This (Not Very) Old House: Part One

The House Hopping with Preservationists tour began in Virginia, continued to Ohio and jumped across the Midwest to the Great Plains and Montana. Now, we’re headed back to Vermont for a two-part post about a compromise between the historic features of a 1950 prefabricated ranch house and its incredible lack of energy efficiency. Today Jen talks about the history of her pre-fab “fabulous” house.

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By Jen Parsons

It is tricky business for someone trained in Historic Preservation to be married to an Energy Guy. It gets even trickier when remodeling your own house, while you live in it. Fortunately for us, our 1950 ranch had so little architectural flair to begin with, we joke that when the manufactured parts arrived on a truck and were plopped into assembly, the model name of our home was probably the “Spartan.”

A Home of Superior Permanent Construction

Though it is our home, we are but a number, a single item in the manufactured home series. We are number 31, 521. The most interesting feature of the home included this plaque, which hung in the laundry room (an alcove off the kitchen in the center of the home that also included the hot water heater). The National Homes Corporation of Lafayette, Indiana built the home, and the serial number is stamped in the bottom right corner.

House number 31,521.

With access to the University Library while a graduate student at UVM in Historic Preservation, I only found the following tidbits of information regarding the National Homes Corp.

From “A History of Prefabrication,” by Alfred Bruce and Harold Sandbank, Published by the J.B. Pierce Foundation, 1945:

National Homes Corp., Lafayette, Ind., began production for sale in 1940, and had sold 816 units for private use prior to 1942. During the past year, they produced 2,665 units for public war housing projects, and 102 units for private projects. Their Lafayette plant is working at its maximum capacity of 750 houses per month, which it sends out over a distance of 300 miles. At present, their unfilled orders amount to 2,872 units. The houses are prefabricated in panels on an assembly line, and grouped into four types: two 2-bedroom types selling for $2,000 and $2,400, and two 3 bedroom types, priced at $2400 and $3600. Their plans for post-war distribution are not final, but they are emphatic as to their intention to prefabricate after the war. For the postwar period, they envisage certain changes in construction, design, and distribution, but precise data are not yet ready for publication.

The Exterior of the National Homes Company of Lafayette, Ind. Home, ca. 1945. From "A History of Prefabrication."

Assembly of a National Homes Company home. Judging from the window placement on the front façade and the side façade, this is probably the same model home as ours. From "A History of Prefabrication."

Assembly line of interior panels at the National Homes Company. From "A History of Prefabrication."

Interior wall panel construction. From "A History of Prefabrication."

A larger version of the above images from "A History of Prefabrication."

Our Pre-fab Fabulous Home: The Trailer on the Double-Wide

Our single level, two-bedroom, one bath, 800 square foot manufactured ranch plunked down and rested on its slab in a new post-war suburban development of quarter-acre lots in 1950. As such, one of the cool things about the neighborhood is that the trees are older, taller, and occasionally quite lovely. Quite often, I find new suburban developments rendered more barren and obtrusive by the lack of old growth around them. I call this phenomenon: “House in a field.”

Convenience, proximity and price led us to our little ranch. Without an inherent love for the style, I believe we actually uttered the phrase, “The construction is so basic. It should be easy to fix.” When you remark of “ease” when tackling a home improvement project, you might as well just dig a hole in your backyard and shovel your money into it. It would take less time and cost just as much.

The house had only one prior owner: a man who had met a German woman when he enlisted during the Korean War; he brought her home, and made her his bride. This worked well to our advantage: the German woman was a precision cleaner. Neighbors tell of her vacuuming her driveway of excess dirt.

From appearances, the house remained largely unchanged since the 1950s: the kitchen was laid out galley style. With only four plywood cabinets, a sink, a GE stove, and gold-flecked Formica countertops, the limitations were evident for modern use. The kitchen also suffered from an utter lack of electrical outlets (only one; we chose to plug in the refrigerator and the coffee maker, alternating coffee for toast occasionally). Ceiling mounted light fixtures were also lacking, thereby requiring us to use precious electrical outlets for lamps. These failings signaled that not too much futzing had transpired in the home.

Making pizza in my four square feet of counter space, original cabinets, and ca. 1980 electric stove.

Around 1980, a shed roof addition extended both gable ends toward the rear of the house and formed a long, narrow rectangular room with brown carpet and wood-paneled walls. We fondly called this “The Trailer on the Double Wide.” This added another 350 square feet or so of questionably useful space to the main block of the house, and was accessible through an opening punched out where the rear exterior wall of the original kitchen had been. More brown carpet had covered the floors of the bedrooms, with blue carpet covering the living room, while the kitchen and bath received a reprieve with VAT and vinyl tile, respectively.

