Lustron house #549 — reconstructed inside the Ohio Historical Society — opens July 13

Lustron-blueprinthistoric-houseBig news in Columbus, Ohio, and across retro-world: On July 13, the Ohio Historical Society will open a new exhibit about life in the 1950s that includes an amazing centerpiece:  A 1949 Lustron house that has been completely assembled inside the museum. Lustron houses are famed prefabricated houses built from 1948-1950 – notable because they are made almost completely from steel inside and out, including everlasting gobstopper porcelain enamel painted interior and exterior walls and roof.

I spoke recently with Cameron Wood — history curator for the exhibit – and now one of the “World’s Lustron Masters” – so-dubbed because he led the team that has been reassembling this historic little house piece-by-piece-by-gawshdarned piece. We talked all about Lustrons… about reassembling this “Westchester” model… and what sounds to be a terrific new exhibit. Let’s hear all about it, and look inside–>

lustron exhibit

The exhibit: 1950s: Building the American Dream

Vintage-shakers

Photo courtesy of Ohio Historical Society

Arlington County, Virginia, donated this two-bedroom Lustron to the Ohio Historical Society (OHS). The OHS had the Lustron shipped in pieces to Columbus… and now — still in process as this story is published — with the help of volunteers, the OHS is proceeding to reassemble it, piece-by-piece like an erector set… like a giant 3-D jigsaw puzzle. Columbus residents also have donated furniture and accessories. It’s not too many days to the opening of the exhibit on July 13 — will they get the house done in time?! Punch list crunch time, just like with any house project!

retro-lustron-kitchen

Photo courtesy of Ohio Historical Society

This museum exhibit – “1950s: Building the American Dream” — will be “immersive”. Instead of “please do not touch”, visitors will be invited to open the drawers and see the family accounts, sit on the couches, peek in the closets – they will be able to experience first-hand just what it was like to live in a Lustron. More good news: The house will be in place for at least five years – so you have time to get there.

Lustron-Installation

Under construction — Photo courtesy of Ohio Historical Society

So, I talked to Cameron.

Pam asks: Tell us who you are and your role the project.

Cameron Wood, history curator, Ohio Historical Society, answers:

I’m part of a team of four from the Ohio Historical Society that has been managing this project. I’m the history curator assigned to the project – in charge of assembling the house and the stuff inside. There have been a lot of volunteers involved in the reassembly project, I oversee them.  I’m where the rubber meets the road.

We also have a designer involved and an educator who is working on the programming that will be in place once the exhibit is open.

Lustron-frameQ: I read that the house now assembled in your museum came from Arlington, Virginia. Can you tell us how it came to you?

Wood:  

About 10 years ago, we did a 1940s exhibit. It went over well and we wanted to follow up with a 1950s exhibit.

Lustrons were originally built in Columbus, and we’ve been keeping our eye on a couple looking for one to display. Last year, for example, we found one that was available – but we would have had to buy the house and the land, take the house apart, and ship it here for reassembly.

This would have been costly, Wood told me.

[But then] We had a connection with the Arlington County Historic Preservation Program. This house became available. Arlington gave it to us. We had to get it shipped and a donor did the shipping in-kind.

Lustron-frame-2I ask Cameron who the shipping donor was, wanting to give props. Way to go, Columbus Truck and Equipment Company Inc.! Thank you for supporting historic preservation and education and your community non-profits!

The Dr. Clifford M. Krowne Lustron House — Lustron #549

I went to connect some more of the historical dots on the provenance of this particular Lustron house. I found that this exact same house also was partially reassembled first at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, for an exhibit on prefabricated houses entitled Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Delivery. Here is archival audio introducing the exhibit.

Digging further (oh, how I love and want to marry the internet) I found the original news release from Arlington County when they loaned the house to MoMA:

“In April 2006, the County Board accepted the donation of the historic, all-metal Lustron house from property owner Dr. Clifford M. Krowne. Over the course of a month, the County then disassembled the building and placed it in temporary storage….The Krowne Lustron House, built in 1949, is a Westchester Deluxe 02 model with two bedrooms, one bathroom, and 1,085 square feet of living space on one level. Arlington now has only five of its original 11 Lustron homes.””

Woot! A video made by the Arlington Virginia Network when the Krowne Lustron house went to MOMA.

