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Lustron Homes

Rise and Fall of the Enamel Home

Lustron Home ad, c.1947

“The Lustron home was an enameled-steel prefabricated house that was immensely popular and highly promoted during a two-year period in United States history, 1948 to 1950.” (Fetters, Preface)

According to the directory found in the back of The Lustron Home (2002) by Thomas T. Fetters, Kalamazoo is home to several of these rare experiments in prefabrication. Out of only 2,500 homes built within the two-year span, seven were built in Kalamazoo, with all currently still standing. These uniquely designed homes embody the consumer ethos and mid-century aesthetics of the sociocultural ideal at the center of much of post-war suburbia. This interplay between art, form, function, consumer wealth, suburban planning, and affordability grounded the emergence of prefabrication as an ideal way of growing the housing market in post-war America.

Resistant to any sort of architectural ornamentation, both the exterior and interiors of the Lustron houses took austerity and amplified it. Post-war modernist aesthetics embraced the new technologies that made mass produced materials far easier than previous time periods. The look of modernism reflected the kind of streamlined, minimalist approach to furniture and architecture design that first emerged during the 1920’s in Europe, by designers connected with such fine arts and crafts movements as Russian Constructivism, the Bauhaus, De Stijl and Art Deco. Ideas regarding the unification of mass production, form and function were central concepts that may have begun in European art schools, but later found their most commercialized expression in post-war America.

Within that context, the Lustron house was born in 1948. Coming out of almost two decades of an economic depression and a world war, the U.S. housing market was in need of housing solutions for the large number of returning service men and their families, many of whom were too busy, or not inclined to make fixes to older homes.

The Fast Rise and Fall of a Company

In 1947, Chicago businessman Carl Strandlund saw an opportunity to mass-produce, prefabricated, enamel homes that would be delivered by truck, and assembled on site with many of the interior and exterior components already intact. Strandlund was an inventor and industrialist who had success in making prefabricated gas stations for the Chicago Vitreous Enamel Co. The manufacturing of the Lustron home took place in a former war-plane factory in Columbus, Ohio. After receiving a large loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Lustron Corporation set out to manufacture 15,000 homes in 1947, and then 30,000 more in 1948. Unfortunately, after only 20 months of activity, the company folded due to poor sales, and its inability to pay off the RFC loans. Several obstacles lead to Lustron’s quick demise, including banks refusing to back Lustron mortgages, and cumbersome building codes that restricted their construction. For further information about the rise and fall of the business side of the Lustron story, and the shady political machinations behind its failure, see Fetters’ book.

From the brochure “The Lustron Home: A New Standard for Living”, c.1947

Homes were priced between $8,000 and $10,000. Buyers could pick from either a two or three-bedroom kit. There were three models to choose from, including the Newport, the Westchester Deluxe and the Meadowbrook. Most of the homes were affixed to a cement base, with only a couple of homes having basements added. Homes came in four colors, including “surf blue,” “dove gray,” “maize yellow,” and “desert tan.”

“The one-story, ranch-style houses featured built-in cabinetry and appliances, including an ingenious all-in one dishwasher/washing machine (which was often rough on the dishes). Structurally, exterior and interior enameled-steel panels were affixed to a steel skeleton set into a concrete slab foundation.” (Preservation, O’Connell, p.37)

In 2007, it is was believed that between 1200 and 1500 homes still survived throughout the country (likely fewer today in 2023). The internet has provided preservationists, homeowners and fans of these rare homes to band together and fight demolition efforts, and to work toward adding Lustron homes to historical registries.

“What a wonderful adventure the Lustron Corporation was: a good idea, the right timing, a quality product, and a profound failure all at once. Strandlund probably could have realized his dream had he solved manufacturing issues, had more start-up money, and did not have to contend with his enemies in Washington. Nonetheless, the Lustron House is an astonishing example of Art Deco for the masses: modern materials, modern design, and modern methods. Lustron allowed nearly 3,000 average families to own reasonably prices homes – to take part in the American dream – by joining together industrialization, prefabrication, and lots and lots of porcelain enameled steel. What could be more Art Deco than that?”– Kjirsten K.J. Blander

Lustron Homes in Kalamazoo

3032 Broadway Ave.

2932 Ferdon Rd.

1009 Clover St.

2022 Lakeway Ave.

1228 Miles Ave.

1421 Olmstead Rd.

Lustron Home, 1421 Olmstead Rd. Photo by Martin Burch, c. 2021

1002 Westfall Avenue

 

Written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, February 2023

Sources

Books

The Lustron home
Thomas T. Fetters, 2002
H 728 F421

Yesterday’s houses of tomorrow: innovative American homes 1850 to 1950
H. Ward Jandl, 1991
H 728 J332


Articles

“Lustrons as vernacular Art Deco: A heap of cheerful living in this new idea of home”
Kjirsten K.J. Blander
The Newsletter of the Detroit Area Art Deco Society, Spring/Summer 2004

“Loving Lustrons”
Kim A. O’Connell
Preservation, July/August 2007

“Prefabs of steel: Lustron house a manufactured marvel that still stands tough after 60 years”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 31 October 2010, page E1, column 1


Local History Room Files

Subject File: Lustron houses


Websites

Lustron House

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