Museum opens new display on kit homes in Berkley

By: Joshua Gordon | Woodward Talk | Published January 29, 2015

 Berkley Historical Museum Vice Chairman James Tong puts together a display about kit homes Jan. 21 at the museum.

Berkley Historical Museum Vice Chairman James Tong puts together a display about kit homes Jan. 21 at the museum.

Photo by Deb Jacques

BERKLEY — Novi resident Andrew Mutch finds it impressive when he sees shows on television where people are redoing entire rooms in their homes.

But what would be even more impressive, Mutch said, is if someone could build an entire house from start to finish without the help of a contractor.

In the first half of the 20th century, Sears and several other companies sold kit homes, which provided every piece of wood and every last nail to someone looking to build a home, including instructions, so they could build it themselves.

The house Mutch and his wife, Wendy, have been living in for the past 12 years is a Sears kit home, and over the last couple years, they have been trying to find similar kit homes in southeast Michigan. Late last year, the Mutchs gave a presentation at the Berkley Public Library on kit homes, and much to their surprise, they found several such homes in Berkley.

“When we were invited to do the presentation on kit homes, we knew about eight or 10 kit homes in Berkley, but when we finally got done looking around the entire city, we had identified almost 40 houses in Berkley alone,” Andrew Mutch said. “We know of a bunch of homes like it in Clawson, and a lot in Royal Oak, and many communities that were streetcar suburbs of Detroit (along Woodward Avenue) have kit homes.”

The work Mutch and his wife have done in identifying kit homes in Berkley will pay off for the Berkley Historical Museum as it opens a new exhibit this month showing the kit homes in Berkley along with the original catalog pictures and descriptions to give visitors a look into the past.

Susan Richardson, chairwoman of the Berkley Historical Museum, said that when the Mutchs did their presentation at the library, it resonated with residents and the museum saw an opportunity to give people more information on the kit homes.

“The Mutchs did this presentation, and they have done a lot of research in tracking down these homes, and these kit homes are something true of a lot of homes in Berkley,” she said. “These types of homes were very popular and an inexpensive way of getting a home. Having the kit delivered and having to put it together yourself, I couldn’t imagine doing that myself, but this exhibit is a reminder of those early homes, a lot of which are still standing.”

The kit home that Mutch and his wife live in was built in 1926, and they even had an opportunity a few years ago to meet the son of the man who built their home. Most kit homes were sold between the early 1900s and World War II.

When Mutch started looking into kit homes, he said he found the concept very appealing.

“The thing that really stands out for us is the fact that so many kits homes were built by the people that lived in them,” he said. “Somebody got a catalog from Sears and picked out a house, and all the parts were shipped and unloaded on their piece of property, and they got help from relatives and friends to put the 20,000 pieces of lumber and nails and shingles together. It is the ultimate DIY project.”

Another interesting concept, Mutch said, was seeing how people have changed their homes over the years from the catalog rendition.

“There are other houses just like ours out there, and we can see how they have changed it over the years with the different people living in them,” he said. “Some look just like the day they were built,z and others people have added onto or changed.”

Richardson said that the museum staff has been looking for ways to bring people back time and time again, and bringing in unique exhibits such as this one about kit homes is a perfect fit.

“We are trying to change our displays so that people will come back to the museum and don’t feel like they have seen what is here and don’t have to come back,” she said. “We want to change it around and feature new things. Not everyone got a chance to hear the Mutchs speak, so visitors to the museum can see this interesting background on the housing in the city.

“It is fascinating to think people actually did this. I had enough trouble assembling kids’ toys, so I can’t imagine putting together a whole house.”

The Berkley Historical Museum, located inside the the former fire house at the corner of 12 Mile Road and Coolidge Highway, is open from 2-4 p.m. Sundays. Special tours are available by appointment by contacting the museum at (248) 658-3335.

Andrew and Wendy Mutch will be giving another presentation on Sears kit homes at 2 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Berkley Public Library, 3155 Coolidge Highway. To sign up for the presentation, call (248) 658-3440.