I also spoke with Cynthia Liccese-Torres, Acting Historic Preservation Program Coordinator for Arlington County. She was a leader on the team that saved the house, disassembled it, shipped it to MoMA, then placed it with Columbus.

She told me that the house was Lustron Serial #549. (We historical house geeks get all excited about itty bitty details like that.)

She told me that seeing the house go to Columbus was a “bittersweet” experience…. the house had become “like my third child,” she said… but in the end, she underscored, the Krowne House ended up in a wonderful place — Columbus, original home base to Lustrons, and with OHS, which has the Lustron archives. You and Arlington County did a good thing, Cynthia. xoxo

LustronIMG_0710Back to Cameron Wood… Q. I think I read once that Lustrons were built at the same factory where the Tucker automobiles were built…?

Wood:

Actually, I think the story is that Tucker had a plant in Chicago, where Lustron originally wanted to be. Tucker beat out Lustron.

So then, Lustron found space in Columbus, in a manufacturing plant that had been building aircraft during World War II.

Lustron-exterior-sideHere’s some more of what Cameron told me about Lustrons:

  • There were 2,498 Lustron houses built.
  • They were built from 1948-1950.
  • They are all over the country, but the further you get from Columbus, the scarcer they become due to shipping costs. Note from Pam: A while ago, I read that Lustrons were built as far east as The Berkshires – that is where I live. There were about a dozen in the Berkshires, because there was a dealer here. There is even a Lustron in my small town – Lenox, Mass. – and it has the rare Lustron garage, too. Cameron was impressed at hearing about that garage!

The National Trust for Historic Preservation reported here that only about 1,500 Lustrons remain in place today.

lustron westchester deluxe

The Lustron at the Ohio Historical Society will look pretty much like this one, although the OHS house’s exterior is gray. This house shown is a Westchester Deluxe Model Lustron — it’s from Ohio, too! — Image used via Creative Commons License from Wikipedia user BFDhD. Thanks, BFDhD!

I also asked Cameron what he knew about why Lustrons failed.

Cameron told me, “There was a whole list of little reasons that the company failed.” These included:

  • The company had been receiving government funding from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. After a few years of operation, Lustron started getting bad press – from biggies like Time and Newsweek – because it was not meeting its production promises. The bad press was not good for business, and pushed the government to shut down the money pipeline. In addition, the Navy wanted the Lustron manufacturing site to build jets – which gave the government further incentive to just cut their Lustron losses and shut down the financing.
  • At about this same time in history, other companies – including, very notably, Levitt and his Levittown – were successfully building middle class housing cheap and fast. Carl Strandlund – the owner of the  Lustron company – had promised he could build 100 Lustrons a day in his factory. Cameron told me that by 1950, the average was 15 units a day. At its very best, Lustron had achieved 26 units in one day. Levittown, on the other hand, was successfully getting 30 units built each day – and with easily accessible materials.
lustron downspout

Dig this: The entry porch “column” is also a “downspout” — wow, super nifty! Image used via Creative Commons License from Wikipedia user BFDhD.

Other factoids I found on the helpful Wikipedia* page, *recognizing that Wiki is not always an authoritative source:

  • The homes were designed by Morris Beckman of the Chicago firm Beckman and Bass.
  • There were three “lines” of Lustrons, available in either two- or three-bedrooms.
  • All interior doors were pocket doors.
  • Lombard, Illinois had (has?) 129 Lustron houses — the most in any single city. Via the Wiki, I also found this story about 60 Lustron houses at Quantico being given away by the U.S. government in 2006. Alas, the National Trust for Historic Preservation later reported that only three of the houses found new homes. The rest were demolished. :(
  • “The Ohio Historic Preservation Office recognizes eight exterior colors: “Surf Blue,” “Blue-green,” “Dove Gray,” “Maize Yellow,” “Desert Tan,” Green, Pink, and White. Window surrounds were primarily ivory-colored.”

Q. So how long did it take to reassemble the house?

Wood:

We started last summer. The house pieces came in a jumble in the back of a box truck. First we needed to pull them out and organize them for assembly. We worked with volunteers one day a week to get it laid out.

