A Chip Off the Old Block

Use these clues to determine if your new listing is made of concrete blocks, a desirable low-maintenance home representing a piece of American history.

June 1, 2009

Concrete block houses are nearly ubiquitous in the United States; yet they are often overlooked, even though they represent a special, but short, period of residential construction in American history.

If you find that your new listing is one of these unique homes, you have much to promote to potential buyers who might appreciate a slice of Americana with their home purchase.

These concrete block homes are easy to sell, especially when they can be identified as a Sears Roebuck catalog design, according to Mary Strang, ABR®, CRS®, broker-owner of RE/MAX Hill Country Realty in Viroqua, Wis.

“The ones we’ve sold were definitely Sears ... they really stand out,” Strang says. “This was not a mass production.”

The History Behind These Homes

Companies such as Sears Roebuck and Co. and Montgomery Ward sold special equipment to make ornamental concrete blocks during the early 20th century when many Americans depended on mail-order catalogs to deliver basic supplies.

Sears sold a cast-iron machine called the Wizard, which builders used to make their own hollow-core forms by pouring a liquid mixture into the mold, allowing it to dry, slipping them out, and making more.

Interchangeable molds allowed the builders to create different finishes: rough-cut stone, cobblestone, brick, diamond, and faux brick. What’s more, in the late-Victorian era of excessive embellishment, home owners could create blocks with beveled edges and wreaths.

“It wasn’t just blocks,” says Rebecca Hunter, author of Putting Sears Homes on the Map (Hunter, 2004). “There were porches, columns, and porch pillars.”

For a truly over-the-top façade, home owners could tint cornices or glaze their blocks with a glittery granite patina, which was highlighted during dusk and dawn.

“It was a creative medium with different styles and finishes,” Hunter says.

Initially, these blocks were used for building foundations. They were cheaper than stone and brick and could be made with local concrete and labor. It wasn’t long before they were used for the entire house, although Hunter observed that only the first level of the houses she studied in Elgin, Ill., were fronted with concrete blocks.

“It may have had to do with how heavy they were and how hard they were to hoist up,” Hunter says.

Hunter says that interest in concrete block houses peaked in 1917, when Sears and Montgomery Ward published mailers filled exclusively with concrete block home designs. While the blocks were most widely used in Victorian-era homes, they also became the base for Arts and Crafts bungalows. Some overzealous owners would even add concrete-block porches onto existing Federal and Greek Revival homes, much to the chagrin of preservationists eager to restore the houses to their original appearance. When many home owners started owning cars in the 1920s, the blocks were used to construct garages, some of which still survive.

How to Identify One

To determine if your listing is a quaint block house gem, look for these one-of-a-kind features:

  • Value in numbers. Where there’s one, there’s usually another next door. It was not uncommon for a local contractor to use a set of molds to crank out blocks by the hundreds for an entire neighborhood, church, movie theater, or gas station. Surviving examples include residences in the Hanger Hill Historic District in Little Rock, Ark., and the Edison Concept Homes in Gary, Ind.
  • Matched sets. A concrete-block house often will have a matching garage. These early buildings can be identified by their narrow garage doors, originally built for Model T autos and a small storage space.
  • Mapped clues. These homes were noted on old Sanborn Insurance Maps, drawings created for insurance company underwriters and used from the 1860s to the 1950s. Concrete structures usually got better insurance than their wood counterparts because they were fireproof. The maps also will show the structure’s original staircases and porches.
  • Railroad crossings. These distinctive homes often can be found near rail lines, even defunct ones, as supplies often were delivered by train.
  • Decorative flair. Concrete block homes tend to be more decorative — blocks typically have three-dimensional adornments and patterns — than dwellings later built from plain cinder blocks.

Strang can discern concrete block homes by comparing the homes to designs in a reproduction catalog or examining the rafters for a stamp typical of many Sears homes. These residences, if the exterior remains untouched, never need to be painted, making them virtually maintenance-free. In fact, “they're more valuable when they're not painted,” Strang says.

Hunter has found that these houses also tend be well-insulated; consequently, home owners can save on heating and cooling bills. However, their history is the biggest part of the appeal.

“Everybody likes to know they have something unique,” Strang says. “It does capture the heart of the buyer if they know they have something special.”

freelance writer

Mary Beth Klatt is a freelance writer with a passion for architecture and home design.


Residential Styles & Structural Elements

Cyma Reversa

Cyma reversa, also called an Ogee, is the opposite of cyma recta; it has a convex curve over a concave curve. Like Cyma Recta, it was used in...