Boardwalk Empire and Sears Kit Homes

The last few weeks, I’ve been watching Boardwalk Empire (HBO), set in 1920s Atlantic City. It’s centered around the real life story of prohibition-era gangster Enoch Johnson, who’s known as Enoch (“Nucky”) Thompson on the show.

From the start, one of my favorite characters has been Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon). Beginning with the second season, there’s a running story line about Van Alden (and his wife Sigrid) purchasing a kit home in 1923.

Of course, that piqued my interest!

Nonetheless, as is often the case with period dramas, there’s so much wrong with the facts behind this particular story line. I tried hard to ignore the many errors but ultimately decided to write a blog instead. 🙂

The story line suggests it’s a house from Bennett Homes, but the dialogue between Nelson and Sigrid makes it clear that this house came from Sears & Roebuck. It seems that the writers used those company names interchangeably.

Check out the pictures below (and their captions) to get the real story.

Thanks to Rachel for help identifying a few of these images!

Read about a large number of Sears kit homes in Atlantic City.

Want to learn how to identify kit homes? Click here.



Nelson Van Alden (played by the inimitable Michael Shannon) is shown at his desk studying the pages of a 1922 Bennett Homes Catalog. When I first glimpsed this, I let out a little "oh my goodness" happy noise.



It's actually a Hollywood mock-up and not a real catalog. The front cover was probably pulled from an online source, and the rear cover is (apparently) from a reprint of the Bennett catalog. The storyline says that Nelson and Sigrid are living in Cicero, and yet they're buying a house from Bennett Homes from Towanda, New York? Cicero is just outside of Chicago, Illinois (home of Sears and Roebuck). Further, this cover is altered. Bennett Homes were *not* prefabricated. More on the cover below. NOTE: I'm not savvy enough to figure out how to remove close captions without taking a course at a local community college.


1922 cover

Here's the cover of the 1922 Bennett Homes catalog that Nelson is examining above. It's quite different than the image shown above. And you'll note that the word "pre-fabricated" does not appear anywhere on the cover. Neither do the children or the man (shown in the screen shot with Nelson).


Rear cover

Shown here is the true rear cover for the catalog that Nelson is examining in the first image. You'll note that it is color - not black and white (as seen on "Boardwalk Empire").



This is a shot of the "Sears & Roebuck House" (as it's described in the show). If you look closely at this house, you'll discover that it's a brick house that has been covered in diagonal planks, to replicate the look of a partially finished house. Notice the window frames, and the bracketing under the stoop. They're disappearing under the many layers of siding. Those are the clues that tell me - this house was dressed up with that fresh lumber to create the look they sought. The style of this house doesn't match ANY of the models offered by Sears, Gordon Van Tine, Bennett or any of the kit home companies with which I am familiar. Odds are good it's just a bungalow somewhere from the 1920s.



This gives a better picture of the brackets on the stoop. Notice also that the windows are 2/2 (two lites - or panes - over two panes). Sears didn't offer 2/2 windows - ever. In fact, if I am trying to identify a potential kit house, I look at the windows first, and if they're 2/2, I discount it.


next one

This shows the neighbor's brick bungalow, and notice, there's a billboard at the end of the street.


Perfection in a box

"Perfection from a Box" is a lovely thought. So while the dialogue says that this is a Sears & Roebuck house, the imagery suggests it's a Bennett house. I suspect that the writers were using those terms (Sears - Bennett) interchangeably.


Long view

Here's another view of those solid brick (not brick veneer) bungalows. And notice that the other houses are 6/6 windows, which would have been more typical in 1923. When Bennett (or Sears or Gordon Van Tine or the other companies) did an entire community of kit homes, they did NOT use the same model again and again. Nelson and Sigrid allegedly live in Cicero, Illinois. It would be interesting to know where these brick bungalows are located.



And there's this. I'm not sure what's happening under this kitchen sink, but I do know that copper plumbing was not in wide-spread use until the late 1940s or early 1950s. In 1923, it would have been galvanized supply lines and lead pipes for drains - typically. And those gate valves? Definitely not from the 1920s. Then again, neither is the plywood panel behind Nelson Van Alden.


fff house

A native Norwegian, Sigrid struggles with her English. Another recurring them in this story line is that the house has many deficiencies, which is also not accurate. Sigrid asks Nelson repeatedly if he's contacted "The Sears Roebuck" to get these deficiencies addressed. In fact, customer satisfaction with these 12,000-piece kits was very high.


Lots of dialogue on inferior

Through several episodes, Sigrid complains bitterly about problems with the house. This is a great line where Nelson explains that he has been in contact with Mr. Roebuck. In real life, Alvah Curtis Roebuck was no longer involved with the company in the 1920s, but was in Florida, making many very poor investments in land. He was bankrupted later, and in the 1930s, took a job at Sears & Roebuck cutting ribbons for the opening of new retail stores.



When Bennett or Sears or the other kit home companies built entire neighborhoods, they mixed it up a bit as shown in the catalog page above (1923).



Cicero is within 3 miles of Homan an Arthington Street (the home of Sears & Roebuck in the 1920s).



Nelson is one dapper fellow.


Read about a large number of Sears kit homes in Atlantic City.

Want to learn how to identify kit homes? Click here.



  1. Rachel J Shoemaker

    I’ve never seen this show.

    Details schmetails! 🙂

    This is too funny.

  2. Gemma

    I’ve never heard of it either, but am delighted that kit homes have made their way into fiction. (Unless you know of any others, dear Rosie)?

  3. Rivers Humber

    Hi! I’ve just found your website and I’m hoping you can help me.

    My father’s house was built in 1929 in Mississippi by his uncle. He says it is a Sears home. I have not been able to find a picture of it anywhere online.

    I would gladly purchase any of your books that might contain more information about it. Would it be possible for me to send you a picture of the house to help identify it?

    Any advice would be appreciated!

  4. Dale Wolicki

    I have never seen this show either. Must be one of those fancy UHF channels people pay for.

    As for me I still think color is a fad so don’t get me started about paying to watch television!

    I spent a week in North Tonawanda, New York (just east of Buffalo) researching Bennett Homes and they have never been given proper credit for their role in the pre-cut housing industry.

    Started in 1919 and operated until the 1970s.

    Most of their sales were the northeast United States. Bennett Homes most popular models were actually copies of popular designs offered by Aladdin and Sears, thus it is not unusual for a home owner to think they have a Sears Home when it is in fact a Bennett Home!

    Bennett built lots of model homes around North Tonawanda.

    And yes, I have a 1952 Dumont television in the living room.

  5. Rhonda Frazier

    Like the plumbing and plywood, the row of identical houses also seems more 1950s, when builders were throwing up (building, not vomiting. LOL) quick post war housing for soldiers returning home.

    Which makes me wonder, along the lines that you suspect they covered the house in wood to look like it was being built, perhaps they just added earlier details to some 50s ranches, like a Levitt Town.

    Because, I’m not positive, but I also think of those types of advertising signs for new developments is also more 50s. Oh, let’s tear this show apart!!! This is fun.

  6. Jenny

    I’ve never seen Boardwalk Empire or heard of Bennett Homes.

    But if I ever do happen to catch this episode, I’ll be pointing at the TV saying “That’s wrong, that’s fake, Rosemary said so and she’s the Sears homes expert”.

  7. Gemma

    If Hollywood wants a fresh, new idea, they could adapt the book “The House in the Mail”, a kid’s take on a kit home their dad bought.