• 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:

    historic-home-museums

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    Comments

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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?

    4. 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.

    5. 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…….

    6. 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.

    7. 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!

    8. 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.

    9. 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.

    10. 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.

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