Lustrons: Building an American Dream House

Posted on: July 29th, 2013 by Aria Danaparamita 29 Comments

Lustrons were an ingenious 1940s invention: modern homes made of prefabricated steel. Credit: Library of Congress.
Lustrons were an ingenious 1940s invention: modern homes made of prefabricated steel sheets. Located in Chesterton, Indiana, this Lustron home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

They were literally building the American dream.

In the late 1940s, soldiers returning from World War II dreamed of the idyllic life: a happy family, a lovely suburban home. But the post-war period instead brought a housing crisis. In response, Lustron promised a dream house -- signed, sealed, delivered.

An innovative solution by Chicago industrialist Carl Strandlund, the Lustron house is made of prefabricated porcelain enameled steel, shipped and put together wherever you wanted -- an IKEA home, if you will. Inside, families could sit around a built-in, glossy-surfaced table, eating home-cooked dinners in cozy domestic bliss.

As Strandlund advertised, “What Lustron offers is a new way of life.”

From 1948 to 1950, Lustron Corporation built thousands of these unique homes before falling to bankruptcy.

“It has a sort of late ‘40s, ‘50s new modern America appeal,” says Megan Wood of the Ohio Historical Society. “And you don’t have to paint it, you can clean the walls with windex, and you can hang things with magnets.”

The design, too, was exciting, combining modern minimalism and the function of a traditional home.

A happy family: a print advertisement showing a Lustron living room. Credit: Ohio Historical Society.
A happy family in a print advertisement showing a Lustron living room.

A house contained over 3,300 parts, pieced together over an average of 350 hours, or 2 weeks. The skeleton was made of steel frames, welded into walls and roof trusses. The roof and walls were made of porcelain-finish steel panels, compressed with plastic seal for air-tight weather resistance.

The technology itself began in 19th century when European manufacturers started prefabricating cast iron for buildings. Strandlund thought of an inventive American use for enameled metal: solve the U.S. housing crisis.

Strandlund devised an architectural panel which he patented, at first used for gas stations and restaurants. In 1947, he founded the Lustron Corporation to start producing houses. The company received a multimillion-dollar loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to get started.

Production began in 1948. Taking over a former warplane manufacturing plant in Columbus, Ohio, the Lustron factory spanned over 1 million square feet of machinery, employing many war veterans.

“They did everything from putting the porcelain on the steel to putting the bathtubs together, and they had employees who took the trucks out and assembled the homes on site,” says Wood.

Lustron offered eight models, varying in bedroom number, size, and amenities. The most popular model was the two-bedroom "Westchester Deluxe." The houses came with accessories like screen doors and steel venetian blinds. For the semi-matte exterior, you could choose between “surf blue,” “maize yellow,” “desert tan,” and “dove gray.”

Employees standing outside the Lustron Corporation factory in Columbus, Ohio. Credit: Ohio Historical Society.
Employees standing outside the Lustron Corporation factory in Columbus, Ohio.

By 1949, Lustron Corporation had 234 dealers in 35 states. Then the dream hit reality.

Unable to contain costs, the company made less than 3,000 homes, out of the 45,000 promised. In addition, an investigation by a U.S. Senate banking subcommittee uncovered a corruption scandal within Lustron Corporation. Its loans were recalled, forcing the company into bankruptcy in 1950.

An estimated 1,500 of these homes survive, some listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lustron Preservation, an initiative of the former Midwest Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, now stewarded by the Ohio Historical Society, provides more information on the preservation and maintenance of existing Lustrons and their history.

“It’s a unique Ohio story,” Wood says. “It also embodies some of that post-war story. It wasn’t successful but it showed how people were trying to capitalize on that moment.”

So as you look back to that nostalgic time and that promise of post-war properity, think of the Lustron, the dream that almost came to be.

--

The Ohio Historical Society’s interactive exhibit, 1950s: Building the American Dream, which features a Lustron home opened in Columbus on July 13.

Want more? View this visual guide to the Lustron or read the assembly manual. Click for more information on how to preserve a Lustron home.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Aria Danaparamita

Aria Danaparamita

Aria Danaparamita, or Mita, is a contributor to the PreservationNation blog and recent graduate of Wesleyan University. She enjoys walks, coffee, and short stories. Follow her odd adventures on Twitter at @mitatweets.

