Lustron houses are prefabricated enameled steel houses developed in the post-World War II era United States in response to the shortage of houses for returning GIs. The low-maintenance, extremely durable, baked-on porcelain enamel finish was expected to attract modern families who might not have the time or interest in repairing and painting conventional wood and plaster houses.
- 1 Development
- 2 Models
- 3 Design features
- 4 Garages
- 5 End of the Lustron Corporation
- 6 Lustrons on a Marine base
- 7 Preservation
- 8 Current status
- 9 See also
- 10 References and notes
- 11 External links
In January 1947, the newly formed Lustron Corporation announced that it had received a $12.5-million Reconstruction Finance Corporation loan to manufacture mass-produced prefabricated homes that featured enamel-coated steel panels (U.S. Patent 2,416,240). Led by Chicago industrialist and inventor Carl Strandlund, who had worked with constructing prefabricated gas stations, Lustron offered a home that would "defy weather, wear, and time."
Strandlund's Lustron Corporation, a division of the Chicago Vitreous Enamel Corporation, set out to construct 15,000 homes in 1947 and 30,000 in 1948. From its plant in Columbus, Ohio (the former Curtiss-Wright factory), the corporation eventually constructed 2,498 Lustron homes between 1948 and 1950. The houses sold for between $8,500 and $9,500, according to a March 1949 article in the Columbus Dispatch—about 25 percent less than comparable conventional housing. By November 1949, however, a Lustron's average selling price had come up to $10,500.
Most of the known Lustron houses were constructed in 36 of the United States including Alaska. However, some were constructed in Venezuela, South America for families of oil industry employees.
Billed as a way to maximize pleasure and minimize work, Lustron advertising contended that the Lustron home would create a "new and richer experience for the entire family," where "Mother...has far more hours," the "youngsters...have fewer worries," and there would be "far more leisure for Dad." How this would be accomplished with just a choice of housing was not clarified, although presumably it was through enameled-steel design that would not need painting.
The Lustron design was basically created by engineers to adapt it to mass production. This house is an engineering marvel. A steel framing system was devised consisting of vertical steel studs and roof-ceiling trusses to which all interior and exterior panels were attached. The concept of prefabricated housing was well established by firms such as Alladin, Gordon-Van Tine, Montgomery Ward, and Sears in the early 1900s. These companies, however, used conventional balloon-framing techniques and materials in their kits. The engineering feat of the development and production of the Lustron house was the responsibility of Carl Strandlund, the vice-president of Chicago Vitreous Enamel Products Company, which produced and sold porcelain enameled panels since the late 1920s. After WWII, the domestic demand for steel exceeded production and the federal government exercised control over its allocation. Strandlund had orders for his procelain-enameled panels for use in construction for new gas stations for Standard Oil. He made a request for allocation of steel, but was denied. However, he was advised by Wilson Wyatt, Housing Expediter during the Truman administration, that steel would be available if Strandlund produced steel houses instead of gas stations. Whereupon Strandlund developed the Lustron prototype house at Hinsdale, Illinois, in the fall of 1946 which he claimed was fireproof, impervious to decay, rust, or damage from vermin, rats or termites. Sunlight, salt water, or chemical fumes could not stain or fade the finish. The roof never had to be replaced, the exterior painted, nor the interior painted or papered.
Wyatt endorsed the idea, but was unable to convince Congressional members to appropriate funds for Strandlund. In turn Wyatt resigned his post, but other influential members of Congress were successful in getting support to finance the production of Lustron homes. Through the government agency, Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), Strandlund ultimately received over $37 million in loans plus a leased war surplus plant in Columbus, Ohio. This was the first venture capital loan made by the federal government. Initially, Strandlund was provided the availability of a war surplus plant in Chicago. However, due to the political intrigue in government, Tucker, who proposed to produce a radical new automobile, acquired the plant. In turn, Tucker shortly failed in his business operation. The political ramifications are as fascinating as the engineering of the Lustron homes. The Lustron factory had approximately eight miles of automated conveyor lines and included 11 enameling furnaces, each of which was more than 180 feet long. The plant equipment included presses for tubs and sinks. The bathtub press could stamp a tub in one draw and could produce 1000 tubs a day at capacity. Specially designed trailer trucks were used as the final assembling point where the manufactured parts came off the assembly line. There were approximately 3300 individual parts in a complete house loaded on a single trailer. The trucks then delivered the house package to the building site.