Vinyl Asbestos Tile (VAT) remained under the carpet in most living spaces. Darn the “Spartan” model—our neighbors had hardwood.

As for any architectural flair of Post War building styles, features were quite Spartan as well. The two panel interior doors are old growth Douglas fir with lovely, tight grains for the stiles and rails, and plywood panels. Clear glass doorknobs and brass hinges complemented these doors. Varnish has darkened the doors over time, yet they still remain lovely.

Varnished doors and glass doorknobs.

A concave shadow molding and V-joints join the walls to each other and the walls to ceiling. The long pieces of molding were nailed to the wall with a plaster cast joint in each corner where the wall molding and ceiling moldings meet on two sides. The plaque explains this joint as allowing for expansion/contraction of a home, resulting in crack-proof walls. While this sounds unusual, we have to keep in mind now that many people were still quite used to having cracked plaster walls, and this was a home of the future, with newer, lighter modular materials.

The wood molding joins together in a plaster V-joint.

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So, how do the Preservation Student & the Energy Guy work together in this pre-fab house? Stay tuned for part two. 

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Jen Parsons graduated from the University of Vermont with a Masters degree in Historic Preservation and lives in the Green Mountain State. With a young child at home, she mostly preserves heirloom cookie recipes currently. She is sick of remodeling old houses, this being her third, and is looking forward to finally rehabilitating her 1966 Scotty Gaucho canned ham camper this summer…or building a tiny house. You never know.

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21 thoughts on “This (Not Very) Old House: Part One

  1. Jen Parsons says:

    Great link, Jim. Enjoyed looking at your neighborhood and the Place & Co. homes. It is interesting to see neighborhoods done in groups of homes purchased from one manufacturer–mine has several, too. One interesting thing in our neighborhood is a real lack of turnover…As the original owners of the manufactured homes here are passing away, they are replaced by couples who utilize them as starter homes. Therefore, there are quite a few that have seen little modification, but more and more they are getting major renovations. This is a pretty tight housing market, so the houses are primarily owned and not rented. You’ve actually got to hand it to companies like Place & Co and National Homes for building places that really have stood up pretty well with minimal work done to them. –Jen

  2. sargebehr says:

    Like you, my parents purchased a ‘National Homes’ prefabricated home ca. 1955 east of Dayton, Ohio, constructed by one of the then-largest ‘National’ contractor, H. B. Layne. As was typical for this contractor, he built 490 homes in the tract (previews began in Sept., 1955, with the final sale being made before Thanksgiving, 1955. Our home was completed by April, 1956 (by this time, Layne had moved on to his next tract located in Xenia, Ohio, ‘Laynewood’, today a tract of over 1,500 homes). Prior to our tract, Layne had constructed similar sized tracts in Springfield, Fairborn, New Carlisle, and Vandalia, Ohio. Our tract was of the newly-styled ‘Customline’ homes consisting of 3 bedroom 1 bath (865 sq. ft.) and 4 bedroom 1 1/2 bath (1,046 sq. ft.) models. These homes were constructed in 4 foot variations (36 x 24 ft. and 40 x 24 sq. ft.. respectively priced at $11,500 and $12,500 including approximately 6,500 sq. ft. ‘city’ lots with all assessments (water/sewerage, paved streets, concrete curbs, sidewalks, driveways) except street lighting included, with a choice of sidings and 3 distinct roof styles, all ‘color-coordinated’ throughout the tract. Financing was either conventional or, for $100 down FHA/GI with no closing costs through National Homes Acceptance Corporation at competitive interest rates. These tracts and homes certainly succeeded in fulfilling the burgeoning postwar housing ‘frenzy’ existing in America at the time and added to ‘suburbia’ of the period as well. Our home served our family of 6 people well through the years till my parents retired some 25 years later to retire to Southern California. I’m today in my late 60’s and each time I journey back for visits, they’re not complete without taking a drive through the tract, and while it’s changed over these past decades, my memories remain intact.

    • jenhallie says:

      Perhaps your home is in the brochures that Eddie linked to above. I just looked and mine is very similar to the 2 bedroom custom line homes, although there are some very minor differences–closet placement in the master bedroom is one. Thanks for sharing the history of your tract! I think these homes have made for a nice little neighborhood where we live, too, and we’re currently living as a family of 4 in the two bedroom version…
      Jen

  3. Angela Sawyer says:

    I’m researching where this home we just got was and it’s one of these houses! I was wondering how the doors were so darn narrow! Our home is “newer” at 170,439 and it’s built in Indian Heights, Indiana

  4. Scott Herron says:

    Jen,

    It was neat finding this page and your experience with your National Home home! Our very first house was a National Home (serial number 43779 built around 1952/1953). The construction sounds almost exactly the same down to the groove in the ceiling, the corner and ceiling molding and the glass doorknobs. Ours was built with hardwood flooring though and a full unfinished basement (with drive-in garage). Most of the hardwood flooring had been covered with carpet though until we ripped it all up and refinished it (except for the dining room which had water damage so we just recarpeted it).

