Kit & Caboodle

The many lives of a prefabricated early-twentieth-century kit house

A chandelier from Frank Webb Home in Lewiston illuminates the living room and its various artworks and crafts. Under a triptych by Tucson artist Marlene Burns is a metal neoclassical bust from Pillars Antiques and Decorative Arts in Freeport and an Italian ceramic bowl from Bonechi Imports of Cumberland Center. Another Italian ceramic piece sourced from Bonechi sits atop homeowner Rich Waitzkin’s parents’ coffee table. On the mantel are Satsuma pottery pieces. The chairs are from a now-closed shop in Falmouth, and the rug grounding everything is from HomeGoods.
The enclosed back porch features a chaise from HomeGoods in Scarborough and a Chinese bamboo chair from Pillars Antiques and Decorative Arts, as well as various artworks that hail mostly from China.
Gary Green’s photo of Waitzkin’s pottery against the original wallpaper hangs above the vintage 1955 stove, which is surrounded by McCoy and Haeger pottery and a Lynne Mapp Drexler sewn work.
In the entry under another Frank Webb fixture is an enormous 1930s vase unearthed at Portland Architectural Salvage, while on the shelf is pottery from McCoy, Haeger, and a local artisan. On the left are a 1943 Chinese ancestor portrait and, under it, a sculpture by Waitzkin’s father.
Guest room walls are adorned with Chinese bearded figures; a marionette, sculptures, and a monk’s sutra page from Myanmar; and Chinese landscapes.
A dining room corner includes water-themed art (from top) by Maine artists Kate Cheney Chappell, Liz Moberg, and Brita Holmquist.
In the dining room, a Stickley table and breakfront, a red Chinese chest and window lattices from Asia West, and a Sharon Townsend ceramic squash share space with art by Judy LeBrasca, Lynne Mapp Drexler, Gary Green, and Robyn Merrow.

Beginning in the 1910s, many popular publications peddled “ready-cut” kit homes tailor-made for the American dream. Emblematic of American ingenuity at its best, these homes were economical, ordered by mail, and conveyed in boxcars across the land to first-home buyers and a growing middle class.

There’s something about the mythical American imperative of accessible homeownership that was central to the promise of the nation, and it was alive in Richard Waitzkin, an educator and clinical social worker, when he went house hunting in Portland in 1993. “My parents had owned only two homes and became lifelong renters because they couldn’t raise funds for a down payment,” he recalls. “Home ownership was important to me.”

Waitzkin visited about 30 listings and was called back repeatedly to this shingled bungalow in the Rosemont Corners section of the city. It squared nicely with all his requirements: “I wanted to practice at home in a quiet, well-lit place, with space between the neighbors and access to the highway,” he says. “It was set back from the street in a walkable neighborhood, and nothing was planted in the backyard, so it had the potential for me to create.” Eventually, he adds, “I wanted to sit in the backyard under a tree in the shade on a hot August day.”

What he didn’t realize until after living in the house for a time was that, as he observes, “Inside, it resembled both my childhood home—a rental—and my grandparents’ home: front porch, two bedrooms, one bath, huge basement, garage and substantial backyard in the quiet neighborhoods of Akron, Ohio.”

All evidence pointed to the home’s origin as one of the many ready-cut models popularized by Sears, Roebuck, and Company and Montgomery Ward. In actuality, many companies manufactured these homes, and they copied each other’s models, layouts, and architectural options such as crown mouldings, interior columns, and built-ins. Sears was the behemoth, selling some 70,000 homes between 1908 and 1942, mostly along the East Coast and across the Midwest.

Waitzkin attempted to authenticate his hunch but uncovered no city records for the home beyond a picture and some lot information from 1924. The adjacent Oakdale community, however, is chockablock with kit homes, and Waitzkin’s bears numerous resemblances to models marketed by both Sears and Montgomery Ward in terms of aesthetic, square footage (1,165 square feet), interior details, and layout (single floor with kitchen, living and dining rooms, two bedrooms, one bath). Yet it’s impossible to imagine a kit house of the past transforming, like Waitzkin’s, into a refined and eclectic art-filled sanctuary like this.

