"No sawing required" for the construction of the house at 4921 Voltaire Street
  • "No sawing required" for the construction of the house at 4921 Voltaire Street
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Sears is no longer the retailer it once was, having been beaten to the brink of irrelevance by outlet closures and online competition. But just about anyone over 40 remembers the company’s trusty, phone-book-sized tome that contained every need, want, and whim that could conceivably be sold to an American consumer: the mail-order catalog.

The Crescent, for “folks who like a touch of individuality with good taste.”

Once upon a time in Ocean Beach, a fellow who bought a vacant lot at 4921 Voltaire Street may well have been flipping through a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog to get inspiration for his future house. Not for the furnishings, but for every piece necessary to build the structure itself — which, by some estimates, would have included 30,000 or so parts weighing some 25 tons, arriving to the lot by rail boxcar and truck.

William Feigley, a recent arrival from Kansas, didn’t want to build here for the now-famous O.B. vibe. This was the mid-1920s, many decades before the area would attain its status as a free-wheeling beach community. Most likely, according to a research report, Feigley was looking to build quickly, find a buyer, and cash out.

And in the early 20th Century, building a Sears kit home — a “Lincoln Logs on steroids,” in the words of one aficionado — seemed like a serviceable and efficient way to get the job done.

If it’s true, the structure the city has dubbed the William and Ona Feigley Spec House #1 would be one of some 70,000–75,000 homes Sears sold between 1908 and 1940, according to searsachives.com, a website maintained by the company.

No one knows how many Sears kit homes are still standing, but their owners share a camaraderie online, with several websites devoted to swapping stories, how-to advice for preserving and enhancing their homes, and research tips.

But one person’s dandy is another person’s dump, and the days appear to be numbered for the Feigley House.

The proposed replacement structure: commercial space on the ground level, two apartments on the second floor

The one-story Craftsman-style cottage has been vacant for years. It may literally be a shell of its former self — the building was gutted of its bedrooms in the 1980s when it was converted to a doctor’s office. Records of its occupancy since the medical practice left in 1989 are spotty. Complaints about squatters, trash, vandalism, and weeds have been rampant.

It came as little surprise, then, when new owners who took possession of the property last year came forward with a plan to demolish the Feigley House.

Owners plan to build a two-story structure with commercial space on the ground level, two apartments on the second floor, and a rooftop deck. Two months ago, the proposal attained slam-dunk status when the Ocean Beach Planning Board gave its near-unanimous blessing. Boardmembers praised the architect for altering the original design to the board’s liking and achieving a more Craftsman-style look, even agreeing to incorporate portions of the existing entrance in the new building.

But that proposal almost never saw the light of day. At the October 27, 2016, hearing of the city’s Historic Resources Board, staff recommended designating the Feigley House as a historic resource, which would have all but prevented its destruction.

The HonorBilt model was the highest quality of Sears’ three lines of kit homes.

Despite its blemished appearance, the Feigley House has maintained integrity in terms of design, materials, and feeling, according to the staff report. Nearly a century after its construction, the prized characteristics of its Craftsman-style architecture continue to shine through, said assistant planner Suzanne Segur, one of the report’s authors.

“Specifically, the resource exhibits a gable roof with wide eave overhang, wood cladding, decorative beams, a partial width porch with tapered square columns, wood-frame sash windows, and decorative attic vents,” Segur told the board.

It was the owner’s side that advanced the kit-home theory at the hearing, charging such an origin didn’t enhance but actually weakened historical value.

A document called the "Historic Resource Research Report," prepared by the architectural firm Brian F. Smith and Associates on behalf of the owners, asserted the Feigley House bears a telling resemblance to a “Crescent” kit home, one of the 120 models described in the Sears “HonorBilt Modern Homes” 1921 catalog.

As such, the home is “not architecturally significant,” Scott A. Moomjian, an attorney who has represented owners with historic properties, told the board.

So even if the Feigley House hadn’t been damaged, Moomjian said, by insect infestation, neglect, and weathering, it would still be nothing but a “common, undistinguished, and ordinary Craftsman home” that fell far short of being “considered an important architectural specimen.”

The adjacent property owners on Voltaire Street agreed with that assessment, said one of the owners, Sean Gogarty, of San Francisco. He said his daughter would likely run an educational therapist business on the first floor.

“Our neighbors are excited to have this building removed and replaced,” Gogarty said.

No consensus was reached about the Feigley House’s status as a Sears home. Segur said evidence was insufficient. However, the only boardmember to address that issue, assistant chair Dr. Ann Woods, found the prospect appealing. “I think kit homes are an important aspect of the Craftsman style,” Woods said, calling them “historically interesting and important.”

When it came time to vote, only three boardmembers supported historic designation — far short of the required six.

But to Woods’s point: are kit homes interesting and important?

It’s easy to understand the passion of the Sears kit-home community. The Crescent, which appears on page 29 of the 1921 catalog (between the “Ardara” and “Martha Washington” models) was intended for “folks who like a touch of individuality with good taste,” according to the description.

