Instant House

A blog tribute to the manufactured, mass-produced, modular and kit homes that grace the American landscape.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Celotex Cemesto Homes

A series of Celotex Cemestos under construction
in Oak Ridge, TN
No, there's no town there, and even if there was, the houses ARE NOT made out of carcinogens.  
I know it seems like something out of The Simpsons, but the town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, (two words, not one) was built largely for the people working on the Manhattan Project--the project that produced the first Atom bomb.  This top-secret project required lots of people, and keeping lots of people quiet is no easy task.  The solution?  Build a whole town in the middle of nowhere just for the workers and families of those involved in the project.  According to Wikipedia:

"The location and low population also helped keep the town a secret. Although the population of the settlement grew from about 3,000 in 1942 to about 75,000 in 1945, and despite the fact that the K-25 uranium-separating facility by itself covered 44 acres (0.178 km²) and was the largest building in the world at that time, Oak Ridge was kept an official government secret. It did not appear on maps, and wasn't formally named until 1949, only being referred to as the Clinton Engineer Works (CEW). All workers wore badges, and the town was surrounded by guard towers and a fence with seven gates."  The modern town of Oak Ridge has provided this page about the town's history.  

Deciding to build an entire town virtually overnight resulted in some problems--most notably, speed.  ENTER:  The Celotex Corporation.  

The standard Celotex Cemesto home.
The Celotex Cemesto House  
Celotex is the coporation, Cemesto is the notable building product that the house is made of.  Cemesto was used for the walls of the house.  It is a thin (1 and 1/2" thick) Celotex (pressed cardboard) board coated on both sides by asbestos cement.    Asbestos was still the miracle material--shapeable, lightweight, and fireproof.  The basic Celotex Cemesto home was a small, 2 bedroom Cape Cod, similar to the original Levittown home.   The major objective in Oak Ridge--speed.  The Celotex homes went up very quickly--important when you figure the government was rushing to create a super-weapon to end a devastating worldwide war!  The generic Celotex house is pictured at right.  Its telltale features are the front porch (the rectangular wood dressing) and the obvious paneled construction.  

Diagram showing the simplicity of Cemesto construction.
A Post-Apocalyptic Building Material?  
In 1943, TIME magazine published this article about the product of Cemesto.  Apparently, Celotex's president thought that the war would bring an end to the major cities, and there would be a need for quick construction as the world rebuilt, he of course, thought that Cemesto would solve everyone's problems.  While his vision of smoking, uninhabitable cities did not come to fruition, the post-war housing shortage did come to be.  

The Celotex Downfall  
Asbestos causes cancer.  We all know it.  BUT, in 1943, we didn't know it.  Nevertheless, numerous court decisions ruled in favor of people diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-exposure-related diseases.  The U.S. portion of the  Celotex corporation was eventually absorbed by Dow Chemical.  The UK company still makes insulating products.  

Aerial view of Oak Ridge

A Celotex Ad from Popular Science, 1929

Another style of Oak Ridge prefab that used Cemesto
Cemesto house
Celotex Cemesto home under construction

More construction.

An updated Cemesto in Oak Ridge.  These are actually advertised as "Cemesto Style".


  1. Hello! Cool blog. I'm writing something about Oak Ridge. Do you know how fast they were able to erect the different kinds of prefab houses?

  2. David, Are you still seeking info on Oak Ridge? I grew up in Oak Ridge and lived in a cemesto. Kids coming home from school would get lost since a home would go up in the time they were in school (also built of cemesto). The homes are still in use today...well built, great floor plans, no safety issue unless you cut the cemesto board.

  3. Many of these houses are still here in Oak Ridge, a lot have been updated with vinyl or aluminum siding. But basic house remains intact. Resources, besides living here, can be found in many books like Manhattan Project Forgotten Heroes of WWII, Secret City, and Oak Ridge Story. We have basically the same "inner" residential town, but outskirts are populated with new construction homes since city opened the gates. There is a need for someone to come to town and FLIP these older houses and for someone to provide a historical village of the older Alphabet Houses, as they are very historic since the city/town built the Atomic bomb. However, there is a current lack of good jobs to a degree...Many workers commute from nearby city of Knoxville, given the lack of many things to do here in town. The Education System is one of the best and if good housing were available, I believe more people would live here in town. The current mall is being revitalised and blight houses being removed by city. The houses needing most reviving are the two-four family duplexes on the old west end which have generally been rental units. 2-3 BR, 1 small bath. Small kitchen/living room, no DR or den. These houses rent for 4-550/month. Some have been made into one family homes, awkwardly. A good space planner/architect could draw plans for each type of house rather easily and once approved by the city, be able to renovate several rentals. There are many people here who have retired and live on low fixed incomes. It's a great retirement place, low cost of living, great infrastructure, great weather, near mountain and lakes, bike trails, green belt, community events, and low low crime.

  4. I TOTALLY agree As of today (2/10/18), I live in a Type L (2/1 & 3/1 duplex) on 151/153 Wade Ln In Jan 2018, my duplex & 147/149 Wade were purchased my neighbor was bought 149 is being gutted as I write 151 & mine will be gutted in March

    The owners have NO respect for the history of these wonderful buildings Their only concern MONEY! But, OR city is issuing building permits without restrictions Until the homes are under Historic protection This will continue

    Worse people like me can't afford to live here after gutting In 2016, $550 (3br/1ba) 149 will be $800 in March This duplex hasn't been structurely changed My unit still has the glass door knobs, including the front door & beautiful oak floors Hopefully, we are moving to 3br/1ba Type C or H I haven't been inside so I don't know what layout or changes have been made

    Oak Ridge city MUST make these buildings Historical to save them They do need the asbestos siding removed & other environmental hazards updated But my windows don't leak if they close completely & lock with original slide locks

    Just my opinion Thanks for reading