The house’s former owners, Hazel and Harry Starbird, had founded a namesake music school. (Starbird Piano Gallery still sells instruments and offers piano and voice lessons on nearby Forest Avenue.) “Hazel was one of those amazing housekeepers, so it was in immaculate condition,” Waitzkin remembers.

Still, there were incongruities between Waitzkin’s and the Starbirds’ tastes and lifestyles that required small revamps. Waitzkin undertook these in ways that remained sensitive to the evolution of the home, which was remodeled in the 1960s, which is when the porch was enclosed. His inspiration for the kitchen was the original See’s Candies emporium in California, which dictated repainting eggshell blue walls white and installing Art Deco influences (new pendant lamps, a 1940s kitchen table), 12-inch black and white linoleum floor tiles, and other black and white details, all punched up with pops of red. Even the stove, a 1955 Frigidaire, is retro.

In the bath, Waitzkin complemented existing pink bath furnishings with a basketweave-patterned floor of pink, cream, and dark green tiles. Reglazing the windows himself, he retained the wavy glass because it was part of “the charm and spirit of the house I was drawn to,” he says.

Also, in the spirit of the bungalow typology, Waitzkin initially indulged his love of the Craftsman aesthetic. Furniture by Stickley and of that genre proliferated. China cupboards and the dining room table were authentic Stickley, while the living room’s glass bookcases and floor lamps were stylistically synchronous but not by known makers. The pendant over the dining table was a transitional piece between art nouveau and arts and crafts.

Waitzkin initially kept the existing living and dining room wallpapers, which added another layer—a floral-patterned interior envelope that balanced the straight lines and heavy volume of the dark fumed-oak Craftsman furnishings. In the kitchen there is a photographic still life of some of Waitzkin’s pottery pieces shot against this paper, snapped by Gary Green, head of the photography department at Colby College. It serves as a document of the wallcovering, which was eventually steamed off.

Waitzkin also began working on the gardens, first planting perennials that would take advantage of the plentiful sunlight. But slowly, he added trees and a lushly verdant understory. As these grew, a shade garden gradually took over, and the palette became more monochromatic: green accented with white. “I wanted it to feel quiet and calming,” Waitzkin says. Visually, this was already happening in the palette. But the serene experience also engages more senses with windchimes and birdhouses that attract the flutter of wings and the movement of avian species about the garden.

Tired of mowing and also desiring a transition space from the street for his clients, Waitzkin laid a patio in front and planted it with a similar abundance of greenery. There, he says, “Clients could sit and contemplate before or after a psychological session.”

The interiors morphed again after Waitzkin’s parents died unexpectedly. “My mood shifted,” Waitzkin says. “Having all the heavy, dark furniture was just too much.” He had grown up in another bungalow in Akron that his parents had furnished with Asian inflections. Stories of Asian civilizations in National Geographic had always fascinated him as a boy. Waitzkin recalled kneeling on the living room sofa to trace his fingers along the patterns of robes in the Chinese ancestor portraits hanging behind it. The dining room drapes boasted East Asian designs against black grounds.

The Chinese portraits now live above a mission desk in the living room. They were soon joined by Satsuma pottery from Japan; marionettes and lacquerware from Myanmar and Thailand; and Indonesian masks. His father’s sculptures, executed in a variety of styles, also inhabit every room. (Waitzkin’s dad worked for a chrysanthemum grower in California and was, says his son, “a designer, singer, and opera maven.”) Waitzkin also painted walls the color of delicate celadon porcelains from Japan.

Over the years, the home has continued to evolve in more and more eclectic ways. There are Italian and Sicilian ceramics; Navajo bowls; collections of pottery by Stangl, McCoy, and Haeger; and paintings from Maine artists picked up on trips to Monhegan Island, such as pieces by Lynne Mapp Drexler and Charles Martin, and from friends, like Brita Holmquist.

“For me, the home should be a ‘safe harbor’ from the pressures of daily life,” believes Waitzkin, “and a place that supports my authenticity, enriched by the beauty of objects of art and nature.” An apt description of one facet of the American dream in a nutshell. But it is also much more, certainly, than its early life as a kit house could ever have predicted.