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The Rise and Fall of Lustron Homes

lustron homes

Lustron homes were a completely unique type of home born out of post-World War II innovation and necessity. They were prefabricated enameled steel houses built almost entirely out of enameled steel and shipped to the customer’s job site.

These homes were designed and constructed to address the massive housing shortage faced by returning war veterans and their families, offering a unique blend of modernity, durability, and prefabrication techniques that were ahead of their time.

In this post, I’ll share some of Lustron’s strange (and very short history), as well as some of the very unique design features that are found only in Lustron homes today.

The History of Lustron Homes

Developed by the Lustron Corporation, founded by Carl Strandlund, the Lustron home was really an ingenious solution to the post-war housing crisis. Strandlund’s vision was to create affordable, maintenance-free homes that could be quickly assembled on-site from prefabricated parts. The idea of prefabricated homes was not new having been done to great success by Sears, Montgomery Ward, and The Aladdin Company.

What would make Lustron homes unique is that they would be made almost entirely of enameled steel, from their exterior panels to interior walls, offering a unique (and untried) aesthetic and a host of practical benefits. They were marketed as being pest-free, fireproof, rustproof, and rot proof, embodying the post-war American dream of home ownership with minimal upkeep.

lustron house ad
The idyllic ads from Lustron homes

The first Lustron model home, the Esquire two-bedroom, opened to visitors in Chicago on August 11, 1948.  Model homes were subsequently shown in most major cities east of the Rockies and, by the end of 1949, over 2 million people had visited a Lustron.

The houses initially sold for between $8,500 and $9,500, according to a March 1949 article in the Columbus Dispatch—about 25 percent less than comparable conventional housing, but costs quickly rose as manufacturing costs couldn’t meet the proposed price point.

lustron floorplan
Floor plan of a typical Lustron home

Lustron set out to construct 15,000 homes in 1947 and 30,000 in 1948. The company hoped to revolutionize the housing market with its assembly-line efficiency and modular construction, but it ultimately produced only 2,498 homes before going bankrupt in 1950.

Despite their innovative design and the high demand for housing, the Lustron Corporation struggled with production costs and logistical challenges. The high production costs, coupled with political and financial controversies surrounding misuse of government money, led to the company’s downfall.

Unique Lustron Design

The design of Lustron homes was spearheaded by Chicago architects Morris Beckman and Roy Burton Blass, incorporating modern architectural elements and efficient use of space. The homes featured built-in furniture, metal cabinets, and other space-saving features that appealed to the modern American family.

lustron kitchen
A Lustron kitchen with prefab cabinets

In total, there were three models of Lustrons: the Westchester, Newport, and Meadowbrook which ranged in size from 713 SF to 1,140 SF. They were all available in four exterior colors: “Surf Blue,” “Dove Gray,” “Maize Yellow,” and “Desert Tan” though many have been since painted.

lustron home living room
Note the enameled steel ceiling tiles in this Lustron living room

What made these homes truly unique is that the frame was constructed of steel steels and has enameled steel panels installed for both the interior and exterior walls. The enameled steel looked just like the surface of bath tub and was proclaimed to be so easy to clean you simply rinse the walls down.

Unique design elements included the distinctive “zig-zag” porch supports only found on Lustron homes, the tri-partied aluminum windows with a large center picture window flanked by two smaller casement windows.

The roof was usually metal tiles, but occasionally asphalt shingles were used. The whole house was said to be able to be assembled in 360 man hours. The NC Modernist put together a booklet based on the original assembly instructions as they attempted to disassemble a historic Lustron house in Virginia.

cleaning a lustron house
Care was as easy as rinsing with a hose!

Today, only an estimated 1,500 Lustron homes still stand, some of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can find an interactive map of the existing Lustron homes as well as the homes that have been lost to demolition online. These homes are rightly cherished by their owners and preservationists for their historical significance and unique architectural features. They remain the only mass produced steel homes in history.

The story of Lustron homes raises intriguing questions about the challenges of innovation in housing, the balance between affordability and quality, and the potential for prefabrication in today’s housing market.

Lustron house

Author of the book Suburban Steel: The Magnificent Failure of the Lustron Corporation, 1945-1951 Douglas Knerr says. “There is still nothing quite like it, and anyone who has ever set foot in one is likely to remember the experience.”

As I reflect on the legacy of Lustron homes, I can’t help but think of the lessons modern architects and builders can learn from the Lustron home. Maybe there is a way to mass produce a small and affordable home that is relatively maintenance free. That is yet to be seen. The questions is, what do you think of Carl Lustron’s creation and should the remaining Lustron houses be preserved?

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