Lustron Steel Houses
Lustron Houses of Kansas, Multiple Property Listing was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. Portions of the text below were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2014, The Gombach Group.
An American housing crisis arose at the end of World War II. As G.I's began returning homes, the federal government estimated that the existing housing shortage necessitated the immediate construction of three million new homes followed by an additional twelve million over the next decade. Research and subsidies for suitable prefabricated housing received support from Congress beginning in 1946. The support included leases on surplus factories, access to scarce resources, and loans through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC). By the end of the decade prefabricated housing was being developed by nearly 300 firms. Three of the 300, including the Lustron Corporation, received direct federal loans.
In addition to the Lustron Corporation, the RFC-financed General Panel Corporation produced a pre-fabricated steel house. The Package House, designed by German architects Walter Gropius and Konrad Wachsmann, began production in 1942. Its standardized, interchangeable parts adapted to a variety of designs, as well as professional acclaim. However, in spite of the government subsidies, the company had built fewer than two hundred houses when it folded in 1949.
A Lustron dwelling was the ultimate pre-fabricated house, literally designed like the automobile for assembly line production. As Architectural Forum noted in May 1949, in addition to answering the nation's housing problem, Lustron president Carl Stradlund "may have a new industry that will have the expanding effect on the whole U.S. economy that the automobile once had." In fact, veteran automobile workers filled the ranks of the Lustron Corporations employees. Lustron hired designers, production managers, machinists and salesmen experienced in the automated process and production of automobiles to make the company as efficient in the production of dwellings as the major manufacturers were producing automobiles.
In the mode of nineteenth century pattern book homes and early-twentieth century mail-order houses, trucks transported custom-designed trailers loaded with Lustron building components to the building site without additional crating. Where distance required some rail transport, flatbed rail cars carried the loaded trailers. Parts were loaded onto the trailers in the inverse order in which they would be used, so that the pieces needed first were at the front of the crates. Wall sections and roof trusses arrived pre-welded for easy assembly, and concealed screws attached the interlocking porcelain panels to the frame. The trailers also provided storage for building pieces during construction.
Carl Stradlund was the visionary president of the Lustron Corporation. A Swedish immigrant, Stradlund earned a degree in engineering before embarking on his career. Patents received during his tenure as president of the Oliver Farm Equipment Company attest to Stradlund's innovations in agricultural machinery. During the 1930s he filled an executive position with the Chicago Vitreous Enamel Product Company. This firm fabricated enameled steel panels used for a range of products including household appliances and commercial buildings, including gas stations.
During the summer of 1946, Stradlund traveled to Washington to request materials to erect 500 enameled steel gas stations for Standard Oil of Indiana. Steel was among the materials rationed during World War II with virtually all of the available metal diverted from civilian to military uses. Even after the end of the war, Congress oversaw the distribution of the material. While Congress did not feel that Stradlund's commercial proposal for Standard Oil merited the allocation of the steel, in the face of the existing housing shortage, they suggested he develop a plan that utilized steel in residential construction.
A few months later Stradlund returned to Washington with plans for a steel-framed dwelling clad with enameled steel panels. Within nine months, he promised, a new subsidiary of Chicago Vitreous would produce 100 of the houses per day at a purchase price of $7,500. Wilson Wyatt, Truman administration Housing Administrator, was a strong advocate of Stradlund's plan. He promised Stradlund a vacant Dodge automobile plant in Chicago for production of the design and financial backing to cover the production of the firm's first 15,000 dwellings.
With the backing of Wyatt and the White House, Stradlund presented the working drawings and an operating budget of $52 million to Congress in 1947. Congress had already awarded the Dodge plant to the Tucker Automobile Company, and instead awarded the Lustron Corporation a lease from the War Assets Administration for the Curtiss-Wright airplane factory in Columbus, Ohio. The 1.1 million square foot plant covered 23 acres. It had been used only briefly during the war effort. Located in a major city, it had good access to highways, railroads and an airport.
The Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) was reluctant to fund Stradlund's $52 million loan request due to the minimal private equity invested in the project. Stradlund worked with a Chicago firm to sell stock in the new Lustron Corporation. However, the effort raised only $840,000, mostly from would-be suppliers. Stradlund himself purchased all 86,000 shares of voting stock for an investment of only $1,000. He dismissed critics of his limited equity investment by saying, "... I brought in the patent and the engineering. I'm an endorser on all notes. If there is any failure in Lustron, you can meet Carl on the breadline." The [dispute] between the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and RFC escalated, and ultimately Wyatt resigned his position.
All was not lost, however. Now without Wyatt, his primary booster, a friend urged Stradlund to contact Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders, an engineer and project supporter. Enthused by the project, Flanders arranged a review of the venture by the Senate Banking and Currency Committee. At the same time, the primary project opponent, RFC head George Allen, resigned, and the Truman Administration quietly gave tacit support for the project. Both the House and Senate Banking Committees voiced support for the Lustron venture, passing legislation authorizing the RFC to issue loans up to $50 million for the development of prefabricated housing in June 1947. Of that allotment, the Lustron Corporation received a seven-year $15.5 million loan on June 30, 1947, 15 minutes before the expiration of the legislation. This was the first time since the end of the war that a private venture received federally appropriated funds.
In the meantime, prior to the issuance of the loan, the new Lustron Corporation produced the first Lustron house, a two-bedroom prototype dubbed the "Esquire," at a factory in Cicero, Illinois. The house was erected in the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale in 1946. Following the success of the first demonstration and with the RFC loan in hand, in 1947 the Lustron Corporation erected 100 show houses in cities throughout the East and Midwest and established a network of Lustron dealers. Architectural journals and trade unions praised the design. Advertising in local and national magazines and newspapers attracted the interest of potential buyers intrigued by the prospect of low maintenance, the numerous built-ins and the novelty of an all-steel house. When the factory began full-scale production the following year there were reportedly 20,000 standing orders for Lustron homes.
By the time Congress granted Stradlund the RFC loan and the Columbus plant was equipped, supplied and ready for production, it was the summer of 1948. The delay was not only financially costly to the new company, but it also caused Lustron to miss the peak of the housing crisis. In spite of the delays, the RFC awarded the Lustron Corporation additional financing—a $10 million loan in 1948 and a $7 million in 1949, bringing the total RFC financing for Lustron to $32.5 million. While the first loan was a seven-year start-up loan, the subsequent loans provided short-term financing for working capital.
Although the company aimed to produce 17,000 houses a year, with crews working three round-the-clock shifts, the maximum factory output reached only 270 units during the month of July 1949. This was far fewer than the 100 houses per day envisioned by Stradlund and significantly less than the 5O units per day necessary for the company to break even. As of December 1949, the best shift produced 27 houses, and 42 houses were the maximum shipped in one day.
The company continued to lose money, up to $1 million per month, and Congress denied Stradlund an additional allocation in 1949. Review of Lustron's finances yielded a series of unfavorable reports, including financial irregularities and rumored payoffs to Washington officials (among them Senator Joseph McCarthy), and lead to the denial of additional funds. The previously supportive press also began to highlight the company's technical, operating and financial woes. In March 1950 the RFC foreclosed on its outstanding loans and a court-appointed receiver took control of the company. The Lustron Corporation had shipped just shy of 2,500 housing units when the factory ceased operation on June 6, 1950.
As proven by the automobile industry, Stradlund recognized that the company's financial success would be realized with volume production. To achieve this he outfitted the Columbus factory with $15,000,000 worth of specialty equipment. For instance, the plant boasted a steel press that could extrude a bathtub in a single operation and three automatic presses that produced a steady stream of 2' x 2' panels. Not only did Lustron claim the world's largest porcelain enameling operation, but its engineers also developed a process for cool firing the porcelain that reduced fuel costs, warpage and necessary tooling.
