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Super Home

It was rat-proof, rust-proof, fire-proof, and termite-proof. But Lustron's house of steel never had a chance.

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Like everyone squeezed by the post-World War II housing shortage, Milly and Bill Sexton were hot to get into a home of their own. After eight years of marriage and two babies, the Porter, Indiana, couple were making do in a cramped cottage owned by Milly's father when they saw an ad for "the house America has been waiting for." It was the Lustron Home, a prefabricated ranch house made entirely of steel. It would never need painting, was nearly indestructible, and could be speedily erected on almost any lot. Best of all, it cost thousands of dollars less than a conventional house. The local dealer had put a model up in nearby Michigan City, "so we went over just to see," Milly Sexton recalls. It was the summer of 1949, and Lustron Corporation was at the apex of its precipitous rise.

The model--a 1,000-square-foot shoe box with picture windows and an odd pastel sheen--didn't look like anything the Sextons had seen before. The outside walls were made of two-foot-square panels of enamel-clad steel (think White Castle), and there was a pitched roof of the same material, shaped to pass for Spanish tile. Inside, the glow intensified. Walls, ceilings, cabinets, and doors were the same gleaming, porcelain-coated steel--the stuff of kitchen sinks. The living room, dining ell, galley kitchen, two bedrooms, bathroom, and utility area hung together like a smooth, luminous cocoon.

The surprises didn't stop there: the furnace hung like a fly from the ceiling, doors disappeared into walls, pictures dangled from magnets. There wasn't a stick of wood or a nail in the entire place. The forced-air heating system operated without a single vent; an attic plenum turned the ceiling into a hot plate. Bookcases and cabinets were built in, with recessed handles and decorative ribbing that might have come off a streamlined new Packard or Buick. The topper was an automatic dishwasher that also handled the family laundry. The house was guaranteed termite-proof, rodent-proof, rustproof, and fireproof. It was grounded for lightning, and required only an occasional wipe with a damp cloth (or a hosing down) for maintenance. The price, complete, on the Sexton's lot was $9,250. They signed up on the spot. Two months later, Milly was primping at her porcelain enameled vanity while diapers whirled in the Automagic.

The Lustron Home was the brainchild of Carl G. Strandlund, one of those larger-than-life, cigar-chomping, industrial visionaries postwar America seemed to spawn. Strandlund figured he could solve the nation's housing crisis and make himself a fortune at the same time by building houses on a production line, the same way General Motors built cars. With just $1,000 of his own cash and a plan to crank out all-steel prefabs at the rate of 100 or more a day, he got a record $37.5 million in government financing and a lease on a former war production plant. Three years later, with fewer than 2,500 homes produced, he was out of business, leaving a series of congressional subcommittees to ponder whether he toppled under the weight of his manic optimism or was the victim of a conspiracy.

"The Lustron story is similar to the story of the Tucker automobile," says Jim Morrow, chief docent at his own Lustron monument, the All-Steel Historic Home in Chesterton, Indiana. "Tucker and Strandlund both had innovative products that were years ahead of their time, and they both failed on a grand scale, helped along by people who did not want to see them succeed."

Morrow is a retired Gary-area home builder and real estate broker who caught Lustron fever a half-dozen years ago. He was attracted by the steel construction and streamlined design, intrigued by the story. When the Norris and Harriet Coambs residence--a three-bedroom Lustron home at 411 Bowser Avenue in Chesterton--came on the market in 1990, Morrow snapped it up. He made a few changes (central air, wall-to-wall carpet, a new furnace), moved in his collection of 1930s steel furniture, and got the house listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A year ago he opened it to the public during the summer months. It's a short jaunt from the Sexton place, where Milly and Bill still live, and an hour's drive from downtown Chicago.

Once you've seen a Lustron home, it's easy to spot others. Unless they've been camouflaged they all have a quilted look, a shine and grid reminiscent of a satin bed jacket. They were produced in hues like dove gray, desert tan, surf blue; Morrow's is soft yellow, the color and sheen of banana cream pie. Its roof and trim were recently painted brown, and there's a matching, free-standing, banana cream garage out back. Inside, it's mostly glowing gray, with black accents.