We started actual reassembly of the house as the beginning of November [2012], working two to three days a week we had the majority of it finished by March. But, we’re still doing tiny little things here [as of June 18, 2013].

I can only guess that reassembling a Lustron from bits and pieces must be “some therapy.” So I ask:

LustronIMG_0683Q: So, after all the work of reassembling the house, do you love the Lustron more… or less?

Wood:

I still love the Lustron – probably a little bit more. When I first opened the truck, the house pieces had been stored for a while… packed and repacked. It didn’t look like it would come out very well.

Now that it’s done, I love the Lustron a little bit more. The Lustron proved itself a hardy little house.

Q. Tell me about reassembling it…

Wood:

We have the manual with instructions to erect the house, but it makes a lot of assumptions about what you might already know and is a little confusing. The hardest part was the framework – putting the roof trusses and structure together. Some of these parts looked similar. Which part goes where? It was like a giant erector set.

I can now say I am one of the world’s Lustron’s Masters. There are very few of us.

Q. But weren’t the pieces numbered when the house was disassembled?

Wood:

Yes, but it was spotty as to where, and how, they were numbered. Part of the job was deciphering what the different labels meant. For example, we learned than N, S, E, or W meant which direction the house was facing… those go together. In other cases, there were numbers. What does it mean when it’s marked “12”? We had to figure that out.

We agreed: It would be much easier to be on site to lead the disassembly of Lustron that you then planned to reassemble elsewhere, so that you create a reassemble-by-number cheat sheet of your own.

Lustron-being-built

Photo courtesy of Ohio Historical Society

Q. What do you find most fascinating about the Lustron house?

Wood:

Just that it’s all metal. People walk inside and they touch the inside walls and they are always surprised it’s all metal — not 90% metal — all metal.

Cameron also pointed to the ingenious way the pieces fit together, but adds, “If the company had been around 10 or 20 years, they could have worked out all the kinks.”

I ask for examples, based on his reassembly experience, of how the design could have been improved for assembly. He says, for example, if an exterior panel is damaged, you can only get to from one side (rather than either side) of the house. He also thought that some of the specialty pieces could have been standardized, given more time for further improvement… It’s difficult to access the water and electrical systems… The gutters were apparently one of the first things to fail…. And it would have been cool to see a design with two floors, such as a colonial.

Moreover, “They could have worked out a better instruction manual, that’s for sure,” says the Lustron Master.

retro-kitchen-Lustron-House

Photo courtesy of Ohio Historical Society

More about the “1950: Building the American Dream” — not all “Happy Days”

retro-timer

Photo courtesy of Ohio Historical Society

Get thee to Columbus after July 13, 2013, peoples, and bring the kids, because this is an exhibit they can mess with.

I quiz Cameron and he confirms that museum staffers have given the pretend“family that lived in this Lustron names: They are/were dad Bob, mom Dottie, son Jimmy and daughter Mary. These were the most popular names in the years each character was born. Their rooms are furnished, their closets are stocked, and there will be children’s programming with fun and games in the back yard. The goal is to show how a real family lived in the 1950s.

At the same time, though, aspects of the exhibit will point to some of the serious social and economic issues that clouded the 1950s, such as racism and the Cold War.

“The original idea was to give people an enjoyable time. But, the 1950s wasn’t all Happy Days. There were issues and problems and we wanted also to dispel some of the nostalgia,” Wood said.

vintage-telephone

Photo courtesy of Ohio Historical Society

What else did I learn from Cameron?

  • That the museum could not successfully find anyone to donate a vintage 1950s refrigerator for the house. “Anybody that still has a 50s fridge is still using their fridge,” he said. Yup, they don’t make ‘em like they used to.
  • Vintage pieces of the Drexel Precedent line of bedroom furniture are way too spendy for the museum to acquire as they searched for period-perfect interiors. Cameron explains that the museum has a specification list for the furniture and accessories that were used in the Lustron Westchester showroom model. It included Drexel Precedent furnishings, but alas, today there are too many knowledgeable collectors out there. Anyone want to make a donation? Drexel Precedent full-sized bed or two twins are still on the OHS’ “would love to have” list.
  • Artwork was hung on walls with magnets… or you can slip a screw between steel panels.
  • Floors in Lustron house were specified to be “asphalt” tile… builder’s choice. The museum used Armstrong vinyl tile in a peachy salmon color. Their house is the dove grey exterior with off-white-verging-on-tan trim. The interior is a grayish mauvish… the bathroom is yellow… the roof is green. The house was in great shape. As Cameron noted earlier, the Lustron proved itself a hardy little house.