However, production problems plagued the operation. In 1949 the company hired architect Carl Koch and Associates to review the operation. Regarded as an authority on pre-fabricated housing, Koch was concerned by the quantity of parts required to build each Lustron and by overdesign of some building elements, which were likely slowing rates of production. One example highlighted by Koch was the bathtub press. Capable of producing 120,000 units per year, 40,000 of these were to be for Lustron houses, while the remainder were to be sold on the open market. However, the Lustron tub measured five feet one-and-a-half inches in length, a size not compatible with standard building dimensions.
To Koch it appeared that the Lustron used more steel than necessary. Changes to the design, such as increasing the side of the exterior panels to two-feet by eight-feet (matching those on the interior), and changing the manner in which the panels were manufactured, would reduce by one-third the amount of steel needed for each dwelling. Koch also redesigned the panels to be load-bearing and interlock in a manner that concealed the joints, eliminating the need for steel studs and rubber gaskets. Other recommendations included: replacing the four different windows sizes with a single unit that would be interchangeable with the wall panels; offering multiple floor plans by rearranging interior components; and preassembling more parts at the factory, reducing the number of components delivered to the building site. These measures would save the company both time and money, enabling the production of more Lustrons and making the product more affordable to the public. The revised Lustron designed by Koch took better advantage of the materials and production system already in place. The new design was also simpler and more versatile, with multiple floor plan configuration and common suburban amenities such as a fireplace and attached garage. However, the timing was not right, and with foreclosure looming, Koch's new ideas never made it to the factory floor.
Stradlund aimed his product at the middle third of the housing market. The myriad built-in features, the radiant heat, the combination dishwasher/washing machine, and the size of the floor plans, were all designed to please this segment of the market. While Stradlund hoped the finished houses would sell for around $7,000, post-war inflation boosted production costs, raising the price of a Lustron house several thousand dollars. Several other elements contributed to the cost of a Lustron. In addition to the base factory price for materials and delivery to the building site, which varied with the model ordered, the dealer added the cost of site preparation, construction, utilities, and landscaping, as well as any extras, such as a garage or patio. Local land and labor costs effected the final price as well. Lustron required that local dealers clear the final price with headquarters. The company set dealers' margins for profit and overhead to ensure that houses were not priced above the affordable range of the target market. In 1950, probably in an effort to boost sales, Lustron introduced six new home models. These two and three bedroom designs were smaller and featured fewer conveniences than the original model. They were also priced approximately $2,000 less than the original.
By the end of 1949, the FHA and VA were among the many financing agencies accepting applications for Lustron homes. Because initial reaction to the all-steel house had been cool by many standard financiers and insurers, Lustron Corporation developed a plan with the Galbreath Mortgage Company of Columbus to provide loans to local dealers to cover the costs of building materials and construction.
The Lustron Corporation shipped the majority of houses (1952 of roughly 2500) during 1949. Production peaked with 270 units shipped during the month of July 1949. However, during this month both RFC pressures on the company to increase production and negative publicity increased. Sales dropped steadily over the next twelve months, dipping below 200 units the following month and to less than 100 units in March of 1950, when the RFC filed foreclosure and the company went into receivership. The factory shipped 130 Lustrons between May 1 and June 6, 1950 when production ceased. When the plant closed, the Lustron Corporation had shipped 2498 Lustrons to 36 states east of the Rocky Mountains and to Alaska and Venezuela. At the same time, dealers had projects involving 1,270 Lustron units ready to start.