Architecture, Modern Architecture

29 Responses

  1. Tina Fassett

    July 29, 2013

    Great post! Here at the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, we just wrote a post on a similar pre-fab building type and its role in the post-War housing shortage: the Quonset Hut. It includes a link to a National Trust effort to save these structures as well.

    http://www.housingstudies.org/news/blog/solving-very-different-kind-housing-crisis/

  2. Jen Connors

    July 29, 2013

    What an interesting article. I knew nothing about this company or these houses. Now whenever I’m in a little town I’ll see if I can find a Lustron. I hope the surviving 1,500 will remain standing for years to come.

  3. Mary Carton

    July 29, 2013

    Here is one of the Lustrons we have been trying to save, so far no luck.

    http://tuscumbian.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/the-lustron-house/

  4. Mary Tangora

    July 30, 2013

    We have at least 9 in Champaign-Urbna, IL (7 in Champaign.
    Jen Connors, you will find them in the most unusual places, unless someone wanted to build a McMansion in it’s place. Just concentrate on them and I swear you will find them. Every time go to a new town we think about how cool it would be to see one and almost every time, there it is. Sadly Ft. Lauderdale let 2 go to a Mc M. not too long ago :(. I have lived in my Lustron since 1989 and am the 3rd proud owner.
    Many are getting bulldozed. A couple of years ago there was a plea to save a few in IN. don’t know the outcome??

  5. Mary Tangora

    July 30, 2013

    A few years ago we went to the 50yr reunion of Lustron owners in Columbus, OH. met one of the men pictured above!! There is a wing in the Columbus Musuem there that has a Lustron Home and the fabled dishwasher/laundry washer!!

  6. Jayson Lewis

    August 1, 2013

    Building and American dream house really requires a lot of work. From drawing room to bathroom everything has to be perfect. But for me its got to be the bathroom that should be unique.

  7. Pauline Eaton

    August 1, 2013

    My hometown of Galion, Ohio has a street with many; Maple Heights.

  8. Anthone

    August 22, 2013

    Isn’t it true that all original Lustrons had blue roofs. If so, then the poster child with its altered “brown” roof is unfortunate. And, while color choice may not be such a factor with other historic styles and types, the original integral colors of the Lustron homes are significant. There are many Lustrons that retain ALL of their original character-defining features, including the fantastic blue roofs; one or more if these should have been selected for the article. Please show us these!

  9. Ken Heath

    August 22, 2013

    There is a Lustron here in Marion, VA that’s for sale! It’s had windows replaced, but the originals are still on premises. If there is interest in purchasing and moving it, there might be interest from someone for the lot. Contact me Ken Heath (276) 783-4190 kheath@marionva.org

  10. William Lucht

    August 22, 2013

    Tried to locate Huron, Ohio but could not. Error 404 came up when I advanced from the first slate of towns to the next.

    Huron has two of these homes that I know of.
    One is in the next street over from our street.

  11. Darwyn Lumley

    August 22, 2013

    My grandfather, David U. Harken was involved with Lustron homes and had one assembled for his son, my uncle, David Harken, Jr. This was in the small town of Aplington, Iowa. Over the years it was modified to the extent that it was unrecognizable. The last I knew it still was standing.

  12. Isabel Seavey

    August 22, 2013

    There in one down the street from me in Warren, Ohio. Unfortunately, it has been clad in siding, but the original is all ther underneath.

  13. cindyCindy Sundell-Guy

    August 22, 2013

    My mother and younger sisters lived in a Lustron house in Larned, KS in the late 60′s, early 70′s. It is across the street from the High School track. It was wonderful and so easy to live in. The bathroom door and bedroom doors (I think) slid into the wall. Everything was clad in metal so you just hosed off the outside and wiped down the inside. The panels were such they could be replaced in case of a fire or being pieced but they were basically indestructible. This house had a wooden frame garage and I often wondered if Lustron garages were available. I think there were also a couple of other Lustron’s there. If someone is interested in more of that info, they might call Carr Auction and they would probably know more about them or know the person that would remember.

  14. Lorraine Komar

    August 22, 2013

    Hello: Here in upstate New York,Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga, there are two of these homes in our village of Ballston Spa. One is located on Church Ave. and the other on McLean Street. They are very interesting small houses among the Victorian Painted Ladies.

  15. Kimberly Alvarez

    August 22, 2013

    In 2006 I was fortunate enough to be hired as a preservation consultant to research, survey, document and nominate the existing 90+ Lustron homes in New York State via a Multiple Properties National Register nomination. A very large percentage of the more than 100 lustrons erected in NY are standing and in good condition. In fact there is one in Albany, NY currently on the market (listed at $125K)complete with 1-car garage.
    I would agree with “Anthone’s” comment however that the original porcelain enamel color scheme (pastels and yes blue/green roof tiles) were indeed significant character-defining features of these homes and unfortunately many of the porcelain panels have been painted — like the one in the article. It would be more appropriate to show a house that has not been altered and retains its architectural integrity…color scheme and all.

