Lustron Homes, Part 3

The Old House Web

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

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In the summer of 1948, newlyweds Charles and Jane Miller stopped in to see a model home on Brentwood Blvd in the heart of St. Louis. The house on display was radically different from traditional houses it was a Lustron house.

They fell in love with the all-steel ranch with its porcelain enamel panels and promises of a maintenance-free life. They chose a two-bedroom, dove-gray Lustron. The cost - $6,000.

They put a $500 deposit down on their Lustron and made plans to have it delivered to a lot theyd recently purchased in Kirkwood, a suburb of St. Louis. Their one-acre lot on a dead end street had cost $975. They erected a temporary dwelling a 12 x 20 one-room house while they waited for their new modern home to arrive.

Electricity for their tiny temporary home came from an extension cord plugged in at a neighbors home. The bathroom was a toilet in the corner with a shower curtain pulled around it. That was a pretty modest little house, Jane Miller recalls with a warm smile. But we had fun there.

Miller house
"This house is the best thing I ever saw, says Charles Miller of the Lustron home he and his wife, Jane, bought and built 54 years ago.

living room
The original steel walls and built-in cabinets in the Miller's living room. For 52 years the Millers resisted putting nails into the walls, hanging pictures by magnets. But they think their wonderful little home is destined to be torn down eventually, and decided to enjoy hanging pictures like everyone else a few years ago.

February 1950, about 19 months after placing their order, the big yellow Fruehauf truck, specially built as a rolling warehouse for Lustrons, finally arrived at their building site.

Jane unloaded the house from the trailer during the days, while Charles was at work. Working in their spare time, Charles and Jane assembled most of the house by themselves, with occasional help from some strong friends. They moved into the house June 1950, two years after first stepping into that model home on Brentwood Blvd.

Charles was able to assemble the 1000-square foot prefabricated home with more ease than the average do-it-yourselfer. A carpenter by trade, he went to work as a foreman of one of the four-man crews that assembled Lustrons throughout the St. Louis area in 1948.

Lustron figured it would take about 300-man hours to erect one of these homes, he said, standing in the living room of his own picture-perfect 1950-built Lustron. After we did the first two or three, I think we could have put them up blindfolded. They were easy to assemble. Often, wed have them built in a little over 200-man hours.

Thats the reason the carpenters union didnt like the Lustrons, Jane added. Really, all the unions had a fit over the Lustrons because the house could be built so fast. It threatened to put them out of business. We had to sing and dance and whistle to get our building permit because the city of Kirkwoods Building Commissioner didnt like these houses.

Only the sink has been replaced in the Miller's Lustron. All other fixtures are original.

kitchen cabinet
The Millers decided not to get the combination Thor washing machine/dishwasher. This is the original kitchen sink cabinet.

The original kitchen cabinetry, including space saving sliding doors.

Built-in cabinetry and closets accounted for 20 percent of the inside space of a Lustron. Here is the original built-in vanity with overhead storage in the master bedroom.
(Click on any picture for a larger view.) bedroom
The second bedroom in the Miller home.

Lustrons were shipped with copper plumbing for supply lines and waste lines. When the city of Kirkwood performed a rough-in plumbing inspection, they ordered that the copper drain lines be replaced with cast iron.

Standing in the basement of their Lustron, Charles pointed at the cast iron stack disappearing into the basement floor and shook his head, still a little indignant about the whole affair these 54 years later. Copper is the best material in the world for drain lines, he said. Its a material that will last forever. And all that copper was ripped out so the plumbers in town would have something to do.

In St. Louis, the homes were sold through a local company - Modern Homes Corporation. One day, the big boss from the company showed up at a building site where a Lustron was being assembled by Charles and his crew. He walked into the house and found the men sitting on the floor of the living room, throwing back a few beers.

When he came in the door and saw us sitting there, he looked pretty stunned, Charles relates with a laugh. He asked us, What in the world are you doing? I told him, were so many hours ahead on this house, I thought wed rest a little bit. He walked through the house and saw how close it was to being done and almost couldnt believe it. Then he came back in the living room and sat down and had a beer with us.

According to Charles, these prefabricated, steel homes were assembled with a rubber mallet and screwdrivers and wrenches. The biggest challenge in building a Lustron was raising the all-steel 31-foot roof trusses into place atop the homes walls. It took four strong men giving it their all to hoist those trusses into place.

Production of Lustrons ceased in 1950 and Charles went back to doing more traditional carpentry work.

About a year and a half after moving in, the Millers replaced the Lustrons furnace. The ceiling mounted, oil-fired hot-air furnace was designed to heat the metal ceiling, which would radiate the heat down through the walls and into the living space.

According to Jane, it didnt work that way.

We froze to death with that furnace. Sitting down, you couldnt get warm. If you stood up, you could feel the heat with your head and shoulders and the rest of your body was still cold.

A rare sight: The original Lustron furnace.
furnace tag
Close-up of furnace tag.
Another original label carefully preserved in place in the Miller house.

joint detail
Jane and Charles Miller are expert tour guides in the construction of Lustrons: They assembled their house back in 1950. Photo shows the ceiling panels where they meet the front door and corner.
door inside
Even the doors in the Lustron were steel. Like nearly everything else in the Miller home, the door is the original.
Behind the steel panels: View of the steel frame work of the Lustron home.

service panel
Access hole for phone wires in the Millers' kitchen.
(Click on any picture for a larger view.)

Unlike most Lustrons, the Millers Lustron is one of the few in the country that is not built on a cement slab, but on a full basement. Charles had an architect draw plans for a basement that would accommodate the unusual weight distribution of the Lustron.

Oversized floor joists - 2 x 12s - together with steel I-beams provide support for the metal house. Also unlike most Lustrons, the Millers home has a wooden subfloor and traditional oak hardwood floor.

When the Millers Lustron was threatened with demolition several few years ago (to make way for an interstate), Charles seriously considered disassembling the house and moving it to another site.

I know how they went together and I know how to take them apart, he said with a smile. I could take this entire house apart with a screwdriver and a rubber hammer. Might take me a little time though, now that Im older.

The Millers Lustron is also unusual because it is a one-owner home and they have been faithful and meticulous in its care and maintenance. When the rollers on the sliding kitchen-cabinet doors wore out, Charles fabricated a new assembly. Until two years ago, they resisted putting any holes in the walls for hanging pictures.

But their thoughts about the home changed recently. Massive million-dollar homes have started to spring up around their neighborhood. Their little metal home looks oddly out of place now in this neighborhood of monstrously huge new homes. Recently, a small house on their street sold for $180,000 and was promptly torn down to make way for yet another McMansion.

After that happened, we realized that when we die, whoever buys our Lustron is going to come in here and demolish it, Jane said. So we figured, oh well, were going to go ahead and hang up some things and put a few holes in the walls.

But its obvious that this couple has a special affinity for their Lustron.

Lustron promised these houses would be low maintenance and they were right, Charles said. The roof hasnt been replaced in 54 years. How many houses can you say that about? The sad thing is, Lustron was way ahead of its time. No painting, very little maintenance and it still looks almost as good as when we built it. You cant beat a steel house. This house is the best thing I ever saw.

Other parts of this story:

>> Part 1: "Never before in America:" The invention of the Lustron
>> Part 2: "Metal Homes without Wheels"
>> 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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