The innovative Lustron
Sixty years ago, a visionary engineer named Carl Strandlund responded to the post-war housing shortage by designing a prefabricated home made from enameled steel. Between 1948 and 1950 his factory produced approximately 2500 of these homes, called Lustrons, which were intended to be affordable and easily erected. [Click on any photo to enlarge.]
Like many other good ideas, this one failed. Not because the home lacked merit, but because of a combination of financial problems and political opposition. The company declared bankruptcy in 1950, leaving a trail of small, multi-colored metal homes scattered across the United States, many of which can be found in the Midwest.
Lustrons came in pink, yellow, blue, tan, aqua, green or gray. Interiors were offered in gray or beige. A 2-bedroom Lustron was 1000 square feet and was built on a concrete slab. Advertisements at the time claimed that they were fireproof, rot-proof, termite proof, rat-proof, and rust-proof.
The floor plan exhibits remarkable ingenuity in assigning sufficient space for the living functions. The rooms are tucked together compactly and efficiently, with abundant storage (supposedly accounting for 20% of the total interior space). Although made completely of metal, the built-ins are attractive and cleverly made. An entire wall in the master bedroom is taken up by a mirrored vanity with flanking cabinets, with a large closet along the side wall. The hallway has a built-in linen closet. The dining room features a built-in cupboard and sideboard with a pass-through to the kitchen, and the kitchen has plenty of cabinet space.
The living room came with a built-in shelving unit with mirrors on the back of it, which catches the light and visually enlarges the room.
Many Lustrons have been altered over the years by having their interior walls torn out and rearranged, additions tacked on, or exterior walls altered. One Bloomington Lustron has refaced its original enamel exterior with brick and can be recognized only by the shaped metal roof tiles.
Interior walls are also metal, which makes it a challenge to hang a picture. The homeowner must choose between putting an irrevocable hole in a wall with a drill in which to place a nail, or gluing magnetic strips to the back of the artwork.
For all their design ingenuity, Lustrons had several technical weaknesses. The metal moving parts on the doors were noisy and tended to break. Heating was another problem. Originally, Lustrons had heating systems that warmed the metal ceiling tiles, supposedly creating warmth for the rooms below. This was obviously inefficient, and most of these systems were changed over the years to forced-air ductwork.
Despite claims of being rust-proof, any Lustron may be forgiven for showing a few spots of rust after 60 years. The Bloomington Lustron that sits on Mitchell between Atwater and Third was repainted about a year ago and looks better than it has in decades. One wonders whether the owner used latex, oil, or a specialty paint designed for metal.
Each year there are fewer and fewer remaining Lustrons. It’s a pity, for they were a genuinely innovative concept. If there was an affordable stud-built pre-fab home on the market today that featured the floor plans, amenities and charm of the Lustron, it would be wildly popular.
For more information see http://www.lustronconnection.org/
Wikipedia has some interesting photos and links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lustron_house
This site has a Lustron Locator, Lustron Help feature and a homeowners’ forum: http://www.lustronpreservation.org/
There are at least six Lustrons in Bloomington: one on Hunter, behind a high wooden fence; two on Highland just south of Atwater; one on Mitchell between Atwater and Third, and two on Maxwell (one of which has been disguised with brick facing; only the contoured metal roof tiles gives a hint that it’s not a standard ranch). The last I heard, the Lustron that used to stand on Smith has been disassembled and is in storage.