Lustron established builder-dealers, which in turn sold and erected the house package on a concrete foundation. In 20 months of production and sales, Lustron lost money on each house, and in turn, was not able to repay the RFC loan. RFC foreclosed on Lustron and production stopped on June 6, 1950. On the Lustron order book were contracts for more than 8000 housing units, which were never shipped.
Arguably the most popular of the Lustron homes was the two bedroom, 1,021 square feet (94.9 m2) "Westchester Deluxe" model. In total, there were three "models" of Lustrons: the Westchester, Newport, and Meadowbrook. With the exception of the Esquire (which had been the prototype’s name) each Lustron type was available as either a two- or three-bedroom model.
|||Westchester Standard||Westchester Deluxe||Newport||Meadowbrook|
|# of Bedrooms||2||3||2||3||2||3||2||3|
|Square footage||1,021 square feet (94.9 m2)||1,140 square feet (106 m2)||1,021 square feet (94.9 m2)||1,140 square feet (106 m2)||775 square feet (72.0 m2)||1,023 square feet (95.0 m2)||713 square feet (66.2 m2)||961 square feet (89.3 m2)|
|Separate Living/Dining Rooms||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No||No||No|
|Heat System||Radiant Convection||Radiant Convection||Radiant Convection||Radiant Convection||Radiant Convection||Radiant Convection||Radiant Convection||Radiant Convection|
|Living Room Bay Window||No||No||Yes||Yes||No||No||No||No|
|Master Bedroom Built-in Vanity||No||No||Yes||Yes||No||No||No||No|
|Bathroom Built-in Vanity||No||No||Yes||Yes||No||No||No||No|
|Flooring Type||Builder's option||Builder's option||Asphalt tile||Asphalt tile||Builder's option||Builder's option||Builder's option||Builder's option|
Prefabricated housing had existed before the Lustron home came on the market. However, it was Lustron's promises of assembly-line efficiency and modular construction that set it apart from its competitors. The homes were designed by Morris Beckman of Chicago firm Beckman and Blass, and may have been loosely based on designs for the Cemesto houses in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. With enameled steel panels inside and out, as well as steel framing, the homes stood out next to more traditional dwellings made of wood and plaster.
Lustron homes were usually built on concrete slab foundations with no basement. However, about 40 Lustron homes have been reported to have basements. Their sturdy steel frame was constructed on-site by a team of local workers who assembled the house piece-by-piece from a special Lustron Corporation delivery truck. The assembly team, who worked for the local Lustron builder-dealer followed a special manual from Lustron, and were supposed to complete a house in 360 man-hours.
The Ohio Historic Preservation Office recognizes four exterior colors: "Surf Blue," "Dove Gray," "Maize Yellow," and "Desert Tan." Reported in error over the years is that Blue-Green, Green, Pink, and White were available. Window surrounds were primarily ivory-colored, although early models used yellow trim on "Surf Blue" models.
The interiors were designed with an eye toward the modern age, space-saving, and ease of cleaning. All Lustrons had metal-paneled interior walls that were most often gray. To maximize space, all interior rooms and closets featured pocket doors. All models featured metal cabinetry, a service and storage area, and metal ceiling tiles. In the Westchester Deluxe models, the living room and master bedrooms featured built-in wall units. As an added option, customers were presented with the unique Thor-brand combination clothes- and dish-washer, which incorporated the kitchen sink.
There were two major window types in Lustron homes: “tripartite” and casement, all manufactured by Reynolds Aluminum. The tripartite consisted of a central light flanked by two four-light casement windows. Three-light and/or square aluminum casements with interior screens were standard on all Lustrons. Add-on storm windows were available for residents in colder climates.
Westchester Deluxe two- and three-bedroom models were unique in that they boasted a tripartite bay window in the living room area: no other Lustron line included this feature. In Westchester Deluxe two-bedroom models, additional tripartite windows were located in the dining area and bedrooms. For Westchester Deluxe three-bedroom models, tripartite windows were found in the dining area and two of the bedrooms, as well as the living room bay. Though the Westchester Standard line had no bay windows, it had tripartite windows in the same rooms as the Westchester Deluxe two-bedroom model.
