.Ad for ill-fated Aladdin City development near Miami Florida in 1926.
NEW HOME FOR $1,045? Sure, From Bay City's Aladdin ... in 1920!
Still Making History: Bay City Was Birthplace of Ready-Cut Home Industry
September 24, 2018
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By: Dave Rogers
Detroit is said to have put the world on wheels, but Bay City produced many of the homes where America's working classes lived.
"Many people have lived in kit houses for years without realizing the historical and architectural significance of their humble abodes," states the University of Maryland Library, which has a collection of materials on the industry.
Recent articles in magazines like Antique Home Style about Bay City's ready-cut home industry have awakened public interest nationwide about enterprises that date to the turn of the last century.
When I was working as an editorial writer for The Bay City Times in the early 1980s, two historians arrived and were helped to research this leading local industry that had passed from the scene in the previous decade. They were Michael W. R. Davis, executive director of the Detroit Historical Society and Robert Schweitzer, instructor in Architectural History at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti.
"During the first four decades of the twentieth century, pre-fabricated and catalog houses grew in popularity and number, wrote Schweitzer and Davis, commenting: "Built and occupied by farmers, merchants, the new armies of factory workers and other lower and middle-class families, these are the modest homes that today line American streets."
Few workers today would be able to afford one classic Bay City design by Lewis Manufacturing. The Standish, an early Lewis home, of which only four remain, sold last year in a Washington, D.C. suburb for $2.75 million.
I grew up in a classic 1914 Lewis Manufacturing home, called LaPlatte, at 915 Fifth Ave., with my grandparents Godfrey and Dora LaFramboise. I never knew the background of the home until I began to study local history in the 1980s.
Notably, sailor Clifford Brooks, who produced knock-down boats from his shop in southwest Bay City, was the original innovator whose concepts of pre-cut, easily-shipped small boats in 1901 led to the escalation of the ready-cut home industry a few years later.
Aladdin was launched under brothers William and Otto Sovereign, who applied advertising concepts from their experience in Detroit and Cincinnati to make Aladdin a nationwide -- and worldwide -- firm.
However, Lewis Manufacturing is said to have experimented with the production of ready-cut homes here two decades earlier.
In 1914, the Detroit Board of Commerce announced: "R. B. Lawrence, Vice-President and General Manager of the Lewis Manufacturing Company, of Bay City, Michigan, the first concern in the United States to actually manufacture a Readi-cut home, will be the first user in the United States outside of Detroit, to use the U. S. A. National Trade Mark for which the Board of Commerce awarded a $500 prize Tuesday last."
Advertised as "Readi-cut" and "Built in a Day," Aladdin and other kit home manufacturers revolutionized home buying and building for the middle class. From tiny workingman's cottages to the thrifty investor, Aladdin homes provided a solid value and easy construction.
Dupont used Aladdin to provide housing at their sites in Carney's Point, NJ, Old Hickory, TN, and Hopewell, VA. Dupont also used Aladdin to provide houses for their workers at their guncotton factory in Penniman, Virginia.
In 1925, Aladdin purchased a large parcel of land in the Redland Florida area near Miami. Otto and William Sovereign, the founders of the company, began to build a Moorish-themed city made up primarily of buildings featured in their 1920 industrial catalog. It was planned to have a population of 10,000.
The Sovereign brothers promoted the building of a "dawn-to-dusk" house on opening day on January 14, 1926, flying in all of the materials on six chartered aircraft from Fort Lauderdale on that single day. The Homestead Leader reported that hundreds of spectators gathered to watch the aircraft shuttle in the materials and to watch the crew of 21 carpenters, plasters, electricians, plumbers, and cement workers put up the house. Construction of the house commenced at 7:00 a.m., and was finished at dark, complete with electricity, plumbing, sidewalks, and landscaping. A few days later, an advertisement in the Miami News boasted that 874 homesites had been sold on opening day.
Development was snuffed out by the abrupt end of the Florida land boom of the 1920s. The last few Aladdin homes in the South Florida development were destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Dale Wolicki, architectural historian, in his 1998 book "The Historic Architecture of Bay City, Michigan," observed: "Named for the mythical tale of Aladdin and the genie who built a castle overnight for his master, the company initially operated as a front office, forwarding orders to Lewis Manufacturing and International Mill & Timber, local lumber suppliers."
