Editor’s note: A special supplement to the Daily Citizen’s June 22 edition will feature the Champaign County Preservation Alliance’s 24th Historic Home and Garden Tour, scheduled 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 25 and 26.
The 2016 Champaign County Preservation Alliance’s 24th Historic Home and Garden Tour has created interest this year by featuring a few very different approaches to fulfilling housing needs. This educational, entertaining, fundraising tour, always held the last weekend in June, is offering a tour of James Lokai’s Enamel-coated Steel House, called a Lustron Home. June 25 and June 26 are the dates, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. is the time and you don’t want to miss it.
So what is a Lustron house? According to Wikipedia “Lustron houses are prefabricated enameled steel houses developed in the post-World War II era United States in response to the shortage of houses for returning GIs. The low-maintenance, extremely durable, baked-on porcelain enamel finish was expected to attract modern families who might not have the time or interest in repairing and painting conventional wood and plaster houses.” Time has proven the durability part of those claims to be true, as long as the house is properly maintained it will last for a very long time. All homes old or new, big or little, wood, brick, cement, or porcelain require some level of loving care to stay attractively functional.
How many people knew that small town Urbana, Ohio, has a serial numbered, genuine Lustron house made in Columbus, Ohio? Did you know that Springfield, Ohio, has one too, at the corner of Limestone and McCreight that is used as an insurance office? Has anyone passing through Urbana noticed loving work being done on our Lustron house, bringing it back to life, after some years of not so attentive loving care taking place in the past? Our community is quite blessed to have James Lokai, a lover of history, with a personal desire and skill to restore this local piece of history that sits on the corner of Scioto Street and Ames Avenue. It has taken allot of work to restore this Lustron home, Jim had to do things that might not have ever had to be done, if some of those living in this “different kind of home” had just respected or understood it for how it was designed to be kept up. It is not an ordinary home.
The Lustron homes were the idea of inventor Carl Strandlund and designed by Morris Beckman of Chicago firm Beckman and Blass. With enameled steel panels inside and out, as well as steel framing, the homes stand out next to more traditional dwellings made of wood and plaster and need a different set of care instructions.
Made in Columbus
The following information is from Wikipedia, which did name its sources but will not be repeated here. In January 1947, the newly formed Lustron Corporation, a division of the Chicago Vitreous Enamel Corporation, announced that it had received a $12.5-million Reconstruction Finance Corporation loan to manufacture mass-produced prefabricated homes that featured enameled-coated steel panels (U.S. Patent 2,416,240) to help alleviate the post war housing shortage. Led by Chicago industrialist and inventor Carl Strandlund, who had worked with constructing prefabricated gas stations, The Lustron Corporation offered a home that would “defy weather, wear, and time. They set out to construct 15,000 homes in 1947 and 30,000 in 1948 from its plant in Columbus, Ohio (the former Curtiss-Wright factory.) Unfortunately they only constructed 2,498 Lustron homes between 1948 and 1950. The houses sold for between $8,500 and $9,500, according to a March 1949 article in the Columbus Dispatch—about 25 percent less than comparable conventional housing but by November 1949, a Lustron’s average selling price had risen to $10,500.
Most of the known Lustron houses were assembled in 36 states, including Alaska, and even a few for families of oil industry employees in Venezuela.
Advertised to maximize pleasure and minimize work, Lustron home claimed to create a “new and richer experience for the entire family,” where the housewife would spend less time cleaning and the children would have fewer worries, and dad would have more leisure time. How this would be accomplished with just a choice of housing was not clarified, although presumably it was through the enameled-steel design that would be easier to clean, less likely to be damaged by playful children and require less maintenance and the Lustron design was basically created by engineers in a way that could be adapted to mass production making it less expensive to make.