Morrow begins his tour by explaining that except for the floor (concrete covered with asphalt tile) everything in the Lustron house is steel: interior and exterior steel wall panels are bolted to separate structural steel studs; the steel-panel roof is held up by a series of steel trusses; all-steel doors are the first used in residential construction. "That's what makes it unique," Morrow says. "It's all steel. That has never been done in a mass-produced house before or since."

What we see, however, is not the steel, but its lovely, porcelain enamel skin. "Porcelain is a glasslike substance, mined from the earth and sprayed on the metal," Morrow says. It's heated to about 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit and bonds to the steel." In its raw form porcelain enamel is a finely ground sandy substance called frit. That's where Carl Strandlund comes in.

In the 1940s, Strandlund was vice president and general manager of Chicago Vitreous Enamel Product Company, a Cicero firm that had been producing frit for at least two decades. They sold it to customers who made washing machines, refrigerators, stoves, gas stations, and, yes, White Castle restaurants. With the advent of World War II, Chicago Vit became an important producer of armor plate for tanks, but after the war they had a bit of a problem. The company was eager to resume peacetime production, and had an order from Standard Oil of Indiana for 500 gas stations, but they couldn't get the necessary steel. Steel was still a scarce commodity, allocated by the government for "essential" use only.

"Strandlund wasn't the kind to sit on his fanny, waiting for something to happen," Morrow says. A brilliant, self-educated engineer who had come to the United States as a child from Sweden, he was also an entrepreneur and promoter. At Chicago Vit, where he was pulling down a salary of $100,000 a year plus stock, he had devised a method for hardening armor plate that reportedly reduced labor 94 percent: during the war his plant turned out steel turrets nearly ten times faster than the competition. Joe Tucker Jr. (no relation to the automaker), Lustron's director of quality control, says his boss was a charismatic "hard liver" and "a great guy to be around." The contemporary press--when it was with Strandlund--described him as a "production genius. . . a man who simply doesn't know a licking." His supporters even- tually included Washington wheeler-dealers like Senator Joe McCarthy (who took a $10,000 fee from Lustron for writing part of a housing booklet while he sat on committees that helped determine the company's fate).

In 1946, with the Standard Oil order in hand, Strandlund went to Washington to plead for an allocation of steel. But the government wasn't interested in building gas stations. Millions of GIs were returning from the war, exacerbating the worst housing crunch in U.S. history. Strandlund was turned down on filling stations, but Wilson Wyatt, President Truman's housing expediter, put a new bee in his bonnet. Strandlund could get all the steel he wanted, Wyatt said, if he could figure out how to turn it into houses. Furthermore, if he could get the houses made by the end of 1947, the government would guarantee their purchase.

All-steel, porcelain enamel prefabricated houses? Why not? There had been sporadic attempts to produce steel houses before. European efforts included wood-frame houses with steel walls, steel-walled houses covered with concrete, and one house with copper walls, inside and out. Among the best-known efforts in the United States were R. Buckminster Fuller's prefab Dymaxion House (1927) and the enameled steel Armco-Ferro House, one of a number of experimental homes displayed at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. (Five of these houses, including Armco-Ferro, now sit on Lake Front Drive in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, a ten-minute ride from Morrow's Lustron Home.) Technical troubles, an image problem stemming from steel's use in temporary shelters, and huge start-up costs had been barriers to mass production of steel houses. Now, in the teeth of a housing crisis, with government support and American know-how, the time looked right.

Back in Chicago Strandlund enlisted the help of a cadre of automobile stylists and local architects Morris Beckman and Roy Blass to design a house that would be inexpensive, sturdy, quick to produce, and appealing to the masses. In three months he was back in Washington, with four dollies of plans for the house and a factory. He promised to revolutionize the home building industry by producing 40,000 or more houses a year, and figured the government would provide both steel and $52 million in venture capital to get the huge operation under way. Wyatt went to bat for him, and when Strandlund was turned down again--for lack of sufficient private investment--Wyatt resigned in protest.