Newport two- and three-bedroom models, which had no bay windows, offered tripartite windows in the dining/living room area. A model of the Meadowbrook home shows that the design would have provided two tripartite windows, both in the dining/living room area, similar to those in the Newport line.
Roof, flooring, and other details
The roof likewise consisted of porcelain-enameled steel tiles, which were installed shingle-style. The front and rear doors featured a single light of translucent, rippled glass. As seen in the chart above, floors in the Westchester Deluxe models were asphalt tile, but in other models (Westchester Standard, Newport, and Meadowbrook), floors were installed as a “builder’s option.”
In most models, the homes were heated with an oil burning furnace that directed hot air into an enclosed space above the metal ceilings. The walls contained a one-inch blanket of fiberglass wool insulation. Later production models of the Newport use a forced-air system.
Among noteworthy Lustron exterior features are the siding consisting of square segments of material, followed by a zig-zag downspout trellis on the buildings’ front and rear corners. In the two-bedroom Westchester models, the downspout attaches via the trellis to a pillar that supports the open porch. Rust has often led to removal of the trellis by owners.
Lustron offered two garage models, the "G-1" and "G-2," which were available in the same colors as the houses. The garage was most often constructed with wood framing, Lustron panel siding, and Lustron steel roof tiles. Lustron also provided carports and awnings.
End of the Lustron Corporation
The Lustron Corporation declared bankruptcy in 1950, despite being an extremely well funded, well-publicized, government-supported enterprise manufacturing a desperately needed product. Production delays, the lack of a viable distribution strategy, and the escalating prices for the finished product all contributed to the failure. Additionally, local zoning codes also played a part. In some municipalities, for example, an ordinance prohibited homes with steel chimneys. Some accounts suggest an organized effort from the existing housing industry to stop Strandlund, comparing him to Preston Tucker (ironic, because Strandlund's first choice for the Lustron factory building, the Dodge Chicago Aircraft Engine Plant in Illinois, was actually granted to Tucker to build his automobiles).
Lustrons on a Marine base
The largest assembly of Lustrons in one geographic location was in Quantico, Virginia, where 60 were installed at the U.S. Marine Corps military base. All Westchester Deluxe models, they came all four colors." Major remodels in the 1980s resulted in some of them being painted pink and lime green. In January 2006, it was announced that the homes, which had grown "too small for most families," would be eliminated from base housing and would be given away. Fifty-eight of Quantico's Lustrons were offered for free (with an application and $8,000 deposit) in 2006, yet only one individual came forward and acquired a home, which was disassembled and moved to storage in Delaware. Twenty-three of Quantico's Lustrons were demolished in 2006, and an additional thirty-four homes were razed in 2007. The two remaining homes at the base are on the National Register of Historic Places, and are currently used as maintenance buildings.
About 2,000 Lustron homes are still in existence in 36 states. Many have been modified with additions, remodeled kitchens, vinyl windows, composite roofs, new heating systems, sheet rock interior walls, painted exteriors, and siding. Some have been dismantled, relocated and reassembled.
A restored Westchester Deluxe (sans ceiling and roof) from Arlington, Virginia was reassembled inside the Ohio History Connection in Columbus Ohio in 2013. It had been partially assembled (no bedrooms) for a few months in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in Manhattan. The house is on display until Dec. 2018 in Columbus.
A small group of Lustron owners are preserving the original condition of their homes and are urging others to do the same, and a significant number of entirely original Lustron homes exist. Over time, Lustron owners often removed the "Thor" brand combination washing machine/dish washer, and in cold regions, the ceiling's radiant heat systems were often replaced.
Demolition continues to threaten Lustrons where rising property values attract buyers who desire larger homes of newer construction. Other major threats to Lustron homes' integrity include: severe weather (tornadoes, hurricanes), vehicular or other impact, and lack of local zoning/preservation/aesthetic legislation.
