The Great Kantō Earthquake and Gordon Van Tine

At 11:58 a.m., on September 1, 1923, Japan was struck with an earthquake that was the worst natural disaster of their recorded history.  A 60-square mile segment of the Philippine sea plate shifted, and the resulting tectonic release was a 7.9 earthquake. A few minutes later, a tsunami hit, and a 35-foot wall of water washed over coastal cities.

Next came the fires.

The fires spread quickly through Yokohama, and there was no recourse, because the water mains had been destroyed in the earthquake. The hundreds of fires in the city soon became one, and the heat became so intense that the firestorm formed its own weather. At 4:00 pm, four hours after the earthquake, a 300-foot-high fire tornado finished off Yokohama. More than 40,000 people crowded along the banks of the Sumida River, seeking refuge from the flames. Less than 300 survived.

When it was over, more than 140,000 people were dead. Forty-five percent of Tokyo was burned.  Yokohama, “The City of Silk,” with a population of a half million people, was described as “unrecognizable.”

September 1st is now “Disaster Prevention Day,” and in schools throughout Japan, children take a moment of silence at 11:58 a.m. to honor the memory of the many who died.

And why is this a topic on a blog about kit homes?

Sometime ago, Rachel Shoemaker shared a page from a 1931 Gordon Van Tine catalog that claimed that one of their kit homes had “withstood the recent Japanese earthquake.”

Initially, I was more interested in the fact that a Gordon Van Tine kit home had been sold and shipped to Japan. But then I started to wonder, what kind of earthquake are we talking about? And that’s when I learned about the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.

I’m always interested to know if these old kit homes are still standing, but that’s ever more the case with this Gordon Van Tine #535 in Tokyo. If I have any readers familiar with Tokyo, I’d sure be grateful for some clues on where to start looking.


The Gordon Van Tine 535 (aka The Roberts) as seen on the cover of the 1916 catalog.

The Gordon Van Tine 535 (aka "The Roberts") as seen on the cover of the 1916 catalog.



From the 1931 Gordon Van Tine catalog.



I strongly suspect that "The Daily Times" is a fictitious name and that this was never a real "news" article in any local press. For one thing, three-fourths of it is a quote from some fellow who's seen dead bathtubs walking.



I guess this is a real photo (center) but the images on the periphery are a little silly.


Rachel Shoemaker found this beautiful Gordon Van Tine Roberts in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Rachel Shoemaker found this beautiful Gordon Van Tine "Roberts" in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Photo is copyright 2013 Rachel Shoemaker and may not be used or reproduced without written permission.



The whole reason that GVT put this "news" in their 1931 catalog was because it made an honest and important point: Pre-cut kit homes were very sound and well-built.


The devastation

The devastation throughout Japan was unimaginable, and the loss of life was horrific. See all the rubble in front of these buildings? That's a masonry facade that's fallen off the fronts of the buildings. I found this image online and was not able to find photo credit information.


To visit Rachel’s blog, click here.

To learn more about the Kantō Earthquake, click here.

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  1. Dale Wolicki

    Aladdin Homes also mentioned they had model homes that survived the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, although they didn’t specify which model.

  2. Mark Hardin

    Rachel Shoemaker was kind enough to share this testimonial with me a while back as well.

    I mentioned to her when she sent it to me that this would be the most challenging search I had ever attempted and it would literally be like looking for a needle in a haystack even if we knew the general area.

    I’ve spent many hours looking with no luck.

    My best guess is that E.N. Bunnell is Eben N. Bunnell of Hammond Indiana. He and his wife owned a Ford dealership in Hammond in the 1920s. I believe Mrs. Bunnel’s name was Frank, yes you read that right, Frank. Eben also had a business that sold office supplies.

    From trolling around the Ford blogs it sounds like Ford built a assembly plant sometime around 1920 in the Honmoku, Yokohama area, and that they were shipping cars to the plant partially assembled and completing assembly there.

    If the Bunnel’s were there in connection with the Ford company and Eben and Frank were really the folks that are mentioned on the testimonial its possible that the house would be there in the Honmoku area if it still exist.

    Then again I could be looking for the wrong people altogether and that wouldn’t be the first time. 🙂

  3. Mark Hardin

    Okay its been a year and a half and I still look for this house and it may not even be there. Here’s were I am now.

    E.N. Bunnell stands for Elsa Nagai Bunnell. She married Mark Dick Bunnell of Mount Blanchard Ohio.

    M.D. Bunnell was employed by Gillespie & Company of San Francisco. Elsa worked for a manufacturing trade business in Tokyo that worked to bring foreign business to Japan.

    That connection is supposedly how they came to bring the GVT kit houses to Japan. They were representing and promoting the houses and may have been representing other kit companies that sent houses to Japan.

    Mr. Bunnell made the arrangements to send the houses to Japan but died in 1921 before the houses were built and he never lived in the houses pictured in the ad (and that Elsa wrote about).

    Elsa’s grandfather, Nagai Nagayoshi was an organic chemist and Professor of Chemistry and Pharmacy at Tokyo Imperial University. He was the man responsible for discovery of ephedrine which is the main ingredient in methamphetamine.

    Interestingly her brother Alexander Nagai, served as a diplomat at the Embassy of Japan in Berlin until the end of World War II. I wonder if he was the one that got Hitler started on meth?