Lustron Homes, Part 1

The Old House Web

Stories and photos by Rosemary Thornton
Contributing editor, The Old House Web

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lustron ad
Lustron ad from a 1949 Saturday Evening Post.
(Click on picture for larger view)

Never before in America a House Like This, read the 1949 Lustron advertisement in that venerable chronicle of American life, The Saturday Evening Post. Nor, as it turns out, was there ever again a house like the Lustron.

Constructed entirely of steel, the modest ranches were entrepreneur Carl Strandlunds answer to the severe housing shortage plagued the country at the end of World War II.

But Strandlunds Lustron Company produced just 2,500 of these homes of the future, before declaring bankruptcy in 1950. A half century later, speculation about the events leading to the demise of the company remains.

Were Strandlunds homes too far-fetched and expensive to be commercially profitable, as the government claimed when it called in $12.5 million of loans and forced the company into bankruptcy? Or was the Lustron Home the victim of political ambitions and trade union greed as a film by Bill Kubota, Ed Moore and Bill Ferehawk suggests?

Whatever the reason for the Lustron Companys failure, the claims of durability and ease of maintenance of the steel homes have stood the test of time. Many of the Lustron homes left standing after 50 years still bear their original siding and roofs as well as many inside features such as built-in cabinets.

"The House Americas Been Waiting For"

Because of the war and the 12-year depression preceding it, very few new homes had been built since 1929, resulting in a severe housing shortage for soldiers returning from WWII. The federal government quickly passed legislation banning non-essential construction so that all materials and labor could be diverted to the immediate need of supplying new housing.

The watchwords of this postwar time were science, technology and know-how. It was inevitable that the hunger for new technologies and scientific ways would hit the architectural scene and create a radically new house.

Lustron home
This St. Louis Lustron is in nearly mint condition with its original siding and roof, validating the company's claims of a durable and low-maintenance home.

roof closeup
Original metal tiles from a Lustron roof are in as good condition as when the home was built more than 40 years ago.

Ohio businessman Carl Strandlund believed he had the just the solution. Prefabricated of porcelain-enameled steel components, the Lustron home could be mass produced like the automobile and marketed through an automobile-style dealer system to individual consumers who could then erect the home on site.

Strandlund didnt start out to build houses. Originally he hoped to obtain enough steel to start construction on millions of dollars worth of steel-paneled gas stations for Standard Oil and other corporate clients. But wartime restrictions on steel were still in place and federal regulators turned down Strandlunds request in 1946.

Strandlund then turned his energies to demonstrating that houses could be built quickly, efficiently and economically with these same steel panels.

Working with Strandlund, Chicago architects Roy Burton Blass and Morris H. Beckman sketched out some ideas for an all-steel, prefabricated, bungalow-flavored home.

Their architectural prototype was a two-bedroom, 1,000-square foot home with an exterior sheathing made of 2-foot square steel panels. (In later years, Lustron also offered one bedroom and three bedroom homes and alternate floor plans for the two bedroom.)

The entire structure would be steel framing, interior and exterior walls, roof trusses and roof tiles. The exposed steel (interior and exterior walls and roof) would have a porcelain-enamel finish, a hard, glass finish baked onto the steel panels and roof shingles. The exterior color options were pink, tan, yellow, aqua, blue, green and gray. Interiors were beige or gray.

Lustron museum
Jim Morrow's Lustron in Chesterton, Indiana. Morrow purchased the home in 1990, and was so intrigued by history of the Lustron that he turned the home into a
Photo: Jack Boucher, Historic American Building Survey, 1994

farm lustrons
This pair of Lustrons sits on a large farm in southwest Illinois. Despite the lack of maintenance, these two homes have endured the 50 plus years in fairly good condition.

farm lustron
Note the original gutter and bracket on this Lustron.

(Click on small pictures for a larger view)

farm lustron
Another view from the back.

Assembly line houses

The Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a federal agency created in 1932 to jump-start economic recovery, approved Strandlunds ideas, giving him a a $12.5 million dollar loan to start his new business. The RFS also approved a $428,000 annual lease on one side (half) of the 1.2 million square foot Curtiss-Wright plant in Columbus, Ohio (which had been used during the war to build warplanes).