Considered an engineering marvel
This house was considered an engineering marvel. A steel framing system was devised consisting of vertical steel studs and roof-ceiling trusses to which all interior and exterior panels were attached. The concept of prefabricated wood-framed housing was well established by firms such as Alladin, Gordon-Van Tine, Montgomery Ward, and Sears in the early 1900s. These companies, however, used conventional balloon-framing techniques and houses were known as kit houses.
Chicago Vitreous Enamel Products Company had produced and sold Carl Strandlund’s porcelain enameled panels since the late 1920s for other purposes. During and after WWII, the domestic demand for steel exceeded production and the federal government exercised tight control over its allocation. Strandlund had requested steel for orders for his porcelain-enameled panels for use in the construction of new gas stations for Standard Oil but was denied the steel. However, he was advised by Wilson Wyatt, Housing Expediter during the Truman administration, that steel would be available if Strandlund produced steel houses instead of gas stations. Thus Strandlund developed the Lustron prototype house at Hinsdale, Illinois, in the fall of 1946 which he claimed was fireproof, impervious to decay, rust, or damage from vermin, rats or termites. Sunlight, salt water, or chemical fumes could not stain or fade the finish. The roof never had to be replaced, the exterior painted, nor the interior painted or papered were qualities all claimed in their advertising.
Sounds too good to be true? In some ways it has proved to be many of those things. So what happened to the Lustron dream house? The Lustron factory had approximately eight miles of automated conveyor lines and included 11 enameling furnaces, each of which was more than 180 feet long. The plant equipment included presses for its own bathtubs and sinks and the bathtub press could stamp a tub in one draw producing 1000 tubs a day at capacity. Specially designed trailer trucks were used as the final assembling point where the manufactured parts came off the assembly line. There were approximately 3300 individual parts in a complete house loaded on a single trailer. The trucks then delivered the house package to the building site with detailed instructions on how to assemble it. Lustron established builder-dealers, which in turn sold and erected the house package usually on a concrete foundation without basements.
In 20 months of production and sales, Lustron lost money on each house, and, in turn, was not able to repay the RFC loan. RFC foreclosed on Lustron and production stopped on June 6, 1950 after only three years of production. On the Lustron order book were contracts for more than 8000 housing units, which were never shipped. The materials and the start up costs for the Lustron home simply were too much to make a enough money to pay off the start up loan as it was offer by the government. (The political ramifications are as fascinating as the engineering of the Lustron homes, just as in today’s business dealings with the politics of government.) The orders and desire for the homes were there but with large start up costs, the government’s time frame allowed not giving them enough time to get past the initial expenses, the venture ceased operation.
It was Lustron’s promises of assembly-line efficiency and modular construction that was suppose to set it apart from its competitors. The making of a durable product, but cheap manual labor using lesser quality materials, won out over the higher cost of quality materials requiring technology skills.
And of course, Lustron homes are not for everyone. Now James Lokai may not agree because he loves his Lustron home as the unique piece of history that it represents, but if you like hanging pictures on the walls and changing the color of the walls frequently, that is a problem because the walls are not plaster or drywall that you can drive a nail into to hang a picture or painting is not recommended for best performance of enameled surfaces. One must find alternative ways to decorate the walls without nails and change colors with room accessories only. On the other hand, how nice to have a wall covering that is easy to wash clean and sanitize, does not scuff up, never needs painted, and I assume to be non allergenic. This tour stop will also feature many things of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s to add to its entertainment.
The CCPA is preparing for this year’s event-filled Historic Home and Garden Tour weekend. Plan on attending Saturday June 25th and Sunday June 26th from 11am to 5 pm each day and learn about how history is being kept alive. Advanced tickets are on sale at supporting local businesses for a discount costing $12 per adult with those 12 and under admitted free. A ticket is good for both days and costs $15 the day s of the tour. The tour is never canceled because of rain. If you would like to volunteer to help with the tour or need ticket information, leave a message at 1-800-791-6010 or visit www.urbanahomeandgardentour.com Hope to see you there.
Submitted by Champaign County Preservation Alliance.