Los Angeles and San Francisco have their Eichler homes, Kansas City has its Drummonds, and thanks to a little known builder named John “Church” Sargent, Lawrence, too, has its modern subdivisions. Take a drive down Ousdahl Rd. between 19th and 21st and south of 9th St. on Madeline and Murrow Ct. and you can’t miss them.
Dubbed “Space Homes” when they were built in the mid-1950s, these simple, modest houses channeled California Modern style architecture at affordable prices — most sold for around $15,000 or less — to the Lawrence masses. They have held their value: I recently closed a sale on a 1955 Sargent on Murrow Ct. for $125,000, a net plus when adjusted for inflation.
Space Homes landed so long ago that hardly anyone remembers where they came from. Church Sargent died in 1974, and his Topeka-based business, Jayhawk Construction Co., no longer exists. But Lawrence Modern has been able to piece together enough fragments to form a picture of the man, his company, and his houses.
Church Sargent was born in 1897, in Kansas City, Kan., and partnered with his father in the cut stone business in Topeka before World War II. He developed a reputation as a savvy businessman, able to adapt quickly to market signals. When When the Great Depression put a virtual freeze on the demand for cut stone, he formed Jayhawk Construction in 1941, positioning himself for the construction boom that followed the war.
Jayhawk Construction’s initial offerings were diminutive ranch houses — about 700-800 sq. ft. — that featured two bedrooms and one bath. They sold well, but by the mid-1950s demand fell and Church was forced to offer another product to remain competitive. (During the building boom, he faced fierce competition from the Moore Bros. tract houses on the other side of town.) Like Joe Eichler and other successful builders at the time, he decided to hire a modern architect to boost curb appeal.
He lent the services of James R. Cushing, an architect who designed military housing and other buildings for the U.S. Air Force and was lead partner in the Topeka-based firm Cushing, Servis, Van Doren & Hazard.
While Cushing’s designs don’t stand out like the marvelous Eichlers, which benefited from a stable of well-known modern architects, they share many of the same grammatical elements: post-and-beam construction, open floor plans, vaulted ceilings illuminated by clerestory light, an honest expression of materials. Their differentiation comes from the architect’s stylistic variations on the theme.
A mid-1950s Topeka newspaper article states: “It is remarkable that, while the interiors of the houses are the same plan, the exteriors would not be recognized as being the same house. There is a wide difference in roofs, the entrances, finishes, and the colors which make them all seem individually designed homes.”
Each Space home had three bedrooms located on one side of the house across from two bathrooms with a kitchen, dining area and living room. Kitchens were equipped with modern appliances and metal cabinets (with boomerang pulls) manufactured by the Youngstown Cabinet Company, now highly sought after. Exterior siding was board and batten made of thick pecky cypress, pine or redwood. Roofs were flat and/or low-sloping A-frames with tar and gravel. A private patio was included on the side or back of the house. These houses are very efficiently designed, practical, and down-to-earth. Though small compared to today’s houses, their openness makes them feel larger, and they are also easy to maintain, making them eminently liveable.
It is unfortunate that many Space homes have been altered over the years with gable roofs, siding that has been covered up or removed, and other additions that are not sensitive to the original design. But a number of well-preserved examples remain scattered around the city. Take a walk or drive some day and prepare to enter a time-warp, when Space Homes invaded Lawrence.