Dreams Of Heavy Metal
Produced for only two years, the legacy of Lustron steel homes lives on in Plattsburgh, NY
They rolled off the conveyer belts like cars, steel panels tumbling into the waiting flatbeds of trucks. Two weeks later, the shining slabs would be a home, assembled using little more than nuts and bolts to hold the metallic compilation together. Americans had never seen homes like these before, 1,000-square-foot units built entirely of steel, inside and out. After two years, they would never see homes like these again.
Yet during those two years, the steel abodes flourished. From 1948 to 1950, nearly 2,500 of these structures made their short journey from assembly line to personal residence, structures billed as "rodent proof, fire proof, lightning proof and rust proof"that also happened to be affordable. Owning a home — fulfillment of the much-ballyhooed "American Dream" — had never been so easy. The catch was that this home happened to be made from metal and constructed using plans that looked like something from a model airplane kit. Still, it was a place to live, cheap and convenient and compact. And for the people who placed their real estate wishes in the hands of the Lustron Steel Homes Corporation, including five residents of Plattsburgh, N.Y., the heavy metal houses were exactly what they needed.
"In what other house can you hang magnets on your walls and ceiling?"
For some, it still is. "In what other house," asks Lustron owner Susan Roushia, "can you hang magnets on your walls and ceiling?" She laughs. "And I’m the queen of magnets." Indeed, the walls of her Lustron on 9 Sandborn Ave. feature more metal-backed advertisements and designs than a soccer mom’s refrigerator. "I get a lot of satisfaction out of this place, I really do," she continues earnestly. "But you do have to be a special kind of person to live in a house like this."
From the beginning, though, a special kind of occupant was always on the Lustron Corporation’s mind. A person returning home from the war, to be exact, a World War II veteran with a life to live and no place for them to live it in. More than 12 million of these people flooded American cities and towns in the mid-1940s, sending the nation’s housing market into an unpredicted frenzy. The problem was simple: too many servicemen, not enough homes. The solution, however, was complex, challenging enough that the quandary made it all the way to the highest office in the country. President Harry Truman got on the radio and made a nationwide plea for homes, affordable housing for the people who had served overseas and now were homeless in their own homeland. Frank Lloyd Wright listened. Buckminster Fuller listened. And in a Chicago office building, an innovative entrepreneur named Carl Strandlund listened too.
Strandlund thought he had the answers other architects lacked. Men like Wright and Fuller were used to servicing wealthy clients, individuals who could pay top dollar for the finest building materials available. Strandlund, on the other hand, believed he understood what the average American craved. Already, he had been contemplating the use of steel panels in small commercial buildings — gas stations, garages, and other such structures. Now, Strandlund had found a niche in which he imagined his concept could flourish: pre-fabricated homes of steel. The houses would be small. Yet they would also be sturdy, safe, and — best of all — economical, able to be mass-produced and delivered across the country for a fraction of the cost of a traditional home.
So while Wright and Fuller and their brethren struggled over affordable housing designs, Strandlund began promoting his plan to the government. In 1947, federal officials allowed him to turn a former airplane plant in Columbus, Ohio, into the Lustron Steel Homes Corporation and granted the businessman a $15.5 million loan to start it up. Created by the same assembly line methods that had turned Henry Ford into the king of the automotive industry, the first Lustron homes appeared on the market in March of 1948. Each one was the same: two bedrooms, one bath, 1,000 square feet in all. Porcelain-enameled steel, the same finish used on bathtubs, coated all of the interior and exterior surfaces. To save space, cabinets, drawers, sliding closet doors, dishwasher, bookcases and a vanity in the master bedroom were built right into the walls. And every dwelling’s price was the same: $7,000 for a house to call your own.
"I had no inkling of the historic monument status potential of the place"
For Martin Lubin, whose 7 Sandborn Ave. Lustron was first purchased by Roushia’s grandmother in 1950, the affordability factor helped him make the choice to spend his days within walls of steel. "It struck me as kind of distinguished," Lubin says of the house, "and the price was reasonable. It was very close to the campus (of Plattsburgh State, where Lubin works as a professor of political science), so location played a very important role. But I had no inkling of the historic monument status potential of the place."