The shiny new Lustrons cost $6,000 - $10,000 (not including building lot) and were manufactured in the Columbus factory in about 400 man-hours. Assembly time at the site was less than 300 man-hours. According to Tom Fetters book, The Lustron Home, the manufacture of one Lustron required 12 tons of steel and one ton of enamel.

The prefabricated, ready-to-assemble houses were shipped in 3,000 pieces on a specially designed truck. Lustrons were designed to be built on a slab, with the exterior steel walls carrying the weight of the house. A handful of the homes were built over basements, but this required the design assistant of an architect or structural engineer.

Using every inch of space

Architects who designed the Lustron home were intent on using every square inch of space efficiently. Built-ins abounded, accounting for 20 percent of the total interior space. The master bedroom had a built-in vanity, with large drawers and additional storage space overhead. Bedrooms had sliding doors to eliminate space needed for door swing. The dining room had a built-in buffet and pass through to the kitchen.

The kitchen was an engineering marvel all its own. It featured a built-in, under-the-sink Thor washing machine that, with the installation of a special rack, did double-duty as a dishwasher -- a futuristic luxury at the time.

A utility room off the kitchen housed the hot-water-heater and also the furnace. Ambitious brochures and advertisements called it The newest kind of heating for the newest kind of house. A ceiling-mounted, oil-fired hot air furnace heated the metal ceiling tiles which would then heat the entire house. The company claimed, The entire ceiling is the source of smooth, even heat. Its like having the sun for a ceiling!

Lustron owners found that despite the company's claims, the laws of physics prevailed. The heat was uneven and uncomfortable, and since warm air rises, the floors of Lustrons were cold. Many of the furnaces were soon replaced with traditional forced air systems with ductwork and registers in every room.

lustron ad
Despite the company's claims of smooth, even heat from the radiant ceiling panels, most Lustron home owners found the system cold and uncomfortable.

lustron ad
(Photo: Historic American Building Survey)
Promotional photo from a Lustron ad.

lustron ad
(Photo: Historic American Building Survey)
Lustron promoted their homes as maintenance-free. The luxury of a built-in dishwasher left the lady of the house plenty of time to sit and admire her modern living room, in this promotional photo.

lustron ad
This was supposed to be how the radiant heat worked. Since heat rises, however, most Lustron residents found the ceilings hot in their homes and the floors cold.

floor plan
Original floor plan for a two-bedroom Lustron home.

(Click on any photo for a larger view.)

Other advertisements proclaimed that the homes were fireproof, decay-proof, rustproof, termite-proof, vermin-proof and rat-proof. Sunlight, salt water or chemical fumes cannot stain or fade the homes finish. It will never face, crack or peel. Can be kept clean with damp cloth. Never needs repainting, redecorating or reroofing.

Model homes were built throughout the Midwest and curious visitors and potential buyers tromped through the prefab homes by the thousands. After a model Lustron was completed in Chicago on August 11, 1948, more than 50,000 people toured the home, according to Fetters book.

The bubble bursts

The low-maintenance, ultra-modern homes fascinated Americans. But in spite of the interest, Strandlunds company was mired in financial problems. Tooling the factory was more difficult and expensive than originally estimated and the initial $12.5 million government backed loan did not cover start-up expenses.

Since the homes were sold through distribution systems, similar to the automobile industry, dealers had to have sufficient capital to buy vacant lots, pour concrete foundations, and run utility lines to the houses. The homes cost the dealers $6,000 each and had to be bought in large quantity. Dealers needed $50,000 to $100,000 to get started. Meanwhile Federal Housing Administration financing procedures slowed down the approval of mortgages, hampering quick sale of the homes.

It took 350 hours to construct the Lustron, still far less than for a conventional home, but much more than the 150 hours first estimated. The homes also cost more to produce than expected, and the retail price grew well beyond the original $7,000 figure. A modest circa 1950 wood-frame house cost $8,000, whereas the all-steel Lustron sold for close to $11,000.

Even with additional loans, the company was unable to produce the promised 100 houses a day. Back orders accumulated, and buyers faced long delivery delays. The first Lustron home rolled off the assembly line in March 1948. The factory turned out only twenty-six a day, with 50 needed to break even.

