When America’s brave young men returned home from World War II, the nation was experiencing the worst housing crisis the country had ever seen. Soldiers came home from war, got married, and started families. America saw a small spike in post-war immigrants from Europe and Russia. Suddenly there were more people—and fewer houses to go around.
One Chicago entrepreneur named Carl Strandlund saw this as an opportunity. Before the war, his steel company, Vitreous-Enamel Products Co., manufactured enamel-coated steel panels for oil filling stations and White Castle restaurants, and now, he wanted to build affordable housing for a new era.
According to Cameron Wood, the History Curator at the Ohio Historical Society, “After the war you had to ask permission to use that much steel, so they got permission and started a factory to make these homes.” Thus, in 1948, the Lustron Corporation was born.
Low-maintenance and durable: The house of the future
To people at the time, the Lustron home captured the spirit of tomorrow. Made of sheet metal panels coated in enamel, these houses were highly durable and required little maintenance. While your neighbors, who lived in wood houses, had to re-paint their houses every few years, the owner of a Lustron house just had to hose down the exterior, and it would last forever.
Offering three floor plans, spacious bedrooms, space-efficient pocket doors, and a choice of colors for the steel panels, including “surf blue,” “dove gray,” “maize yellow,” and “desert tan,” these homes embodied the idea of the future at the time.
“There was a leading optimism about the world of tomorrow, where design and machinery would come together and make life better for the common man,” says Joe Williams, who lives in a Lustron House in St. Louis, Missouri. Indeed, with the dawn of the Lustron house, people suddenly saw themselves living in the modern world.
What’s more, the Lustron Corporation was able to deliver the house materials to a lot and build the house in less than two weeks. One man is reported to have ordered his house on a Sunday and was able to kick his feet up in his brand-new house a mere week later. When word caught on about the efficiency of Lustron homes, Americans lined up for miles to walk through Lustron house models and quickly ordered their own.
The Lustron home today: preserving a piece of the past
According to a report by WTTW Chicago, only 2,500 Lustron homes were ever built. Despite the high demand in housing, the Lustron Corporation had miscalculated production cost and underestimated the amount of time it would take for construction teams to build the pre-fab homes on neighborhood lots. The Lustron Corporation was losing money, and Uncle Sam decided to pull the plug on their funding.
In 1951, the Lustron Corporation finally shut their doors after only three years in operation. But that doesn’t take away from their impact on the heart and soul of Americans who grew up in them.
“Today, Lustrons are quietly disappearing from the architectural landscape,” says Bruce Ruble, who grew up in a Lustron home. “In the blink of an eye, homeowners replaced them with houses that are double and triple the Lustron size, erasing an increasingly rare symbol of post-war American life.”
It’s taken the efforts of preservationists to save this disappearing piece of American history. Ruble goes on to say that thankfully, Lustrons have been added to the National Register of Historic Places in half-a-dozen states.
Whether you like the metal look or find it too cold, there’s no doubt that the Lustron home holds a well-deserved place in American history, as they embody a quickly changing standard of living in post-war America.
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