Strandlund thought it was a lost cause, Morrow says, and the first six months of 1947 slipped away. But he had picked up some important allies in Washington. An eleventh-hour push by Vermont senator Ralph Flanders and a nudge from the White House came through for him. On June 30, 1947, minutes before its lending authority expired, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation approved a direct government start-up loan of $15.5 million. Additional, shorter-term loans would follow in 1948 and 1949, bringing Lustron's debt to the government to $37.5 million. Strandlund wanted to manufacture his houses in Chicago (a prototype had been erected in Hinsdale) and requested the Dodge aircraft engine factory on Cicero Avenue, the world's largest single plant under one roof. But Preston Tucker also had his eye on the Dodge plant, and he got it. Strandlund wound up with the former Curtiss-Wright factory in Columbus, Ohio.

"It was extraordinary," Morrow says. "The government, in effect, became Strandlund's partner, providing everything for the Lustron start-up. But before they handed over the first money, the government wanted recourse. They wanted a note signed by the principals of Chicago Vitreous Enamel. If Lustron failed to meet its lease and loan payments, the government would come after the owners' personal property." The owners of Chicago Vit, the Hogenson family, refused, but Strandlund hadn't come this far to see the project die. He made a deal with the Hogensons, trading all his Chicago Vit stock to them in return for ownership of the Lustron subsidiary and its patents, then put his personal assets on the line. He was undaunted by what the Hogensons must have recognized as impossibly short schedules for start-up and loan repayment. "They were a little shrewder business people than Carl," says Morrow.

Lustron Corporation was launched, but it was a much slower start than Strandlund had predicted. Converting and equipping the 23-acre factory was a massive job. Production began in the spring of 1948, but through most of that year houses merely trickled off the line. A high-profile national advertising campaign had buyers lining up at Lustron dealers long before the factory could fill their orders.

When the plant was finally up and running, it was a monumental scene. Raw steel came in by railroad every morning to be turned into houses (albeit unassembled) by the end of the day. Miles of conveyor belts moved the steel through the factory, where it was shaped by 600-ton presses, sprayed with the company's trademark enamel, and cooked in giant furnances. The factory used as much electricity as the city of Columbus, and the company had 3,400 employees at its peak. A complete two-bedroom house coming off the line consisted of 3,300 parts and weighed 13 tons. Each house filled one truck trailer and was methodically loaded in the order the parts would be used.

There's a first-hand description of the Lustron factory in At Home With Tomorrow (Rinehart & Company, New York), the autobiography of architect Carl Koch. Koch had been hired to design the next generation of Lustron Homes. The company folded before his designs could be built, but he left a cogent analysis of what he saw at Lustron. He noted the mixture of innovation and conventionality in the house (use of a structural frame, though steel is a weight-bearing material, for example), the lack of almost any factory assembly, and the charm of the factory's main folly, the bathtub machine:

"The bathtub machine, a giant press, sat square in the middle of the works. It was the largest contrivance I had ever seen, reaching about three stories above ground and two below. What it did, as you might suppose, was to take a single, flat piece of metal, make preliminary whirring sounds, and then wallop it decisively into a complete bathtub shape. Its music was impressive.

"This press had been procured at enormous expense to turn out individual tubs very cheaply, something like $15 as opposed to a wholesale lot price of around $45. But it soon developed that in order to operate efficiently, and amortize its original cost, it would have to turn out 120,000 tubs a year--40,000 of them for Lustron houses, the rest to be sold on the open market. However, the tubs it made to fit the Lustron house were five feet, one and a half inches long. And almost nowhere in the world can you sell a bathtub of that size. Five feet even, yes. Five feet, one and a half inches, no. At that point, as at several others, Lustron experienced a change of production managers."

Strandlund's plan was to turn out a house every 14 minutes, or 100 houses a day, but that pace was never realized. Only 30 houses were built in 1948--most of them models. A mere 2,000 were turned out in 1949. The factory was reportedly losing a million dollars a month. Meanwhile, the housing shortage began to ease, reducing potential demand for the product, and the company encountered major problems in the field.

