Ever heard of a “kit house?” (NOT talking cats here.) Well, in the first half of the 20th Century, buying a DIY mail-order bungalow was not uncommon, especially in Southern California. The concept actually originated in the Midwest with a highly successful company called Aladdin Homes, of Bay City, Michigan. Aladdin is credited with introducing the use of mail-order catalogs as a way to mass-market house models, designs, and building plans. In time, at least 6 major construction or lumber companies sold pre-fabricated kit homes, nationally. The most famous of these was Sears, Roebuck and Company, which was headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. But here in California, Los Angeles-based Pacific Portable Construction Company, Inc., was the big player. From 1908 to 1940, Pacific sold 37,000 of its “Ready-Cut,” ready-to-assemble, California bungalows. Today, many Angelenos may live in one of these kit houses and not even know it.
Pacific Ready-Cut homes hit their heyday in the 1920’s, when the combination of a booming California economy and a booming post-WWI population created a new generation eager to buy good, affordable housing. Pacific rose to the challenge with a series of beautiful print catalogs filled with 1,800 different designs—the majority of which were of the quintessential one-story California bungalow. However, the company also offered customized pre-fab plans for two-story homes, bungalow apartment courts, duplexes, offices, and even gas stations.
Complete house kits were delivered directly to the owner’s building site via boxcar or truck, and typically contained 12,000 or more carefully marked pieces. A 75-page instruction book accompanied the materials, which included everything from lumber, nails, doors, windows and screens, plumbing fixtures, tile, linoleum, cabinets, bookcases, hardware, roofing materials, paint, wallpaper, and so on. Kit prices might range from $200 to $25,000—and covered everything, except assembly. Sometimes, but rarely, the land was included as well. Here in L.A., the house models most popular with working and middle-class families were Spanish, English Tudor, and Italian in style. These typically sold for between $640 and $2900 per kit. And how long did it take to build these mail-order bungalows? Anywhere from three days to a month, depending on how many helping hands were available.
By 1925 (and at the peak of demand for its products), Pacific Ready-Cut ran a 24-acre mill and manufacturing facility in Huntington Park, CA, that employed 1000 skilled workers, as well as a staff of architects to create designs. It also had a showy sales facility with a dozen fully-constructed “model homes” that was located in downtown L.A. at South Hill Street, near Pico Boulevard. Nearly 80,000 people toured the models a year. In time, Pacific would add a 90-minute film to the tour that spotlighted the origins and quality of the materials used in its pre-fab houses.
It is Pacific Ready-Cut lore that, in 1926, the yet-unknown Disney brothers (Walt and Roy) purchased and built two of the company’s kit houses on a pair of side-by-side lots they owned at 2491 and 2495 Lyric Avenue. Their bungalows were located within walking distance to their Hyperion Avenue studio in the Silver Lake neighborhood of L.A. The houses, though remodeled through the years, are still there.
Exterior façade designs for many kit bungalows took their cue from Hollywood films and fantasy. And there were so many designs that entire neighborhood blocks of these were built without one house looking like another. (In contrast, of course, to the cookie-cutter style housing tracts that would later become popular during the post-WWII housing and baby boom.)
Over time, Pacific Ready-Cut opened sales offices throughout Southern California. Its kit homes were shipped to towns and cities all over the Southland . . . including Pasadena, Glendale, Torrance, Anaheim, Redlands, San Bernardino, Riverside, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Hollywood, Los Feliz, Long Beach, and more. In recent years—and depending on neighborhood—some of these pre-fab homes have sold for hundreds of thousands more than their original price.
Is your bungalow a Pacific Ready-Cut creation? It will take quite a bit of detective work to find out. Sometimes blue grease-pencil markings, used to label parts, can be found on framing wood in attics, or on the backs of cabinets or original fixtures. (Model or job numbers were marked on all parts to help Pacific’s packers gather the materials correctly, and to ensure proper assembly by new owners.) If you think you may live in a Pacific Ready-Cut home, a great place to start you research is with kit-house authority Rosemary Thornton’s California’s Kit Homes: A Reprint of the 1925 Pacific Ready-Cut Homes Catalog.
When Pacific Construction finally closed down its pre-fab bungalow operation, the company went on to become one of the first manufacturers of commercial surfboards. They were known as “Waikiki Surfboards” by Pacific Systems Homes. But that’s another story.