The Lustron House
The Lustron House was in many ways an ideal expression of the new suburban architecture. Its marketing described it as "the triumphant result of modern engineering and production methods applied to home building—bringing you the happier and more comfortable living you've planned and dreamed about." Its compact design and one-floor plan addressed the standards of the FHA. The all-steel construction provided the added benefit of being virtually maintenance free, and its myriad built-in features lured new suburbanites. The all-steel dwelling was billed as "fireproof, rat-proof, decay-proof, [and] termite proof. Will never deteriorate or stain, never fade, crack or peel, never need painting, refinishing or re-roofing." According to Lustron president, Carl Stradlund, Lustron dwellings were not intended to provide emergency or stop-gap housing. They were a permanent solution to the housing shortage. Likewise, the design and production, while standardized and automated, was not to be confused with lesser quality pre-fabricated housing.
Carl Stradlund took his preliminary house plans and the porcelain enameled steel technology developed by Chicago Vitreous to the Chicago architectural firm of Beckman and Blass to prepare working drawings. Partner Morris Beckman, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology and former draftsman with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, prepared the final design.
Materials aside, Beckman' s Lustron dwelling was similar in form and design to the Minimal Traditional style dwellings popular in the post-war period. It featured a front-gabled plan of approximately 1,000 square feet with asymmetric elevations. Framing was 14 and 16-guage steel, typically set on concrete slab foundations. Steel panels, covered on both sides with a permanent porcelain enamel finish, clad interior and exterior surfaces. The open plan featured common living spaces that flowed into each other. Sliding pocket doors provided privacy to the bathroom and bedrooms while conserving space needs. Replacing the functional basement was a utility room off the kitchen, which contained the dwelling's mechanical units (furnace and water heater) and provided space for sewing, ironing and miscellaneous storage.
Interlocking 24" by 24" square panels clad the exterior body of the dwelling. Stylized roof "shingles," long thin corner elements, plates and sills, and shorter vertical elements in the gable ends completed the cladding. Roof and trim complemented the four available body colors: "Dove Gray, Desert Tan, Surf Blue and Maize Yellow." The designs incorporated aluminum windows in two configurations. Window configurations on the primary facade and portions of the secondary elevations included tripartite bays with four-light casements flanking a larger, single-light fixed pane. Bay windows on some three bedroom models projected slightly from the wall of the dwelling. The remaining secondary and tertiary facade windows featured three-light casements arranged singly or in pairs. The steel doors also had single glazing at their centers.
The interior was equally maintenance-free. Two-foot by eight-foot panels clad interior walls and 4-foot square panels covered the ceilings. The porcelain enameled panels were soft gray, with the exception of the kitchen, bathroom and utility room, which featured soft yellow wall panels. Asphalt tiles covered the floors, and screens protected all windows.
Owners could select either an oil or a gas furnace to fuel the radiant heating system. A Lustron innovation, this system included a forced air furnace in the utility room that blew air through a plenum suspended from the roof trusses. Heavily insulated above, the hot air radiated down through the uninsulated ceiling panels. In temperate areas the system worked well. In colder climates, the minimal wall insulation, concrete slab floor and single-glazed windows limited its efficiency. The smaller Newport models did not have the radiant heat system, but relied instead on forced air from the furnace that blew through two vents to heat the house.
To improve thermal efficiency, fiberglass insulation was glued to the back of all exterior wall panels as well as the backsides of the bathroom and utility room wall panels. The steel studs that supported the panels were paired to provide a thermal break between the exterior and interior walls, further enhancing the dwelling's thermal efficiency. The panels attached to the studs with screws, and plastic gaskets assured airtight joints.
The two garage designs that followed the development of the dwelling (one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half car versions) featured the same cladding attached to a wood stud frame. Company literature emphasized that builders could customize individual units with breezeways, patios, carports and screened porches, " ... using Lustron panels in combination with conventional materials to give unlimited variety to Lustron Homes."