So there you have it.
From one of the world’s Lustron Masters.
I see a road trip to Columbus, Ohio, in my very near future.
How about you?

Link love:


Video documentery. This looks kinda cool and hard to find, too: Documentary video: Lustron: The House America’s Been Waiting For *affiliate link

This Lustron House is #41 on
our map of 59 mid-century and modern historic house
museums you can visit. Check them all out here:

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Comments

  1. Patty says

    Will have to had this to my road trip stops on my way to/from the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. I toured one years ago for sale. Others can keep their eyes out for these locally when the come up for sale if they can’t make it to Ohio.

  2. Stephanie says

    Thanks for sharing, Pam! There is one of these in my hometown (Freeport, IL) in aqua and I always wondered what it was until I started following your site, and saw one of your previous posts about these homes.
    Oh, what I would give for a five minute peek inside that house. It still has the original awnings.
    Keep up the good work.

  3. Robin says

    Pam, there is a Lustron house in Ballston Spa, NY on Route 50- outside of Saratoga Springs. I think it is tan. I was always curious about it when I lived there; now I know what it is. Cool!

  4. says

    Yay! I live in OH and we are definitely going to see this. I haven’t been to the Ohio Historical Society museum since I was in high school (many moons ago, now) but I remember enjoying it immensely, so this will be the icing on the cake!

  5. Jay says

    Great story! I first learned about Lustrons through a link on Atomic Ranch’s web site. Fascinating reading. I remember the MOMA exhibit and wished I could have gotten to see it. Hope to get to Columbus sometime, would like to see one in the flesh. What will become of it after the exhibit closes?

  6. says

    This answers a question that I had – we have two Lustron houses in a very prominent street in our area. They are tiny little houses, but it’s very obvious they are metal exteriors and they look very similar to this one. I’m going to double check but I am sure they are Lustrons.

  7. Robin, NV says

    It’s interesting how closely the Lustron story parallels the Tucker car story. Both companies sought to take advantage of the post war economy (large factory spaces, surplus material, generous government funding) and both ultimately failed after accusations of fraud and waste. I wonder how many other companies followed this same pattern.

    I liked seeing the photos of the partially assembled house. The construction of the house is fascinating. I never realized they were ALL metal. Too bad Ohio is so far away, I’d love to see the exhibit.

    One tiny quibble. The article states, “. . .the Navy wanted the Lustron manufacturing site to build jets. . .” I would say, technically, a Navy contractor wanted the site to build jets. The Navy doesn’t build ships, jets, or vehicles of any kind – we hire companies to do that. As a Department of the Navy Civilian (yes, I’m a DONC), I thought I should defend my branch. :)

    • Jackie says

      That’s one of about a dozen Lustron houses that I know of in St. Louis–and there are probably more! There is a whole row of eight of them on Litzsinger Road in Brentwood, one of the inner suburbs (near Webster Groves). It’s pretty interesting to see their varying degrees of original features versus “updates.”

  8. PF Flyer says

    There are about 8-10 Lustron homes in two different parts of South Minneapolis still being lived in and enjoyed by their owners. A couple have been repainted by the owners which, in my opinion, was not an improvement over the soft pastel colors used on the original porcelain panels.

  9. StudioAJP says

    My husband and I lived in a Lustron for 15 years. It was this exact model and color combination. Looking at these pictures brings back lots of memories. There were five Lustrons in the town we used to live in Central Nebraska. I think living there is what started my appreciation for mid-century design.

    I loved the house. For the size of the house, it had lots of closets for storage space. And, for a two person household, it really was an ideal size. A littie room to spread out, but still small enough to easily clean. Sure, there were some modifications over the years and there were issues with outdated plumbing, electrical and heating. But I never worried about hail and we never had to paint or re-roof.

    People were always amazed when I told them we lived in an all metal house. It’s hard for people to concept that your interior walls and ceilings were all metal. If fate steps in that I ever get the chance to live in a Lustron again, I would strongly consider it.

