Lustron Homes, Part 2

The Old House Web

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

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The idea of prefabricated steel homes did not originate with Lustron.

According to the 1945 book A History of Prefabrication, the idea of a prefabricated steel home was a child of the depression. A market-hungry nation suddenly became aware that, in the field of low-cost housing, it had neglected one of its greatest potential markets.

In 1929, Harvard-schooled architect Howard T. Fisher started thinking about how to successfully and economically integrate prefabrication, mass production and steel construction with housing. In 1931, he approached the Pullman Car Corporation and said, You have had more experience with prefabricated housing in metal than any other manufacturer. Help us learn how to build homes without wheels (Fortune Magazine, April 1933).

Fisher approached other companies such as manufacturers of plumbing supplies, mill work, glass, insulation materials, etc. By spring of 1932, he had pulled all these companies and their ideas together and created General Houses, Inc.

modern homes catalog

modernhomes catalog

Covers from vintage Modern Homes catalogs show two different models of steel homes.
(Click on pictures for a larger view)

In June 1932, the New York Times had high hopes for the new steel homes. Just as Henry Ford tapped a totally undeveloped field for automobile sales, so General Houses hopes to tap a totally undeveloped field for housing when it offers first class shelter on the installment plan for $30 a month. The houses will be adaptable to exchange for newer and better models and can be set up or taken down in four days.

Fortune Magazine reported General Houses expects to offer its products to the public through a few selected dealers on or about June 1 (1933); opening date of the Chicago Worlds Fair (where General Houses will exhibit).

The 1936 General Houses catalog stated: Approximately two million people visited our display house within five months at the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition.

Despite the incredible interest and popular appeal, the low prices ($3000 - $7000) and good terms (30% down, 15-year loans through FHA), General Houses was out of business by the beginning of World War II.

In addition to General Houses, there were other companies creating and selling prefabricated steel houses. There was the New York-based American Houses, Inc., which sold Motohomes, so named because they could be disassembled and moved with relative ease. American Houses is credited with building the first prefabricated steel homes in 1932 in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. A cluster of 20 homes were built for coal miners.

Other companies included National Houses, Steel Buildings Inc., Steel Frame House Company, The Insulated Steel Construction Company, Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, Hobart Steel Houses and many more.

Originally, the steel houses that General Houses built used steel for both interior and exterior walls, but soon learned that the house-buying public didnt care for steel interior walls, and they switched to more conventional materials for the interior.

This appears to have been a lesson that eluded Carl Strandlund with his Lustron homes.

Most of the Lustron homes Ive toured have painted interiors. Its the equivalent of using a 2-inch brush to apply latex paint to the top of your Maytag washer. It really doesnt work too well and in the end, you wish you had left it alone.

peeling paint
Latex paint on enameled steel is not a happy combination, especially in a high moisture area, like a bathroom.

Left untended, chips in the porcelain enamel will lead to rust in the steel exterior of a Lustron home.

steel panels
Steel panels are prone to chips from everyday outdoor hazards such as lawnmower debris or the neighbor's kid throwing pebbles.

But people get tired of seeing the same color for 50 years. Dove gray (or boredom gray as one Lustron owner quipped) appears to have been the most popular color for the interior of these Lustrons.

Exteriors are prone to chipping, from flying lawnmower debris and kids with skateboards and other such hazards. Typically, the chips in the porcelain-enamel exteriors are fixed with appliance touch-up paint.

Other parts of this story:

>> Part 1: "Never before in America:" The invention of the Lustron
>> 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

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