    We moved to a new house a few years ago and are currently fixing up the old home to sell. it was a great starter home for 2 young people just getting started and hopefully we’ll be able to pass it on to someone else.

    Scott

    • jenhallie says:

      Hi Scott,

      As I noted above, our family has now expanded to a family of four in our two bedroom, so I completely understand your move. When the baby is crying, I wish longingly for 3/8″ drywall and better insulation between my room and the kids’ room!
      Jen

  5. annie514 says:

    I have a National Home also. Same doors, same molding, same lack of insulation, and same skinny walls. I love my little house. I’ve got house number 35,665 located in Maryland. Your article made me start searching and I just found a 1952 catalog with my model, The Weston. I’ve been positively giddy about that all day! It’s the little things… 🙂

  6. Grace says:

    Hi Jen. I just bought one of these homes and found the plaque explaining the crack free walls interesting. I had originally planned to put different molding up but now I’m not sure. Did you all leave the original molding or replace it?

    • Kathy says:

      I have the same question. My son just bought a National Home (only one family previously owned it) and would like to do some renovations…but the dang plaque at the top of the basement stairs says not to mess with the ceiling indentations or the molding at all the joints so “the walls can breathe”. Does this still hold true? I’ve been searching the internet for any info on National Home renovations…does anybody know?
      By the way, here in Lafayette, the old National Homes factory now makes tractor trailers instead of houses. Next time you’re stuck in traffic with an 18-wheeler in front of you, look for the “Wabash National” sticker on the semi trailer’s backdoor.

      • Scott Herron says:

        Hi Kathy,

        We filled in the ceiling grooves and corners on our house over 20 years ago despite the warning and it has held up well. All of our molding had been painted over so we ended up putting up new crown and baseboard molding and stripping and staining all the windows (along with the wood floors).

        Scott

  7. james W. Gilmore says:

    Hi Jen I bought this house 8 yrs. ago # 193171. I have insulated the entire house due
    to a cold house. I curently have the house on the market for sale. Think it was built
    about 1950″s. Built mostly for the IMB employees. Any important history on this house?

    Jim

  8. Luis says:

    #41329 Here in massachusetts. I have the same exact doorknobs and molding with v joint. My home is 1025 sq ft 3 bedroom with basement and garage.

  9. sdaven5191 says:

    Thought that the National Homes folks might like to see a four and a half minute video on YouTube about how these houses were being built back in the day! Shows most of the basic assembly process, inside the factory, then off to its new home on its new lot! And it is including how the insulation was installed inside the walls!

    I’ve had this put aside for myself for a while. My husband and I used to live in Lafayette, In back in the late 1970’s when National Homes was still cranking them out. We used to see the trucks on “the bypass” all the time, tying up traffic! See, the bypass by this time had turned into the main drag through town! And it was always oh, so very very busy!

    We never lived in one of these homes though, but I saw the insides of many. We had friends who lived in some, and parents of friends, and being the main location for the company, there were little, and a few not so little, neighborhoods all over town. Some nice, having been updated, remodeled, expanded, well cared for, and the others being the very smallest models in neighborhoods for folks with smaller budgets, where the rooms were so small, a welcome mat would have made wall-to-wall carpeting! I got downright claustrophobic in some of them. Had to go back to my subsidized 2 story 2 bedroom townhouse to feel like I could breathe again! And those teeny tiny ones were always rentals, not so very well cared for, hardly updated, never expanded.

    Anyway, the link is at the top if anyone is interested. Your house looks wonderful, and I’m so pleased you now have greatly improved your living space and quality! Because quality is what it’s really all about, isn’t it?

  10. Branden bearinger says:

    Has anyone run into a problem when reselling one of these houses because it is technically a modular? I am looking at one to buy right now and the title states it’s a timber frame ranch but I’m worried if it gets reinspected it will be classified as a modular and therefore be harder to sell and get financing for. Anyone have any thoughts?

    • Eddie says:

      It never came up when I purchased mine, and I basically sold it twice because the first buyer fell through with a DUI. Never came up with either seller.

  11. Russ says:

    My Mom, Dad, and I moved into #22684 on my sixth birthday, 53 years ago. Today, the house is mine and I’m fixing it up to sell. The plaque in the utility room greatly helped my girlfriend, a serious sleuther, to find out MUCH about the house and the “National Homes Corporation.” I have to admit, I find the house much more interesting, now, than when I grew up in it.

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