Everyone from congressmen to consumers began questioning the financial feasibility of the Lustron Company. How popular opinion turned against Strandlund remains controversial. In his book, The Lustron Home, Tom Fetters suggests that the company was brought down in part by jealous trade unions and builders.

The watchdogs of government, baited by the lobbying of trade unions and builders who felt threatened in their livelihood, began to snip and tear at the fabric of Lustrons organization well before the plant had even produced a hundred houses. Far more of Lustrons time had to be devoted to warding off these attacks than handling the normal day-today problems -- (p. 132, The Lustron Home).

furnace tagAnoral history from one of the original builders of Lustron homes corroborates that account.

Serious cost overruns and production problems added fuel to the fire. Politicians questioned the wisdom of giving more federal money to Strandlund, whose company failed to file required reports with federal lending agencies.

In 1950, the RFC foreclosed on Lustron and this grand and ambitious housing experiment came to an abrupt halt, leaving behind 2,680 all-steel houses, a $37.5 million debt to the federal government and thousands of unfilled orders and disappointed customers.

Strandlund was unable to secure alternate financing. He reportedly was financially and physically ruined by the failure of his company, and lived in relative obscurity until his death in 1974.

Lustron homes today

lustron logo
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, in recognition of the historical value of the Lustron home, recently moved a house, rather than demolish it.
st. louis lustron
See photos of St. Louis Lustrons
gail and phil rock
(See photos of Gail Rock's home.)

Nearly 3,000 of these homes were built in 18 months, though only a fraction of them still remain, many in the Midwest. Some are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the

Many suggest that Strandlunds Lustron was an idea ahead of its time. Fifty years after these houses were built, owners find that they were unusually well built and well designed.

St. Louis resident and Lustron aficionado Tom Bakersmith has documented 70 Lustrons in the St. Louis area. Of those 70 homes, only three needed roofing work in the last five decades, and each of those was due to storm damage. Tom relates that in talking with most of these Lustron owners, hes only found one person who did not love his Lustron.

The worst part about living in a Lustron is that you cant find repair materials anymore, he said. The houses dont wear out, but the door rollers (for the sliding doors) wear out. Lustron owners are scrambling to find some kind of make-do replacement parts for these rollers.

According to Tom and other Lustron-lovers, the best part is that the houses are nearly maintenance free. If youre fussy, you can hose them down and scrub them with a brush.

Some owners use automotive paste-wax on the walls to renew the shiny finish.

St. Louis Lustron owner Gail Rock has lived in her steel home for about nine years. She and her son, Philip, love their two-bedroom Lustron.

I think about moving every now and then, but my son says, Mom, youre going to stay in this house until you die. He might be right. It is so much fun to have a Lustron.

Another Lustron owner, Barb Hughes agrees. She said, Everyone who comes in the house touches the inside walls and asks, theyre metal, too?

All agree that finding someone to work on these unique homes is a real challenge. And sadly, many Midwestern cities (which is where most Lustrons can be found), have a story to share about a Lustron that has been or soon will be demolished.

One of the largest collections of Lustrons is at Quantico, a Marine base in Virginia. The 60 Lustrons there have undergone several renovations, but may soon be demolished. As of this writing, efforts are underway by preservationists to have the Lustrons relocated, rather than destroyed.

The History of Prefabrication, written in 1945, made this prophetic statement about the all-steel, prefabricated house. The fact that none of these (1930s steel homes) systems achieved commercial success does not necessarily prove that none of them will ever do so. One the contrary, many were excellent and failed not for technical reasons, but because of merchandising and financial difficulties.

Other parts of this story:

>> Part 2: "Metal Homes without Wheels"
>> Part 3: Oral History -- Lustron homes: Proving their mettle after 50 years
>> Part 4: Moving (and saving) a Lustron home
>> Part 5: St. Louis Lustrons
>> Part 6: Living in a Lustron -- and loving it

The All-Steel Historic Home, 411 Bowser Avenue, Chesterton, is open for tours from 1:00 P.M. to 5:00 P.M. central time Tuesday through Sunday from 1 May through 30 October. The tours are free, but donations are welcome. Call Jim Morrow at (219) 926-3669 to discuss the home or to arrange for a tour during off-season or off-hours, or write to him at P.O. Box 508, Chesterton, Indiana 46304-0508.

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