Gas Stations, White Castles, and Fannie Mays? No....Lustrons!
From 1948 to 1950 the Lustron Corporation built 2,498 all steel homes, inside and out, across 34 states. Their main purpose was to ease the post-war housing shortage. Most of the homes are appoximately 1,000 square feet with two bedrooms. Each home was individually numbered on a small builder's plate located in the utiliy room.
In 1946 Carl Strandlund was an executive at Chicago Vitreous, an enamel products company. He was building for gas stations at the time, but had the idea to mass-produce prefabricated enameled steel homes. He envisioned 100 homes a day coming off the production line for the post-war family housing boom.
By 1948 Strandlund had secured a former Columbus, Ohio military aircraft plant to produce the Lustron houses. He originally had his eye on another former defense plant on the southwest side of Chicago, but someone had beat him to it. That plant held another "failed" business venture, the Tucker automotive plant. The similarites between these two men, there companies, and the final outcome are amazing.
"Luster", found on steel, provided the name for the company. The government funded the Lustron Corporation with a $37.5 million dollar loan, additional loans were provided by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Strandlund promised the government 20,000 homes.
Model Lustrons were put up across the country, the first was built in Hinsdale, Illinois. People would line up for blocks just to see the modern looking 2-by-2 foot steel panel homes with their Spanish tile roofs. People liked the look, they also liked the low maintanace. You do not paint the outside of a Lustron, you hose it off. You can also wax it if your so inclined. Inside, no paint, just dusting when needed.
Many built-in features also attracted buyers. A Thor combination dish/clothes washer was probably the most intresting. Closets, pocket doors, hutches and dressers were all built-in and all made of steel. Even the walls and ceilings were made of steel. These interiors were not created by interior designers, they were created by automotive stylist to give that modern feeling throughout.
The biggest attraction was the price. The homes cost anywhere from $9,000 to $12,000 complete. A little pricey for the time, but they had benefits. The Lustron's were three times stronger than a wood frame house. They were fireproof, rodent-proof and lightning-proof, everything a young family could want.
What you can't see on a Lustron is also very intresting, engineers came up with some intresting ways to deal with the steal construction. The area between the ceiling and roof is heated by a furnace and the ceiling acts as a radiator to warm the house. The kitchens were small, so the cabinets tilt outward to provide more leg room. Steel studs in the walls were designed as thermo-breaks to prevent deterioration and condensation.
It was failry simple to build a Lustron, they could be completed in a couple days. All you had to do was place your order, pour the concrete slab, and watch her go up. Each home consists of about 3,000 pieces. they were available in 4 colors: yellow, grey, blue-green and tan. Interiors were battleship grey with tan or yellow accents.
The homes were sold by dealers, in fact that builders plate tells you to "Call your dealer for service". They were required to buy the homes on their own without any help from the company. This is probably one reason for the Lustron's short run, even though sales were brisk.
Many other fators probably didn't help the Lustron. Strandlund never really had the production lines working well. He had miscalculated the man-hours involved and it turned out to take three times longer. His goal of 100 homes produced a day never happened. 50 homes a day was his break even point, he didn't even make that. Suppliers also couldn't give him a good price due to the slow production times.
In Park Forest, Illinois a comapny called American Community Builders had sold 2,000 of the homes. Not a single one was ever built due to Lustron not being able to fulfill the orders. This happened on smaller scales across the country which explains the randomness of Lustron locations. Quantico, Virginia has the largest group of Lustron's with 60.
The end came in 1950 when the U.S. government foreclosed on Lustron. Although there may have been a conspiracy brewing with certain congressmen. It seems that certain members wanted control of Lustron to get in on a peice of the action.
It is not really known how many Lustron's are left, records have been lost. However, more than 0,000 have been recorded at http://www.???.com. Many are not survivng due to their small size. There are people who buy them for their charm, to live in that '50's style or just to have a unique home. Another small group seeks them out because of allergies to the building materials in new homes.