For as little as $1704, Feigley would have received everything except “cement, brick and plaster,” including “all the millwork, kitchen cupboard, flooring, shingles, siding, finishing lumber, building paper, eaves trough, downspout, roofing, sash weights, hardware, porch screens, painting material, lumber and lath.”

With “no sawing required” and “every piece cut and fitted, ready for its place,” Feigley would stand to save 40 percent in carpenter labor, the catalog states.

As for the design, it was more than properly vetted for the standards of the day. “Every plan is passed upon by women experts,” the catalog states. “Architects and women advisors plan economy of space.... We plan the arrangement of the kitchen to save steps for the housewife.”

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Comments

JustWondering Nov. 8, 2017 @ 4:50 a.m.

Sad when marketing material, not design, events, ownership nor condition is used to determine historical significance. And in this example, a "kit" home.

Whatever happened to private property rights? If organizations such as SOHO, the City or whomever believe there is some justifiable historical significance then they should buy it, paying fair market value for the property and maintain it in perpetuity. Instead, these self titled elites dictate what others can do or not do while having no skin in the game themselves. The arrogance is overwhelming.

I am all for preserving true historical structures, monuments and artifacts. This is especially true considering today's "politically correct mentalities"of revision to history, but considering there are many examples of craftsman type bungalows, in much better and restored condition in Ocean Beach this one should go. Remember it's true kit nature was destroyed years ago so it really just an aged deteriorating shell.

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AlexClarke Nov. 8, 2017 @ 6:16 a.m.

Let these well meaning persons pool their money buy the house and move it to a piece of property that they own. Everyone wins.

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JustWondering Nov. 8, 2017 @ 6:43 a.m.

If only they would do that. You’re right, everyone wins!

The trouble is NONE of these people will do it. They are not interested in spending their own money. But they have no problem dictating, suggesting, or labeling a dilapidated structure, owned by a private person, as some type of historical artifact. It’s total BS.

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AlexClarke Nov. 9, 2017 @ 6:42 a.m.

It is the same mentality of the "pro life" people. They are all against abortion but few, if any, of them step up and adopt unwanted children.

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Tony de Garate Nov. 8, 2017 @ 10:26 a.m.

JustWondering: May I offer a clarification. While the possible Sears connection and period marketing may be interesting, those weren't reasons offered for historic designation. Historic Resources Board staff cited Criteria C, which means the resource "embodies distinctive characteristics of a style, type, period or method or is a valuable example of the use of natural materials or craftmanship."

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JustWondering Nov. 8, 2017 @ 2:24 p.m.

I get it. But as I mentioned, there are many other examples of this style nearby on Guizot St, for example. They are in better shape. Just how many do we need according to the so called preservationists? And, how was, or is, their Devine authority derived?

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Tony de Garate Nov. 9, 2017 @ 10:08 a.m.

JustWondering: You're right about your first two points, but there's some question as to how relevant those issues should be when board members vote. Legal counsel at the HRB hearing strongly urged board members to stick to the criteria spelled out in the law, and added there's no limit to the number of designations allowed in a given area.

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JustWondering Nov. 9, 2017 @ 11:12 a.m.

While there is “criteria”, whatever or however it’s interpreted, all becomes subjective when human biases are applied.

This goes back to my first point in this thread, private property rights are being usurped by unelected boards who can, and sometime do, apply nonsensical reasoning. This typically leads to litigation where the only ones who really win in the end are the lawyers who probably lobbied for the “law” in the first place.

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Cassander Nov. 8, 2017 @ 11:31 a.m.

Actually, it's the accusations against SOHO that are "total BS."

The second page of the article makes this clear: "If the Feigley House can’t remain at its current address, could it be moved elsewhere? That’s what Coons and his organization want. “[W]hen a building has been cleared and is still very clearly an intact historic resource, we support relocating the building, but preferably still within the same neighborhood,” Amie K. Hayes, a Heritage Organisation historic resources specialist, said in an email."

SOHO is constantly working to bring buyers and sellers together to save properties—and yes, even uses its own money to restore properties for resale. They understand that historic preservation has to include plans for active reuse and commercial viability or else saving a resource will only be temporary.

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JustWondering Nov. 9, 2017 @ 11:18 a.m.

I have no issues WHATSOEVER applying historical designation to PUBLIC property as “we the people” own public property. My complaint is how it, and unelected boards, groups or individuals impose their “interpretation” , especially aesthetic ones, to private property over the rights of owners.

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swell Nov. 8, 2017 @ 2:05 p.m.

"The one-story Craftsman-style cottage"

Interesting that a Sears home is labeled Craftsman-style. I have many products with the label Craftsman™ and like those houses they are destined to be a relic of the past, to be replaced by products with the label 'Made in China'.

I suggest that preservationists visit a museum or use the internet to satisfy their nostalgia cravings. The real world needs to move forward.

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Wabbitsd Nov. 9, 2017 @ 7:22 p.m.

i am just laughing at the idea that the "proposed structure" is considered attractive and "Craftsman in nature." Is there a talented architect in the building?

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Ponzi Nov. 11, 2017 @ 7:23 p.m.

If they had only bought the house at Costco, they could return it today for a refund.

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