In spite of the fact that the price went up about every six months--driven by rising labor and material costs--consumer acceptance was "just fabulous," Morrow says. The house was offered in two- and three-bedroom styles, and the public loved them both, lining up to see models erected in 100 cities. Chicago's demonstration house, at Lawrence and Marine Drive, drew an opening day crowd "four abreast and four blocks long." But getting the house built was another matter. Local building codes were geared to wood-frame construction. "The Lustron house was superior, but did not conform," Morrow says. Strandlund worked out an agreement with the American Federation of Labor (historically opposed to prefabrication for obvious reasons) but couldn't change local codes overnight. "Even today," Morrow says, "you couldn't put a Lustron house in the city of Chicago. The only Lustron Homes you'll find in the Chicago area are in the suburbs."

Financing was also an obstacle. A prefab sounded too temporary, a steel house too revolutionary for mortgage lenders. Most would loan buyers only 50 percent of the home's appraised value. FHA and VA were no help: Washington said OK, but the regional offices slapped on specs that made it impossible for steel houses to qualify. Dealers couldn't get financing either. Lustron required full payment for every house when it left the factory (initially $6,000 to $8,000 each), and expected dealers to buy in quantity. But lenders who provided construction loans were accustomed to doling out the money in installments as the work proceeded. Morrow says most were reluctant to fork over the entire amount up front "and risk being left with a bunch of sheet metal."

And then there was the matter of assembly. The Lustron Home arrived at its construction site in three to four thousand pieces, like a giant puzzle. Local crews worked with an erection manual, "but these were carpenters handling steel, not ironworkers," Morrow says. "They weren't in the habit of working with such close tolerances. Problems ensued." Strandlund initially said a Lustron Home could be erected in 150 "man-hours" or less; a revised goal was 350 hours, but with inexperienced crews, assembly was taking as much as 1,000 hours.

By June of 1949 Lustron Corporation was delinquent on its short-term loan payments. The houses were selling--the company had a signed contract to produce 2,000 to be erected in Park Forest and the prospect of huge orders from the Air Force--but Strandlund needed more time and more cash to keep going. At the same time, according to testimony given at a congressional hearing, he was struggling to keep his company out of the hands of corrupt members of the RFC board, the same government agency that Lustron depended on for its existence. Standlund said he hired a former RFC employee at the behest of these board members. It was later revealed the man was also on the payroll of a Detroit washing machine manufacturer who wanted the contract to supply washing machines for Lustron Homes. When Strandlund refused, the same board members upped the ante. To keep the company going, they said, Strandlund would have to hand over his stock and step aside as president. Otherwise they would foreclose on short-term notes and put Lustron out of business.

"From the beginning, they wanted Strandlund to fail," Morrow says. "But they wanted to move in before the company collapsed, to gain ownership."

Strandlund refused to step down, and the RFC foreclosed. On June 6, 1950, Lustron Corporation shut down for good. In the three years it had been in business, just under 2,500 houses had been built.

Most of them are still providing the shelter they promised. They are dotted singly or in small clusters in communities east of the Rockies, their porcelain skin pretty much intact. An oval plaque in the utility room of each proclaims its model and production number. Morrow's house, erected in 1950, is number 2,329. Morrow doesn't live there anymore, but is on hand from 1 PM to 5 PM, May through October (except for Mondays and holidays), to take the public through. Joe Tucker is there a couple days a week to help. The tour includes everything from an explanation of the thermal break created by an air space between exterior and interior walls to a look at the Automagic. "The washtub and dish rack are interchangeable," Morrow notes. "The only trouble is the washtub weighs about 40 pounds."

The Automagic is about the only thing Milly Sexton has changed. When it started making a suspicious noise, after 16 years of use, she let a neighbor work on it. "He put a wire in there and when he turned it on, why--bang--it flamed and smoked and that was the end of it," she says. She still misses it. After 45 years in her Lustron Home, her opinion is the same as it was when she first saw it: "What a deal." The Sextons have had offers for their house but have no intention of selling. Morrow, on the other hand, is trying to give his away to any suitable nonprofit organization that would run it as a museum. So far, no takers.

A more immediate concern is his search for a museum that could incorporate a couple of other Lustron Homes in a streetscape. "I got a call from some folks at a church near Dayton, Ohio," Morrow says. "The church is expanding, and they have two Lustrons on their property they have to remove. The insides have been altered, but the exteriors are authentic. I'm desperately trying to find a home for them before they're destroyed." There's an urgency in his voice. Surely someone will want to keep these houses America was waiting for?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Paul L. Merideth.

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