If you’re new to the Quad-Cities, you might hear someone point to a specific house, maybe a nice Craftsman-like bungalow down East Locust Street or a lovely Tudor in McClellan Heights, and say, “That’s a Gordon Van-Tine home.”
And you might wonder if Mr. Van Tine was an architect or a builder—or someone who moved around a lot, because there seem to be several of his homes in the area and well-beyond.
But Gordon-Van Tine isn’t a who—it’s a what. And what it was, was one of the first manufacturers of “kit houses” (called pre-fab these days) in the United States, beating Sears Roebuck to the punch by six years.*
We aren’t talking fiberboard-and-woodglue shacks, here, either—each timber was solid and every joint milled with precision. Gordon-Van Tine buildings were meant to last.
It’s too bad the company didn’t.
In 1906, the U.N. Roberts Company, which had been in the wholesale building materials business for over forty years at that point, formed a subsidiary company to handle its retail business, and named it Gordon-Van Tine—Gordon was the middle name of Horace Roberts, the company president, and Van Tine was supposedly the middle name of another employee, though no one knows for sure.
What we do know for sure is that once the new company started selling entire houses (some assembly required) in 1910, business boomed.
People all over the Midwest loved shopping for homes in the Van-Tine catalogs, choosing porches and cabinetry and trimmings. At first, the customers had to put them together themselves, like a 3D jigsaw, or hire their own carpenter to do it, but soon Gordon-Van Tine would offer an assembly service as well, at least within reasonable driving distance of its home office, on Federal Street.
By the 1940s, the company boasted several plants and 350 employees, and seemed primed to take advantage of the post-War housing boom.
And then, just like that, Gordon-Van Tine went out of business.
The owners of U.N. Roberts wanted to retire, but their children didn’t want the business. So they sold it for $1.75 million in December of 1946 to a Cincinnati outfit, who assured them that they would keep everything—including Gordon-Van Tine—going strong.
But by April of the next year, they started laying off the Van Tine workers . In July of 1957, the company was effectively shut down and the Cincinnati outfit began breaking down the assets and selling the pieces—an ironic end for a business that prided itself on doing the exact opposite.
Luckily for historians, Gordon-Van Tine catalogs still exist—in fact, our Special Collections Center has several, from 1918 to the 1940s. So if you’re curious about the company or the houses—or suspect that your home might be a Gordon-Van Tine—come on in and have a look!
*Sears may have offered blueprints and building materials first, but not pre-cut lumber. All you needed for a Van Tine house were nails and labor—and it wasn’t long before they provided both.
Gaul, Alma. “Gordon- Van Tine: Q-C ready-cut homes were built with style, durability.” Quad-City Times, 12Jan1997, p.H1 and H3.
Gaul, Alma. “Gordon-Van Tine follow up: ex-employees, their families fill in the blanks.” Quad-City Times, 16Jul1997, p.H1 and H3.
Svendsen, Marlys. Davenport: A pictorial history
Wolicki, Dale Patrick. Gordon-Van Tine Company . [Bay City, Mich. : D. Wolicki], 2002.