International Mill and Timber, owned by Leopold Kantzler, used the trade name Sterling Homes. Kantzler had acquired the firm from William Young after a fire in 1917 and a housing slump following World War I.
States a history of the company at the Clarke Historical Library in Mt. Pleasant: "Perhaps the most storied of Aladdin's group sales were made by the Austin Motor Company in Birmingham, England. In November 1916 Austin purchased two hundred modified "Chester" houses. The houses were loaded on the SS Headley, but were lost when the ship was sunk by a German submarine." All crew members were rescued. Another shipment made it through to England.
Identifying a kit house can sometimes be challenging. The house may not be a true kit house, in the true sense of the word, because some companies like Sears and Wards sold their plans that then could be built using local materials. Some manufacturers even produced custom kit homes.
Look for stamped lumber: Every piece of framing lumber for a kit house was numbered at the factory for easy assembly at the construction site.
Sears lumber was marked with a letter and number on the tall side of the lumber and can be found two to ten inches from the end of the member. Aladdin used words. Gordon Van Tine and Montgomery Ward used numbers, separated by a hyphen.
Look at Plumbing Fixtures:
When plumbing, electrical, and heating were added to the standard kit house, sometimes the fixtures were stamps with the initials or logo of the company. For example, Sears would stamp an "R" or "SR" on those fixtures. The mark can be found on the underside, near the front of pedestal and kitchen sinks or on the lower corner, on the side furthest from the tub spout on bathtubs.
The logos might be seen on doorknobs, hinges, or miscellaneous hardware.
The home's footprint and room sizes should be a perfect match to the floor plans provided in the catalog. Pay close attention to the placement of doors and windows, chimneys, and any character-defining detail. Even if the dimensions are off by a few inches, this could signify that the house is not a kit house.
Sears offered "reversed floor plans", so the house may be a mirrored image of the floor plan shown in the catalogs.
Look for Shipping Labels: Inspect the back of millwork (wood molding and trim) for shipping labels.
Investigate shipping records: Sears houses were shipped exclusively by rail. Is the house located near a railroad line or close to where one existed in the late 1800s or early 1900s. If so, it may be possible to locate the shipping records of the materials unloaded at that station. The Sears load containing the house may be listed.
Lewis, which produced the raw materials for the more famous Aladdin Homes, actually pre-dated Aladdin by more than two decades. The history of this company also is associated with the manufacture of "Liberty" pre-cut houses, which were first introduced by the Aladdin Company. However, the Aladdin company had no manufacturing capability in the beginning and had to contract for this service from Lewis Manufacturing Co., technically the first to build a pre-cut home. It was only after the Aladdin Company had their own manufacturing plant, that Lewis Manufacturing Co. entered the market with their own pre-cut home product.
One of the longest-lived and most successful kit home companies was Aladdin, based in Bay City, Michigan, states Antique Home Style magazine in a recent issue.
Started by brothers William and Otto Sovereign in 1906, the Aladdin company remained solvent and family-owned until it shut its doors for the last time in 1981 Some local historians have asserted that Aladdin was one of the most successful industries in Bay City's history.
The title of the book written by Otto Sovereign in 1951 says it all: "Fifty Million Dollars on a Shoestring," alluding to the bonanza created starting with a one-half column inch ad in the Saturday Evening Post for a $126 2-room ready-cut house that launched their business.
Over its more than seventy years in business, Aladdin sold more than 75,000 homes. Customers included individuals and corporate clients in both domestic and international markets. Whole neighborhoods and even two towns -- Hopewell, Virginia and Austin Village near Birmingham, England -- were developed, the latter for company employees in production jobs during World War II. In a fold-out flyer sent with the 1925 catalog, the company listed by name and city more than 1000 builders of Aladdin homes as well as government and corporate customers including the State of Michigan, the president of Liberia, Dow Chemical Co., Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. and Standard Oil.
Unlike many of the other kit home companies, including Montgomery Ward, the history of Aladdin is readily available through its catalogs and corporate records at Clarke Historical Library in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.
Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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