In their heyday, of course, Lustron homes were hardly worthy of monument status. As Strandlund’s creations appeared across 36 states, the rectangular Ranch Style domiciles were almost commonplace. Lucrative deals appeared on the company’s desk — 3,000 homes for a new Cleveland development being the largest of them all. The United States Army and Navy began requesting the homes for their military bases. Even a company in Venezuela wrote to Strandlund asking him to ship 60 Lustrons to them. By the time 1950 rolled around, Strandlund had more than 20,000 orders in his pocket.
Yet only 2,498 of those homes would ever be built. In 1950, Strundland unexpectedly announced the venture was over, declaring that the Lustron Steel Homes Corporation was bankrupt. To this day, the debate carries on as to why this seemingly popular scheme met such an unceremonious end. Two theories have emerged from this dispute, one blaming Strandlund’s own ambitions, the other criticizing the government’s short-sightedness. Prices of Lustrons were rising when Strandlund closed up shop, now costing up to $12,000, the result of an assembly that took far longer than Strandlund had anticipated. Originally, the company established an output goal of 100 homes per day. Actual production, however, fell well short of this mark. Raising the selling price, Strandlund also deviated from his initial idea, producing more expensive three- and four-bedroom models. Nothing he did, however, could decrease his production time or reduce the selling price. The primary appeal of Lustron homes — affordability — was gone.
Still, Lustrons seemed to remain at least moderately accepted throughout the country. Then came the death blow. In 1950, the federal Reconstruction Finance Committee suddenly demanded that Strandlund repay his short-term loans — all $37.5 million of them. Strandlund protested, pointing to a previous bargain that allegedly allowed him the option of consolidating all of his short-term obligations into one long-term loan, but the government would not relent. Strandlund simply did not have the money to meet the Finance Committee’s deadline. Almost as quickly as it began, the inventor’s planned solution for the nation’s housing shortage was over — scuttled, some insist, by the government officials themselves.
Although it never reached the heights he envisioned, Strandlund’s dream did not completely die in his bankruptcy. The occasional Lustron still dots the landscape of American municipalities, mostly in the Midwest, where the company’s headquarters were based. For many Lustron owners, pride in their unique architectural treasures hinges on obsession, with Web sites ranging from a National Lustron Registry to a Lustron Discussion Group to any number of personal tributes honoring the metal dwellings.
And then there is Plattsburgh, home to five Lustrons, four of them located on one inconspicuous street. Sandborn Ave. just might be the most densely populated steel home route in the country, with Numbers 7, 9, 17, and 23 recognizable remnants from Strandlund’s golden years. The fifth, at 66 Couch Street, is less identifiable, converted into a more modern-style style by the present owners. Robert LeFleur and Carla Brotherton, who own 23 Sandborn, are also altering their Lustron, gutting and renovating the interior. "Everything was original when I moved in here," LeFleur says, "but I think doing this is going to improve the real estate value of the house. I’m putting in new heating, updating everything I can. It’s ten times more efficient now."
For some, though, such a transformation teeters on sacrilege. Roushia says she can’t imagine going to such lengths to alter her steel living quarters, not after spending years growing to love the historic three-bedroom model. "This is the home I grew up in," she explains, "and it’s the home I came back to two-and-a-half years ago. By now, it’s what I’m used to, I guess."
Much of the ingenuity is Roushia’s own creation. Behind the plethora of magnets lie a number of less visible aspects to life in a Lustron, many of which force Roushia into frequent fix-it solutions. "You have to really think it out,"she states. "It’s built differently from other homes, so you have to treat it differently from other homes. What I don’t know how to do at first, I try to find out how to do on my own." Certain aspects of upkeep, though, can be far easier in a house with metal walls. "What we mostly do for maintenance is we wash," Roushia says. "I give the ceilings and the walls a thorough washing once a year. Just spray Spic ‘N’ Span on the enamel and scrub it, and they’re clean. You can’t do that in a typical home."