  10. mary martha says

    My cousin lived in one and really liked it. Hanging everything with magnets was fun and the fact that their appliances matched the enamel of the walls was quirky and fun.

    I am regularly tempted to buy one when they come up for sale near me. My worry is more about rust and anything else.

    If I could just buy one (without the land) and disassemble to reassemble as a cottage that would be my dream (yeah, I have weird dreams). I would have absolutely rescued one of the ones from VA if possible.

  11. Lisa says

    There are at least three Lustron houses in Quincy, Illinois, and several more in Springfield, Illinois. They tend to be clustered in the same parts of town — areas that would have been developed shortly after WWII. I’ll send a couple of photos to the mailbox.

  12. Gracie Manasco says

    There were two of these homes next door to each other in Vestavia Hills, AL… very rare for Alabama… but the owners “remodeled”. Now they are gone. Too sad.

  13. Sarah g (roundhouse) says

    I find these little metal box homes fascinating! We have a blue and a gray one in my town Lake Charles, LA and a yellow and a tan one in the town over the bridge, Sulphur, LA.
    In middle school I had a friend who lived a few houses down from the gray one. We used to stick magnets all over it when the owners weren’t home. I didn’t find out they were so special until later. I kept my eyes peeled and found 3 more and there may be more! For only 2500 total ever made finding each one has been such a shock and a thrill : )
    I would love to see this exhibit! All the hard work and dedication is so impressive. I hope it’s very successful!!

  14. Robin, NV says

    A lot of people have commented about Lustrons in their towns. If you go to the Lustron Preservation website, they have a map that shows known Lustrons (or at least ones reported to the group).
    http://www.lustronpreservation.org/lounge/locator/lustron-locator-map

    It’s interesting that there are no reported Lustrons west of the Rockies. My guess is that it had something to do with 1) shipping costs and 2) the availability of cheap and plentiful lumber out west (with the exceptions of Nevada and Arizona).

    • Katie says

      It may also have to do with the fact that a metal house would turn into a oven during the summer in the Southwest. In Arizona almost all the mid-century construction is block,which, other than adobe is the only material truly suited to this enviroment.

    • The Atomic Mom says

      We have 4 Lustrons here in Los Alamos, NM. There would have been more, but as was mentioned in the article, the company went out of business.

  15. Stacia says

    They should check with nearby utility companies for refrigerators. Many utilities pay customers to get rid of inefficient ones, and that often includes ones that have been moved to the basement or garage and used for extra fridge space when a kitchen gets remodeled. My mother in law had her utility company take away one from the 50s and one from the 70s a couple of years ago. The utilities don’t keep them, they recycle or scrap them, but they could keep an eye out for one of that era if they have such a program.

    • Erin in Ohio says

      My husband and I have a mid century Kelvinator fridge that we would be honored to donate to the exhibit. We live in Columbus, Ohio…not far from the Historical Society at all. It runs, but we haven’t looked into having it “charged” so that it will cool…but I’m not sure that’s necessary for the exhibit? I will look into contacting Cameron Wood about it, but in case he’s looking here — I can send pictures, or you can stop in and see it. We’re in Clintonville. We would love to help. We are really excited about the exhibit!

  16. nina462 says

    We have several Lustron houses in the Kalamazoo, MI area. I think its 5, but am not sure of the exact number. I have driven by several, still in good condition.

  17. Panzyzz says

    We have a couple of these houses in my area and we call them the “Melmac” houses. Love them! Now that I know the correct name and history they are even more interesting, but I’ll probably still call them Melmac because of the smooth texture and those pastel colors. Too cool!

  18. The Atomic Mom says

    This is so fascinating. I live in Los Alamos, NM. After the war, and after it was decided to make Los Alamos a permanent town the government built all the housing. Seriously, you’d die and go to MCM here, it’s all MCM, even the houses the government did not build (later at the end of the 50s and start of the 60s, when they allowed people to buy land and build their own homes). We have 4 Lustrons here in town. They are so interesting and I’ve always wanted to see inside, but have never had the courage to just go knock on the doors and ask. The government had ordered a lot of Lustrons (I can’t remember the exact number but it was more than 10 and less than 50 I think.) but before they could take delivery on all of them, the company, as you said, went out of business. Now all of these houses are on the National Register of Historic Places. For more information on the Los Alamos Lustrons you can try to find “Quads, shoeboxes, and sunken living rooms : a history of Los Alamos housing ” by Craig Martin. It’s a great little book about the MCM houses of Los Alamos, including the Lustrons. Thanks for this post, it’s great!

