Brilliant Compromise: Harris Brothers’ Popular J-6

More than a century has passed since the Harris Brothers Company first offered a kit house which today is both admired and disparaged.  Known variously over the years as Design No. 6, No. K-2013, and No.  J-6,  the kit house had a facade which continues to evoke a wide range of emotions.  Was it the result of a clever marketing strategy or merely a reflection of its time?

As evidenced by both the stated number of purchases and the physical number of surviving houses , the J-6 kit house by the Harris Brothers Company was a big hit across the nation.  Appearing in early 20th century Harris Brothers catalogs, the house ceased to be offered by 1920 or thereafter.  Its distinctive corner turret was a Victorian-era holdout, and a bit old-fashioned even when it debuted.  Its gabled front was similarly behind the times, but comfortably familiar.  The Colonial Revival detailing of the front porch was similarly safe in contrast to the concurrently popular, but edgier, Craftsman and Prairie style designs.

It’s no surprise that the house appears to have been wildly popular in small towns and rural areas throughout the Midwest; the center section of the country has long been noted as a region in which changes in style or fashion take longer to be embraced.  As a composition, the house flaunted a little bit of Queen Anne pretension while still maintaining a conservative air – the perfect compromise for prevailing tastes in the center of the nation.  The slightly old-fashioned form paired with a stylishly dignified porch made it a winner in areas which were slow to keep up with the times.  I can’t help but wonder if the house was not designed to appeal to the sensibilities of Midwesterners just as the center section of the country experienced rapid growth.  Personally, I think it was brilliant and calculated marketing strategy.

A few rural examples of surviving houses follow period catalog images:

An early promotion for the kit house.

 

House Design No. 6

 

The same house, now identified as Harris Home No.K-2013.

 

And now, some surviving examples in the heart of “flyover country”:

 

Franklin, Nebraska (image courtesy Google Street View).

 

Drastically altered (and with additions), but still recognizable. Atwood, Kansas.

 

Phillipsburg, Kansas.

 

Double Feature! Stockton, Kansas (image courtesy Google Street View).

 

 

 

 

12 Responses to Brilliant Compromise: Harris Brothers’ Popular J-6

  1. Good god that is awful.

    Not only is it incredibly awkward, it’s completely counter intuitive when it comes to shedding rain and snow… who thought this was an acceptable design??

    • Yes – I agree with you that it is awkward. I doubt that anyone involved thought it acceptable as a refined architectural compostition… it was more likely understood to be calculated to generate sales! I agree that the house makes little sense from an aesthetic point of view. However, it makes a good deal of sense from an early 20th-century marketing point of view – it is a little bit of this and a little bit of that… a house which has something for everyone! Apparently the strategy worked; these houses are literally everywhere in flyover country. I do appreciate your heart-felt response!

  2. I feel like if I had one of these I’d want to alter that stubby roofline. Which means I should maybe just never buy one of these.

    • PS, I find it interesting that the one ad mentions the “small room in the rear” that “could be used as a bathroom”. What’s the date for that one? If it was in the teens, that would be further evidence this model was targeted to the rural and small-town midwest, where indoor plumbing wasn’t yet standard.

      It’s surprising how many rural homes didn’t have indoor plumbing and electricity even up into the 1930s. I forget the actual statistic, but I remember it being surprisingly high.

      • Good point! The date for the copy in question is 1918. The optional bathroom is the best evidence that the J-6 was designed to appeal to rural customers… thank you for pointing that out (it went right over my head when I read the catalog!). The house in Aurora looks sharp.

        • I ran across that home when we were shopping for houses here to move back to Illinois. That style is represented in a number of houses here in Aurora, whereas in Omaha, I did not see a single example. It seems to be otherwise have coexisted with Foursquares, which are ubiquitous here too.

          It’s interesting to see the difference in regional tastes, and I enjoy your posts on the midwestern trends and tastes. I find a lot of of the transition-era homes at the turn of the century that tastefully blended the waning Victorian styles with Colonial Revival and rising Prairie style are very attractive. The examples I like best are generally applied to a Foursquare form, perhaps enlarged with a wing or other subtle asymmetry. Since the Foursquare form (in my mind, anyway) is pretty generic stylistically, I think it accepts a number of specific styles better than say a Queen Anne form, which is strongly tied to the ornamentation and cohesive package. I’d qualify that to say Foursquares accept styles that aren’t otherwise strongly attached to a particular form. For instance, a Foursquare decorated in Tudor Revival ornamentation would look atrocious!

          If you haven’t gathered, I have a special affinity for Foursquares. It’s not my fantasy house by any means, but I’m drawn to them being a handsome home that was very practical and affordable for the middle class. The fact that we lived in and restored one for 7 years probably makes me a little biased too, lol.

          Our new house in Illinois, however, is totally off in another world (almost literally, it being an Italian Renaissance Revival): https://www.redfin.com/IL/Aurora/417-Wilder-St-60506/home/16947140

          I’m still in the process of learning enough about the style to guide my decisions in restoration. It’s such an uncommon style, particularly in the midwest, it’s hard to find good examples of what the original light fixtures, hardware, etc would have looked like (unlike googling “Craftsman Home Interior” or something and coming up with a plethora of authentic photos, period advertisements, etc).

  3. Hey, Eric! I enjoyed your post.

    I think you’re right about this house’s popularity in “flyover” areas. Since Harris Brothers was based in Chicago, we typically see many of their models in Chicago and its suburbs. But not the J-6. I’ve seen one in the immediate Chicago area, and Harris claims to have sold over a thousand (possibly a couple thousand). I bet you’re going to find a lot more…

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