Haus Schwatz: Cati's DC Real Estate


How Not to Renovate Your Historically Significant Home

Seeing the house in person was a bit like an encounter with a vampire: A once charming creature, full of life, adventures and stories, had turned into a bloodless, lifeless shell, generic, functional, and ... dead.

Not that I ever have encountered a vampire, but you will get my point here very soon.

For the past few weeks, I have been scrutinizing new listings in our area--in particular, houses built in the 1920s--for their kit home potential. Imagine my excitement last week when I came across a 1923 Sears "Fullerton" that's for sale right now--in a NE Washington D.C. neighborhood near Catholic University.

According to Mary Rowse, a much-quoted expert on mail-order homes in the DC area, there are only a couple of confirmed Fullertons left in the area. That was one of the reasons for the (unsuccessful) initiative to save the Palisade's Jesse Baltimore house from getting torn down. (This website explains in detail the significance of the Sears "Fullerton" model.) The multi-year fight was lost in 2007, and as of that date, four Fullertons remained. As it turned out, one of them happened to be the one at 2115 Monroe St NE that is now for sale.

The MLS listing promised a "totally renovated" house which even the "pickiest buyer' would love: "NEW NEW NEW!! Everything is brand new." Of course, this should have been a tip-off.

Yes, we were warned by murky pictures that raised the suspicion the narrow cypress siding might have been replaced by vinyl. Much of the wood trim and molding seemed to have been, ehm, modified. The fireplace looked like generic builder's issue, but perhaps that picture was taken in the basement? (The 'blue" picture, taken from an old listing,

shows the house in 1998--still with its original windows and and trim.)

In any case, nothing could curb our enthusiasm when we took off to look at one of DC's last Fullertons. And nothing prepared us for what we got to see. It was incredibly sad.

My Dover reprint of the 1926 Sears catalog depicts the Fullerton living room interior with crown molding, picture molding, Arts-and-Crafts door frames and stair posts, and a traditional wooden fireplace mantle.

What we got to see last week, on the other hand, was unadorned drywall and awkwardly crafted arches; a dining room chopped in half by the insertion of a powder room; purple builders' carpet in the bedrooms; a wrought iron railing that replaced the massive wooden one; hollow-core doors; pre-assembled wood floors in the living room, a cheap folding door next to the fireplace.

But why? Why tear it all out?

I emailed the photos to Mary Rowse. "Oh, no," she said. And then, with a glimpse of hope: "Maybe they just put that vinyl on top, and the old siding and window moldings are still in place?"

I wouldn't bet on it. This poor old house has not only lost its soul. It has lost its body as well.

(If "new, new, new" is your preference: 2115 Monroe St NE is on the market for $469,000. I'll be happy to show it to you.)

© 2012, Catarina Bannier


Comment balloon 9 commentsCatarina Bannier • December 20 2011 01:18AM


I owned a 1909 vintage home and referbished it back to the period.  It was a great home.

Posted by Tim Lorenz, 949 874-2247 (TIM LORENZ - Elite Home Sales Team) over 7 years ago

Tim - I bet it was a lot of fun doing that as well. What strikes me about houses like this one on Monroe, is that the renovators even take pride in their destruction. The charm of the period, the history, the character, the uniqueness, they're all lost on those people. That's what's so sad.

Posted by Catarina Bannier, DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way (Compass) over 7 years ago

It was probably less costs to renovate with newer materials than restoring to its original. It is sad, but I'm sure someone will buy it.

Posted by Pamela Seley, Residential Real Estate Agent serving SW RivCo CA (West Coast Realty Division) over 7 years ago

Catarina this is so sad! If money was an issue, they should not have done it at all! You never know what people are thinking and what is important to them but it is sad to lose a bit of history like this.

Jacque & Larry

Posted by Larry & Jacque Ficek, Realtors - Wasilla Alaska (Alaska Dream Makers) over 7 years ago

Great opening line!  I see a lot of bad renovations in our historic district.   They are usually done on the cheap, without the advice of a designer or architect.  A sad way to treat a vintage home that might have still been beautiful and loved for many more decades.

Posted by Dianne Goode, Realtor/Broker (Raleigh Cary Realty) over 7 years ago

So sorry it took me so long to respond!

Pamela- I think you're right. It was the cheapest possible way, paired with unawareness or ignorance. They probably believe they did a great job, and some buyers will think that, too. After all, what they'll buy is a function of taste and cultural preference; some people will always think, the newer, the better. It's just that these things can't be undone.

Jacque & Larry - I couldn't agree more! But, as I just said, we have to accept that these things are also a matter of taste, and even the most ignorant property owner can't be stopped from destroy-renovating if they're not in a historic district.

Dianne - I wonder what the first owner (a government employee who celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary in the house) would say if he could see it today...

Posted by Catarina Bannier, DC Real Estate The Smart And Fun Way (Compass) over 7 years ago

Catarina, I've seen some really, really bad remodels in my travels, inflicted on unsuspecting Sears Homes. Visit my site and enter "Madelia trapped in a tavern's body" to see the worst one.


It's very troubling to me that fewer than 75,000 of these historically significant homes were built, and they're being destroyed by insensitive remodeling.


Why bother buying an old house if you wish only to gut the whole thing? Very sad. Fifty years ago, we loved our homes and were satisfied with the shelter they provided for us and our families. Now we're not happy unless they have lots of granite, chrome, glass and stainless steel.


Rose Thornton

author, The Houses That Sears Built

Posted by Rosemary Thornton over 7 years ago

Hi Rose,

thanks for stopping by--I'm so flattered!!! There's so much ignorance out there. I have often found that the worst of these destroy-renovations are done by first generation Americans that have little to connect them to the house history. (And nobody seems to tell them!)


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