Mary Beth Klatt is a freelance writer with a passion for architecture and home design.
Lustron Homes: Magnetic Appeal
These factory-built homes, which peaked in popularity after World War II, are made completely of metal - from their roof tiles to their interior walls.
October 1, 2008
Lustrons, prefabricated ranch-style houses made entirely of steel, are collectibles not unlike old record players or vintage automobiles. For buyers who value history and novelty in their homes, Lustrons are an option that's sure to please.
More than 2,500 Lustrons were built starting in 1949 during the post-World War II housing boom, when the demand for housing by returning GIs outstripped supply.
Hundreds have been destroyed by tornadoes and floods since they were last constructed in 1950, but their biggest threats are bulldozers.
“They’re really fascinating,” says Tom Fetters, author of Lustron: The History of a Postwar Prefabricated Housing Experiment (McFarland & Co., 2001), who first got hooked on the houses when he helped his daughter make a scale model of a Lustron with a removable roof for a high school history project in 1986.
“They’re still waiting to be discovered,” says Fetters, who has created an online registry of Lustron homes. “I find one every three week through listings or on the Internet. I may not personally get out there, but I’m still finding houses that haven’t been reported.”
Chicago engineer Carl Strandlund is the man behind the Lustron home. Standlund obtained a federal loan in 1947 to mass-produce all-steel, enamel-clad houses, Fetters says. His project was supplemented with additional loans from the Reconstruction Finance Corp. in 1948 because the U.S. government was eager to aid GIs returning from the war.
Strandlund, founder of Lustron Co., got his marching orders to produce 20,000 pre-fabricated homes at a former aircraft factory in Columbus, Ohio.
Strong as Steel
These prefabricated homes were deemed to be three times stronger than a conventional, wood frame house. They were marketed as fireproof, rodent-proof, lightning-proof, and practically maintenance free. "Never needs painting," an old marketing piece reads.
Radiant panel heating warmed the premises and cut down on dust, while built-in cabinetry provided storage without taking up floor space.
Two-bedroom, one-bath, 1,000-square-foot models were the first Lustrons off the assembly line, priced between $10,000 and $12,000. The federal government ordered them in the biggest numbers for use on military bases. Civilians also gave into the prefab craze, ordering the homes in mass numbers from 143 franchised dealers nationwide.
The Lustron Co. was in trouble from the beginning. Local unions were displeased because the homes could be assembled without their labor. Zoning boards criticized their unusual features, Fetters says.
Franchisees required start-up capital, and orders backed up at headquarters. The company produced more than 2,500 Lustrons before Reconstruction Finance Corp. foreclosed in 1950. Officials contended Lustron had defaulted on $37.5 million in loans.
Nearly 60 years later, surviving Lustrons have acquired a certain charm, even if they're a bit dented.
Real estate practitioners might consider touting an old Lustron as a great fixer-upper to fill with '50s furniture, or marketing the home to buyers who can't tolerate the epoxies and plastics of modern houses and seek out the Lustron as environmentally neutral house that will be easy on allergies.
How to Identify a Lustron
Many of today's surviving Lustrons have been modified with drywall on the inside and siding on the exterior. So when you're seeking to identify these uniquelate 40s-early 1950s era residences, look for these features.
- Location. Few were built in Western states since shipping from the factory in Columbus, Ohio, was expensive. The largest group (60), on the Marine base at Quantico, Va.; was recently demolished.
- All-metal facade, interior metal interior walls. "The metal walls are awesome,” says Todd Zeiger, a preservationist with Indiana’s Historic Landmarks Foundation, who lives in a 1949 Lustron at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, a state park. “You can Swiffer them down to clean them and there's no shortage of fun with magnet games."
- Quirky colors. Lustrons were available in pink, surf blue, maize yellow, dove gray, and desert tan.
- Serial number. The house’s serial number is usually located on a small steel plate in the utility room, and will help determine when the house was built, Fetters says. Most steel plates will read: `Lustron Steel Home Made in Columbus, OH.’
- Built-ins such as shelves and kitchen cabinetry. A Lustron with an original combination clothes/dish washer combo is considered a rare find.
- Paperwork, building schedules, and the builder’s book of memos from the home office. Zeiger has a copy of an original construction manual. Back in the 1950s, the 207-page tome was delivered together with a truckload of Lustron parts to new owners.
The Thrill of Living in a Piece of History
While Fetters lives in a red-brick ranch house, he has a special place in his heart for Lustrons. Through his experience, he has learned where the plumbing lines typically lie below the floor, ways to raise porch slabs, and how to make certain repairs.
Other groups share Fetters' love of Lustrons. The Midwest Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has created a Web site to help owners and advocates preserve Lustron homes by providing technical information and a forum for exchanging of information. There's also at least one active online discussion group, and municipalities—such as Arlington County, Va.—that have taken on the cause of preserving Lustron homes.
Like many enthusiasts, Fetters is always thrilled to discover another Lustron.
"My real goal was to find half of the 2,500 and I think I probably have 2,010 located across the country at this time," he says.