the materials from one source: lumber, roofing, doors and windows, flooring, trim boards, hardware, nails, and enough paint and varnish to put 2 coats on everything. Electric, plumbing and heating fixtures were NOT provided as part of the house, but were available at extra cost. Most buyers ordered from the closest supplier, as the buyer paid the freight charges.
These well-designed, practical, homes were made of top quality materials. Lumber and hardware were purchased in bulk then the structural elements were cut to exact size at the mill and shipped to the customer. Manufacturers like Bennett claimed the pre-cut system would save the builder up to 30% compared to the cost of standard building methods.
The sacrifice however seemed to come in artistic terms. These houses were usually not distinctive designs at all, but rather copies of the most popular styles of the day. House designs and sizes were standardized and closely regulated to reduce waste in materials, but customers were encouraged to personalize their order by moving windows or doors, adding porches, fireplaces, sunrooms, window boxes, trellises, or built in cabinetry, and by selecting exterior finish and colors. Pre-cuts were sort of “choose your own adventure” but with a tool pouch.
To view a Flickr album of many of Bennett’s designs and sketches visit this page.