When Kit Homes Made a Splash

In the 1920s, homes were delivered in boxes. We found one of the originals—lovingly restored on Kittatinny Lake.

Jeff Walter’s family home sits on the east bank of peaceful Kittatinny Lake. The home arrived by train in hundreds of boxes in 1928, and was built in about three days.
Jeff Walter’s family home sits on the east bank of peaceful Kittatinny Lake. The home arrived by train in hundreds of boxes in 1928, and was built in about three days.
Photo by John Bessler

Yes, there was a time when one could buy a lakefront New Jersey home for roughly $2,000. It was a while back, of course, and spoiler alert: the home came in a box. Hundreds of boxes actually. These were kit homes, a 1920s phenomena that still has a presence in 21st century New Jersey.

Jeff Walter knows all about kit homes. Raised in Paterson, Walter summered as a child at a family retreat on Kittatinny Lake, a small, man-made lake in northwestern New Jersey, eight miles from the Pennsylvania border. Walter’s uncle purchased the circa 1928 lakefront home in 1961 for $8,500; it remains in the family.

“My father and his brother took a ride around Kittatinny Lake and spotted a for-rent sign in front of this house,” says Walter. After renting for the summer, Walter’s uncle purchased it that fall. “I spent my first birthday here, in June of 1961,” says Walter. In 1979, his parents purchased the house from his uncle for $20,000.

Walter, a genealogist and antiques dealer, long ago had moved to Pennsylvania, but when his father passed away in 2008, Walter—with longtime partner Bob Speaker—moved back to New Jersey to care for his mother. That’s when Walter fixated on learning everything he could about the home and the area.

Kittatinny Lake was, and still is, a summertime mecca beloved for its clean, clear water and no-frills atmosphere. It’s easy to get to, just off major highways and minutes from the Branchville train station. As Walter researched the area, he discovered it was chock full of kit homes—including his family’s home.

Kit homes—also called pre-cut homes—were popular in the 1920s. The homes were ordered from catalogs, fabricated piece-by-piece and shipped by train in hundreds of crates. Everything was in those crates, even the kitchen sink.

The homes were assembled on-site by the owners or a contractor, usually within three days. (This is different than today’s pre-fab homes that generally arrive at least partially assembled.) The marquee name in kit homes was Sears, which published its first Modern Homes catalog in 1908. Sears offered all the parts to build a house for around $1,000. Add-ons included appliances and a porch. It was an attractive proposition. “It was easy to get catalogs in the mail, pick out your new home, furniture and everything you need,” says Walter. “Everything was à la carte.” The crates themselves could be used to add elements to the home. “Ours were used for the attic floor,” says Walter.

Through his research, Walter learned that the family home was built by Frederick Steadman in 1928. Steadman purchased the property for $800, then bought the house kit for $746. He splurged on extras—a porch, fireplace, electrical outlets, appliances, plumbing and light fixtures—bringing the price to $2,175. Walter found the original crates in the attic. Another discovery revealed the true origins of the house.

In December 2008, Walter and Speaker began to repair the tired house. “This place was a disaster,” says Walter. “We had to take it apart, board by board.” Ever the historian, Walter poured over archived Sears catalogs in hopes of finding his home’s plan, but to no avail. With construction underway, the contractor turned up an interesting clue. “One of the windows had ‘Gordon-Van Tine’ etched on the frame,” Walter says. Further research revealed that Gordon-Van Tine homes of Davenport, Iowa, was the original manufacturer. “They started before Sears,” says Walter. “Sears saw what Van Tine was doing and started doing it themselves.” Finally, Walter found his home: Summer Cottage 305, published in a 1925 Gordon-Van Tine catalog.

Originally a building materials supplier, Gordon-Van Tine began making kit homes in 1916. Its catalog eventually offered 150 different designs. The success was short-lived: following the crash of 1929, both Gordon-Van Tine and Sears stopped selling kit homes.

At least 15 Gordon-Van Tine and Sears kit homes still stand on the eastern shore of Kittatinny Lake. “The west shore wasn’t developed until the ’50s,” says Walter. “This side of the lake has much more character.”

The nearby Sandyston Township area is believed to have as many as 30 kit homes. Why so many? Walters says they came in crates on the train that delivered milk to Borden’s Creamery in nearby Branchville. “The crates were taken by horse and wagon, sometime trucks, to the home location,” says Walter, who is researching each house for a book on the subject to be published in December in conjunction with the local historical society. (All proceeds will go to the Sandyston Township Historical Society. To order a copy, call Town Hall at 973-948-6110.)

Renovating the Kittatinny Lake home has been a labor of love for Walter and Speaker. First came the purge. “It was like an archaeological dig, ” says Walter. The pair removed bags and bags of garbage. “It was like an episode of Hoarders,” he says. “We found 40 empty butter tubs.” Important items were kept, including Walter’s great grandmother’s chandelier, blocks from his grandfather’s lithography shop and perhaps most remarkably, a photo of Babe Ruth holding a wild turkey by the neck. “Babe Ruth’s hunting guide lived in this house at one point,” explains Walter. “Ruth used to come here to hunt and play cards.”

The purge mostly complete, the pair began renovations, upgrading the kitchen and bath, and replacing the outmoded electrical system. “There was one electrial outlet in each room,” says Walter. “It was like Green Acres. You had to unplug the refrigerator to iron a shirt.”

They refinished the original floors and wainscot. Lattice was applied to the living room wall to conceal warps. They furnished the home with a mix of old and new, flea-market finds and family heirlooms. “I have everything from my grandmother’s china closet, filled with her china, to seven generations of family photos,” says Walter.

Walter and Speaker now live a busy life on the lake, feeding the ducks who arrive hungry each morning. “They waddle right up to the door and quack for food.” Their neghbors also include wild turkeys, chipmunks, rabbits and lots of bears,” says Walter. The lake is flush with trout and walleye, snapping turtles and snakes.

Speaker spends four to five hours tending his gardens each day—“gardening is my therapy,” he says. The gardens adorn the hillside leading down to the house. Meanwhile, Walter continues his work as historian for Kittatinny Lake as well as Sandyston Township Historical Society. Residents approach him all the time eager to learn the genealogy of their home. Walter is happy to oblige.

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