Wednesday, August 16, 2017  

Russell Dey Cottage
A Collaboration in Design & Restoration  

One can get a sense of exactly how busy the historic fishing village of Reedville VA may well have been, as you wander down ‘Millionaire Row’ taking in the vast Victorian mansions built by the wealthy ship captains in the late 1800s. Their presence is certainly imposing and boasts of a very successful past for this historical fishing town. However, off to the side of the lavish mansions and right on the Chesapeake Bay sits the very unassuming Russell Dey Cottage. To look at the house, is simply to look, unless you know what you are looking at. For Russell Dey Cottage boasts of a history all of its own that has a well documented place in the History of the United States. Russell Dey Cottage is a Sears and Roebuck Modern Home — a home that was mail ordered from a catalogue and then built upon delivery, using a 75 page instruction manual, from a kit containing between 10,000 and 30,000 pieces. Sears and Roebucks Modern Homes were built between 1908 and 1940 and it has been estimated that over 70,000 of these homes were sold during this time. It was suggested by Sears that “A man of average abilities could assemble a Sears kit home in about 90 Days.” Russell Dey Cottage or ‘The Hathaway,’ a two bedroom house, was ordered from a Sears catalogue in 1926, for a modest $1,299 and was then barged via steamboat into Reedville, via Baltimore, where it was assembled by local carpenter at the time, Mr. Dotson. The fact that it was barged into Reedville was an oddity at the time, because most Sears Roebuck homes were transported via railroad boxcars because of the weight of the materials being shipped. ‘The Hathaway’ design was also an unpopular model and was in fact a second generation model that featured 2 bedrooms and cedar shaped sidings.

However, the Sears Homes were a popular commodity and 447 different models were developed as Sears boasted an impressive catalogue of houses that catered to all tastes and budgets.

It was thought that the original house owner, Russell Dey Jr. purchased and had the house built, simply because he was an intrigued local businessman. Today, the house looks exactly as it did on the artist’s impression drawn back in 1926 and is inhabited by the Watson Family.

Russell Dey Cottage was originally a residence and then a rental until it was sold in the 1950s to an oil company. The house was then used as the offices for the oil company. The Valencia would travel up the Chesapeake and deliver heating oil to the 250 ft. pier attached to the property that was offloaded through a pipe to oil tanks. This oil was then pumped into waiting tankers that would then transport the oil for local distribution. When the oil business moved, the house fell into disrepair for at least ten years, until the Watson Family acquired the property in the Fall of 2006. It was originally just a business venture for the new owners, although they knew about the history of the house. They planned to renovate the interior of the house and then sell it in the Spring of 2007. However, renovations took longer than anticipated and then the housing market crashed in June of 2007. After the house did not sell, the owners decided to keep the property and make a 625 square foot, two storey addition to the house.

The house has many quirks; there are Sears serial numbers visible on the wooden beams in the basement. Having a basement at all is also an anomaly. It sits 32 inches below the water table, yet the owners have never had trouble with flooding of any kind. The Watsons also state that the house was incredibly well built and made from excellent materials, including oak and they have never experienced any problems with the structure of their kit home. Nothing about the design or the structure of the kit home has inhibited the Watsons from updating the interior or planning and executing the addition to the house that they made when they kept the house.

The addition that the Watsons had planned had to be approved by the county. This was to ensure that they were not upsetting the integrity of the house because of its historical nature and because of where it sits on the water. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also had to ensure that the land around the house was not contaminated because of its previous use as an oil depot. It was with this approval that the owners brought in specialists to ensure that the addition was a successful one. It was when the addition was being built that the Watsons discovered that the house had been built without any wall insulation whatsoever, which was something that neither the owners nor the renovators had anticipated at all. This meant that they had to remove all of the cedar wood shingle on the outside of the house and insulate the house before they could continue on with their project. A specialist company came in and cut 2-3 inch even spaced round holes all over the outside walls of the property. Foam insulation was then blown through a hose into the holes and then left to harden. The roof, basement, all walls and the storm windows were insulated in this way and it only delayed the addition project by two days. The new foam insulation and installation of new storm windows also improved the house’s energy efficiency and thus means that the house is now eligible to qualify for tax credits.

The Watsons have completed various adjustments to the interior of their property. Firstly, the addition project included removing an interior wall in order to open the kitchen to the dining room. This also exposed the original brick chimney. The original bathroom and powder room were also remodelled and an existing second floor bedroom was converted into the master bath. The addition also included the development of a first floor river room, deck and a master bedroom above the new river room. The river room boasts fourteen new windows on four sides, yet was designed and constructed to withstand 100 mph winds and thus adheres to Virginia’s new building code. In order to preserve the continuity, all interior and exterior trim and finish details were replicated. The addition was also designed so that when you look at the house from the front, you cannot see any of the new building work at all.

The exterior of the house has changed, but only ever so slightly. A couple of the original window frames had to be replaced because of aging. Original parts for the houses are of course, no longer available, but Mr. and Mrs. Watson were able to find a local carpenter who was able to copy the design exactly. This also allowed them to install much needed storm windows to the house, too.

Pilings from the original 250 ft pier were also still intact when the house was purchased and thus the Watson family were luckily allowed to build a new dock on the property. Had there been no evidence of the dock, permission to build one may have been hard to come by, because of the possible detriment it may have caused to the Bay. Although no longer 250 ft in length, the new dock is home to their boat and is, of course, an essential part of life on the Chesapeake Bay.

The incredible history surrounding Russell Dey Cottage is testament to the foresight of the original house designers. Sears and Roebuck certainly produced ‘modern’ homes for the people of America and the ingenuity of the design has and will ensure that this part of American history will be enjoyed for the foreseeable future. Russell Dey Cottage with its 750 pounds of nails, 75 page instruction manual and ‘man of average abilities’ certainly is proof that the American Dream is still here and although being slightly modified here and there, is still very much intact.