  19. Cory Parolin says

    I happened to see an hour-long documentary on Lustron homes about ten years ago, on my local PBS station. I fell in love with them, and have driven by the many we are fortunate to have here in St. Louis. I still haven’t seen the inside of one, but hope to someday!

    Here’s a link to the website for the documentary… fascinating if you are a MCM geek like me! ;)

    http://www.lustron.org/index.htm

  20. Hope Davis says

    Anyone in love with a Lustron home obviously has never lived in one. I have lived in one since I was 5 and am now 26. When things start rusting and falling apart it is very hard to find anyone to fix it. They mostly look at the house and go “I don’t know”. I bathroom literally started rusting away! =( I have found a contractor that has been able to do some work finally. He took the rusted metal out of the bathroom and redid the whole thing, put on a new roof, siding, and windows. Hanging pictures is difficult. Magnets aren’t strong enough to hold much and we have drill holes all over the walls because the people who lived here before us used screws to hang pictures. Over all they were a neat idea but in my oppinion not a good idea.

  21. Olivia says

    I’m pretty sure there is one of these in my neighborhood in South Bend, IN. Unfortunately, it’s been sitting empty for several years and hasn’t been taken care of. I have no idea of the condition inside.

  22. Mark Hays says

    We have several Lustrons here in Garden City, Kansas (5 or 6), and several articles have been written about them. And they all seem to be in good condition, too.

    What will happen to the house in the museum after it’s time as an exhibit has run out?

  23. Dennis Thayer says

    A little off topic, but there are several houses from the Chicago Century of Progress Fair which are now in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. They have a tour every year in October of 5 houses. The link is: http://www.nps.gov/indu/historyculture/centuryofprogress.htm . One of them is an Armco Ferro house which I think is similar to the Lustron. The :House of Tomorrow” even has it’s own airplane hangar, because we
    d all be flying to and fro in the future.

  24. says

    I live in Wheeling, WV and I know of 5 Lustron or what we call, ” Wheeling Steel Homes”………maybe they were copies of this retro Architecture and they were also built in the 1950’s…….most are in immaculate condition….in good neighborhoods…….

  25. Robyn says

    There is a beautifully preserved Lustron just one street over and about 5 blocks away from me here in Arlington, VA where the subject house came from. It’s the Dove Gray and it has a carport that goes quite well with it. I’m so glad it has survived the trend of teardowns/McMansionizing that runs amok here. I always smile when I see it but I don’t think it would suit my needs on too many levels to want to own/live in one.

  26. Jeff says

    About four miles from my house in Southfield, Michigan, in a small town called Oak Park are four Lustron homes on Oneida Street. One is nearly perfectly original on the outside, the others, not so much…one has a faux brick facade, others have various “improvements” which only make them look silly. No ordinances here, so let’s hope they survive!

  27. Denise says

    There’s one about five minutes from my house here in Northeastern Ohio. I’ll have to take pics someday, and send them to you, Pam.

  28. Patty says

    There is currently a Lustron house for sale in Bloomington Illinois for sale by Coldwell Banker Heart of America Realtors. I can’t wait for the open house so I can go inside! The realtor website has photos of the house. It is in a very, very desirable neighborhood.

  29. Shari Lewis says

    That home was 5 blocks away from me, and I went through it when the realtor put it on the market. There are still 3 in the neighborhood. My father bought one after my parents divorced when I was a teen, and I was able to correct the realtor about many aspects of the house – like the fact that the casement windows were incorporated into the metal framing of the house, and could not be replaced with standard windows… but they are incredibly durable, and you could move the walls and redo the floorplan if you wanted to.

  30. Pamela says

    There is a Lustron house in Pikeville, KY. I don’t know the name of the street but the back of it has an addition that faces the parking lot of Rags to Riches on Hambley Blvd. It is a blue green color. I saw the addition every day for years and didn’t know what the rest of the house was like until I drove around the block one day and remembered seeing them on here.

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