  16. Patricia DeWitt

    August 22, 2013

    We rented one of these in Ypsilanti, Michigan from about 1971 to 1975. It had two bedrooms. My dad said it was in Early Gas Station style. It had a plaque in the utility room that said “for service call your representative”. Regretfully I don’t remember the address. Had lots of good parties there and I wrote a doctoral dissertation there.

  17. Jody Schwebach

    August 23, 2013

    I remember a Lustron on a side street near Regis High School in Eau Claire WI. I Don’t know if it is still there but it was intact back in the 90s at least. Colors were Blue and yellow with a blue roof.

  18. Ed Jarolin

    August 23, 2013

    Quite a few of these, perhaps a dozen or so, in Garden City, Kansas. Located to the east and west of downtown. I recall seeing all the colors, except the “dove grey.”

  19. Dave Walter

    August 23, 2013

    In Bloomington, Indiana there are 4 or 5 of these homes, still in use. Bloomington Restorations, Inc. has one that is disassembled and in storage if anyone is interested in obtaining it.

  20. Sandra Hawthorne

    August 23, 2013

    I have lived in a Lustron for 13 years now and have magnets that can lift a horse! Prior to moving in, I painted my bedroom using latex paint. I would like to paint the rest of the rooms, but can’t deal with the latex effects. Has anyone ever painted the inside, and if so, what type of paint did you use? I am desperate to bring some sunshine into the house! The original yellow is getting tiresome.

  21. Bedhead

    August 23, 2013

    Love this post!! I love these houses, too… to me, they just embody the hopes and dreams of a generation.

  22. Nanci Young

    August 23, 2013

    I think we have a Lustron home here in Greenfield, MA. After reading this piece, will definitely look at it again, with a different set of eyes.

  23. Shawn Stone

    August 23, 2013

    Here’s a 2002 story about the Lustron Homes in Albany, New York.

    http://tinyurl.com/kx4s4mq

  24. Studearch

    August 23, 2013

    There are five in fairly original condition out here in Los Alamos,New Mexico – a true “Atomic City”. Like Fuller’s Dyamaxion homes, and Wallace Neff’s AirForm homes, these represent American ambition, ingenuity,and inventiveness. It’s a testament that the few that survive do so in remarkably good condition and have aged well. It’s a far different time now and I seriously doubt if the McMansions constructed today will endure as well as these. Home builders take note….Jack Logan, Architect, Albuquerque, NM

  25. G.A. Richter

    August 23, 2013

    I live in Lustron Home no. 591, which is the house I grew up in. I’ve never thought of the roof as “blue” — though sometimes it looks sort of bluish, I see it more as battleship gray. And I’ve never tired of looking at the light gray interior walls; the colorist was a genius, if you ask me.

  26. Diane Schulz

    August 24, 2013

    I am the proud owner of a Lustron house on west Sunset in Russell, Kansas. I have wonderful tenants who have lived there for the last several years. There are at least 4 Lustrons in that section of Russell. In addition to my one bedroom, there are another 2 one bedrooms and a two bedroom. I am glad to see they are being recognized as the historic treasures I know them to be.

  27. Jennifer Rothschild

    August 25, 2013

    The Harold Hess Lustron in Closter, New Jersey is in imminent peril of demolition. The local governing body voted against designating it as an historic local landmark, despite the fact that it’s already on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places. There is a slim chance that a matching grant from Bergen County will assist the Borough of Closter in acquiring this property. Applications are due this week, but it will be months, however, before the grant decisions are made. In the interim, the house is on the market and a developer could buy it and demolish it, in order to build a new mcmansion. Please emanate positive thoughts, that this pristine “Westchester Deluxe” model Lustron with attached breezeway and one-car garage, on a large plot, only 11 miles from Manhattan, will survive to tell its tale to future generations.

  28. Charles Mintz

    August 25, 2013

    I am doing a project on the people currently living in Lustron Homes. We are planing and exhibit of it at the Ohio Historical Society next year and, we hope, a book. It really is about the Great American Dream, then and now.

    Chuck

  29. Suzanne

    August 26, 2013

    I saw one to the right of the entrance(across the street) as you are coming out of Cedar Point AMusement park in Sandusky Ohio.It was being covered in siding probably about 6 yrs ago. There are several of them in Oak Park Michigan in one neighborhood. I got to see the inside of one as the owner was very nice. He said one of the homes in the neighborhood was a 2 bdr and someone raised 6 kids in it at the same time.Crazy