"People don’t believe you when you say ‘Look — my home is entirely steel, inside and outside'"
When Lubin’s home calls for repairs, Keith Burgess often receives the call to do them. After a number of years, the veteran repairman says he has learned that conventional methods don’t always quite succeed on a Lustron. "You can’t just put a screw or a nail into metal walls," Burgess says. "You might have to drill. So it’s a little more time consuming than working on a wood home." Still, Lubin insists life within steel walls is a mostly "low-cost, low-maintenance experience." Durable, flame-resistant walls guarantee him a reduced rate on his homeowner’s insurance. And as a conversation piece, he says, the Lustron has no equal. "People don’t believe you when you say ‘Look — my home is entirely steel, inside and outside," Lubin laughs. "So I tell them to come take a look, and they still can’t believe what they’re seeing."
Which, in a way, may not be such an unusual reaction. More than a half century ago, Americans couldn’t believe what they were seeing when steel plates rolled off conveyer belts in Ohio and were converted into houses from coast to coast. And today, even after the death of one inventor’s vision, the dwelling Carl Strandlund once billed as "the house America’s been waiting for" still sparks admiration from devoted Lustron inhabitants. "It takes a lot of ingenuity to keep this place up, it really does," Roushia says. "But it’s a great house. I can’t imagine living anyplace else."
For an old dream that still glimmers inside heavy metal houses across the country, one can’t think of higher praise than that.
Not every attempt at pre-fabricated homes was as short-lived as the Lustron. From 1908 to 1940, kit houses produced by Sears and Roebuck swept across America, becoming the sort of “be your own architect” fad that steel homes had the potential to become.
Yet the Sears and Roebuck houses almost died before they were born. In 1906, Sears and Roebuck executives were considering discontinuing their unprofitable building supplies department when Frank W. Kushel, ex-manager of the company’s china department, proposed an idea: Why not ship building supplies directly from the factory to buyers, saving tens of thousands of dollars in storage costs? Two years later, the company took this idea to the next level in publishing its first “Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans” and sending it out to prospective consumers around the country.
The domiciles flourished from the start. Sears and Roebuck was able to tap into an unprecedented market of homebuyers, as Americans took their new Model T Fords and began leaving big cities in droves, the start of a phenomenon now called suburban sprawl. When those families needed an affordable home after making their jump from the urban centers, Sears and Roebuck had what they needed.
After choosing their home design, customers sent in a $1 “down payment” to Sears and Roebuck. Upon receiving this small contribution, the company would send the buyer a full set of blueprints and a bill of materials list. A few weeks later, two boxcars containing 30,000 pieces of home components would arrive by train. A 75-page guide would accompany these puzzle pieces, warning the customer “Do Not Take Anyone Else’s Advice As To How This Building Should Be Assembled.” With kit and guidebook in hand, the owners were on their way to a brand-new home.
Their heyday emerged in 1918, when Sears and Roebuck again caught the crest of the wave in another building boom. No single location experienced this more than Carlinville, Illinois, where the opening of a new coal mine owned by Standard Oil coincided with the post-World War I population explosion — the perfect storm of housing shortages. Standard Oil paid Sears and Roebuck $1 million for 192 kit homes for the coal miners to move into, creating an “instant town” lined with eight varieties of Sears and Roebuck houses. This area earned the disparaging nickname of “The Standard Addition” — the “cheap district” in Carlinville.
Ultimately, though, the Sears and Roebuck houses ended up going the way of the Lustrons. Sears and Roebuck’s liberal loan program for the home buyers proved to be their downfall, plunging the company’s housing division into debt during the Great Depression. In 1940, after sending more than 100,000 kit homes from coast to coast, company officials reluctantly closed the door on Sears and Roebuck houses.
Today, Sears and Roebuck homes have achieved a cult status similar to Lustron houses among architectural enthusiasts. Many have been demolished or remodeled beyond recognition, but some still remain in their original, unaltered form — including a few dotted throughout the North Country. Plattsburgh, Saranac Lake, and Minerva are among the area’s towns that feature privately owned Sears and Roebuck dwellings.
And that “low-class” neighborhood of kit houses in Carlinville, Illinois? It’s now the nation’s largest cluster of Sears and Roebuck houses, a famous pilgrimage site for people in search of this unique slice of American history.
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