The promise of a home that never needs painting or maintenance has been somewhat validated after over 55 years of service. The enamel steel roof "shingles" are still keeping many Lustron residents in the dry after five decades of no maintenance. Several homes feature exterior wall panels that never needed painting are intact and rust-free. Historically, enamel metal objects have been known to survive over one hundred years.
- List of Lustron houses
- Dymaxion house
- Hobart Welded Steel House Co., which manufactured steel houses
- White Castle (restaurant) whose Porcelain Steel Buildings subsidiary manufactured similar commercial buildings
- manufactured housing
- prefabricated home
References and notes
- Reiss, Robert. "When Lustron Lost its Luster," The Columbus Dispatch. 23 July 1978.
- Lustron Corporation. "Compact, Beautiful Lustron Homes: Newport Two-Bedroom and Three-Bedroom Sizes." Company brochure.
- The plant would later be returned to aircraft production by North American Aviation as Air Force Plant 85.
- Lustron Homes: The History of a Postwar Prefabricated Housing Experiment by Tom Fetters
- Overmyer, Beverly; Coambs, Norris and Harriet Lustron House, Coambs-Morrow House; 92001165; National Register Inventory—Nomination Form, September 17, 1992, in digital files of National Park Service, Washington, D.C.
- Boyd, Michelle Anne. “Preserving the Lustron House: Authenticity and Industrial Production.” Master’s Thesis, Columbia University, 2001.
- This table has been adapted from Boyd, Michelle Anne. “Preserving the Lustron House: Authenticity and Industrial Production.” Master’s Thesis, Columbia University, 2001.
- Prudon, Theodore H. M. Preservation of Modern Architecture. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2008.
- LustronRegistry.org, Accessed July 2009.
- Mitchell, Robert J. "Whatever Happened to Lustron Homes?" APT Bulletin, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1991: 44–53.
- This "bay" window measured 12 inches (300 mm) by 8 feet (2.4 m).
- Some garages were of steel frame construction.
- Dana Hedgpeth, Housing History for the Taking at Quantico, The Washington Post, Monday, January 23, 2006, Page D03
- Hedgpeth, Dana. "Housing History for the Taking at Quantico," The Washington Post. 23 Jan. 2006: D03.
- Miroff, Nick. "A House of Dreams but Few Takers. Despite Inspiring Many, Quantico's Lustrons Hard to Unload," The Washington Post. 25 Mar. 2007: T1
- Miroff, Nick. "Lights Out for Lustrons of Quantico: 34 Historic Houses Have no Takers," The Washington Post. 30 Sept. 2007: T3.
- Miroff, Nick. "Even for Free, Metal Houses Lack Magnetism; Quantico's 11-Ton Icons Still Have Few Takers," The Washington Post. 16 July 2006: T1.
- LustronRegistry.org, accessed March 15, 2009
- Teresa Douglass, Phil Thomason, Peggy Nickell and Ellen Giese (November 2005). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Euclid Avenue Historic District" (PDF).
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lustron houses.|
- LustronPreservation.Org features the history, photos, locations, preservation guidelines and construction drawings. Was initiated by the US National Trust for Historic Preservation.
- Lustron Discussion Group Join Lustron owners, future owners and historians of these Homes of Steel and discuss their past, future and preservation. Includes news items, repair and maintenance, photo sharing, Lustron ownership discussions.
- The Illustrious Lustron: A Guide for the Disassembly and Preservation of America’s Modern Metal Marvel Available for download. Includes photographs and historical information. Based on the disassembly of the "Krowne Lustron" of Arlington, Virginia.
- Arlington's Lustron Houses. The story of Arlington, Virginia's Lustrons, and their "Krowne Lustron" which was donated, disassembled, stored, and then partially reconstructed inside the New York Museum of Modern Art for a three-month exhibit in 2008.
- Lustron.Org website for the 2003 Emmy-winning film "Lustron, The house America's Been Waiting For."
- The Prices Make These Model Homes A Steel. A 2006 news article about the Quantico marine base Lustrons being given away.
- Lustron On-Line (2008-02) by NCPTT of the National Park Service An article describing the need for, and the development of the www.lustronpreservation.org website; link shown separately at top of this listing. The article is prepared under the National Center for Preservation Technology & Training - Architecture & Engineering.