By January 1950, the consumer could choose from one of four Lustron models (economy to deluxe), each with either a two or three-bedroom floor plan. Variations between the models reflected the size of some rooms and the number of built-in features. For instance the top of the line Westchester Deluxe models measured 31' by 35' for a two-bedroom model and 31' by 39' for a three-bedroom model. It included a vanity bookcase, china cabinet-pass-through, radiant heat, bay window, bathroom vanity, 2'x2' kitchen panels (as opposed to the typical 2 'x 8' interior panels), and asphalt floor tiles. The Westchester Standard had the same dimensions but lacked some of the "luxury built-in features." The most economical line, the Newport, measured 23' by 31' with two bedrooms and 31' by 31' with three bedrooms. This model was a design "... for buyers who can afford only a minimum investment in a home or who want to build several homes for rental income."
In 1948 the Lustron Corporation issued a set of "Suggested Land Operations Policies" that discussed individual lots and group developments. The policy guided dealers on the selection of "suitable lots" and the siting of Lustrons on those lots. In general the policies followed those of the FHA. Individual lots were to equal less than 15% of the total project cost (land and building) and have a minimum frontage of 50 feet. Both underground utilities and foundations were to be approved in advance of construction by local building authorities. The company required that builders provide "all-weather" walks and/or driveways, sod or grass seed, and landscaping (two 2-1/2 inch caliper trees and eight shrubs) for each individual home.
Developments of groups of Lustrons (essentially Lustron subdivisions) were to follow the same specifications for each individual lot in addition to receiving prior approval from the Lustron Corporation for the overall plans. On a map showing the tract, the builder was to indicate zoning; main traffic arteries; public transportation; existing improvements, including buildings and infrastructure; and topographical information. In exchange, the Lustron Corporation would advise dealers on site and landscape planning and offer suggested landscaping alternatives based on local climate. Aside from a sixty-unit Lustron development at Quantico Marine Corps Base (extant) in Virginia, it is not clear that the company realized any Lustron group developments.
The all-steel framing and cladding of a Lustron House made a fairly traditional post-war residential design unique, and it is the retention of the basic design and materials that give these dwellings their distinct feeling and distinguish their architectural integrity. All framing, exterior and interior cladding utilized steel, and it is essential that these materials be retained for a Lustron House to qualify for historic significance.
The Lustron design is a variation of traditional residential architecture common in the period immediately following World War II. Additions that are in keeping with the original Lustron design located on a secondary or tertiary elevation and compatible with the size, scale, massing, and features of the original will not disqualify a property from National Register eligibility. However, substantial alterations and additions, including the application of siding over the exterior Lustron panels or construction of an addition that largely obscures or compromises the original design, will render a Lustron ineligible for listing on the National Register.
Likewise, minor, reversible modifications to materials will not compromise the overall architectural integrity of a Lustron. Such alterations might include addition of central air conditioning, aluminum storm doors and/or window awnings; replacement of kitchen cabinetry, including the original dishwasher/washing machine; installation of carpeting; and application of paint and/or wallpaper to some of the interior walls. However, replacement of the original aluminum casement windows with new windows represents a more serious alteration. When the new windows do not match the materials, profiles or configurations of the originals they significantly impact the integrity of the property and render it ineligible for National Register listing.
The Lustron Corporation anticipated modifications to Lustron properties through the construction of secondary structures, including garages, patios, breezeways and carports. While the company prepared some garage designs that used steel panels attached to wood framing, many secondary structures on Lustron properties utilize more traditional wood and masonry construction. The secondary nature of these elements, and the company's anticipation of such elements do not compromise architectural integrity if the structure is located on a secondary elevation, is compatible with size, scale and massing of the property, and does not obscure the original character and design.
† Elizabeth Rosin, Partner, with Dana Cloud and Jon Taylor, Historic Preservation Services, LLC, Lustron Houses of Kansas, Multiple Property Listing, nomination document, 2000, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C. Citations, bibliographic references and additional information in NRHP Document #64500221; nrhp.focus.nrhp.gov, accessed May, 2014.
The Gombach Group • Morrisville, PA • 215-295-6555