Instant House

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Lustron House

The original Lustron prototype--the "Esquire".
Only one built.

A Magnificent Folly—The Lustron
What do Standard Oil gas stations, White Castle hamburger stands and post-World War II housing?  The answer:  Vitreous Enamel Products.  (What’s Vitreous Enamel?  Your great-grandmother had a shiny, slippery white kitchen table.  Well, mine did.  That stuff.)  After the War, the Lustron corporation was formed (by way of Vitreous Enamel of Chicago and Porcelain Products Company) to mass-produce housing.  From 1948 to 1950, over 2500 homes were cranked out in a factory in Columbus, Ohio that had been re-tooled from a wartime Curtiss-Wright factory.  The houses looked like space age, highly polished enameled kitchen breadboxes with windows.  In actuality, this is not that far from the truth.

Re-Tooling and Money
Special machines and tools were needed to get the Columbus factory up and running.  Carl Strandlund, the brains behind Lustron, lobbied successfully to get a $15,500,000 loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC).  This was in 1947 to re-tool ONE FACTORY!!!!  Over time, the Lustron Corporation would eventually owe $37,500,000 at the time of foreclosure…in 1950.  The Internet tells me in today’s dollars, this would be almost $360,000,000 in today’s dollar.  It was the company’s government reliance (and the shady, back-room lobbying by which some of the loans were obtained…) that would be its undoing.

Materials Problem
After World War II, the idea of using the “miracle material” steel for housing seemed like a great idea, except for one thing:  steel was still a heavily rationed material controlled by the Department of Commerce, and they were not about to release it for “non-essential” projects.  After much wrangling and with the approval of President Truman, 59,000 tons of steel were initially released to get the company up and running.

A fully-loaded Lustron truck containing an entire house.
How To Get It There
The third major problem was shipping.  The railroads were not helpful.  The big trucking companies quoted an astronomical sum to transport one house, due largely to the weight.  The company settled on a unique solution that also helped their marketing—they had the White tractor company produce 200 special, yellow-enamel trucks that they then leased.  Only 160 were ever delivered, but the company kept paying for 200.  (Wonder why this company failed?)  800 trailers were custom-designed by Frueheuf.  The trailers, emblazoned with the Lustron name, waited at the plant until they were full of a complete house, then were shipped to the site and remained there while the house was put up.  This was great advertising for the company.

The Construction 
The houses were erected on a slab.  Prefabricated steel-studded walls and roof trusses were put up—all with self-tapping sheet metal screws.  The outside panels were enameled squares that fit together in a tab-and-slot method, with a plastic gasket sealing out the weather.  All of the components inside the house—doors, cabinetry, interior wall panels, were all of enameled steel.  The ROOF was of enameled steel.  The kitchens were of built-in cabinetry and did not include appliances, except for a curious Thor combination dishwasher/clothes washer.  (Side note:  these did not last.  If you find one in-tact, they’re worth a lot of money.)  If you wanted to hang pictures, you needed to use magnets.  The floors were asphalt tile.  The colors?  You could pick from eight outside colors—surf blue, blue-green, dove gray, maize yellow, desert tan, green, pink, and white.  The insides were usually gray.  The houses were equipped with a surprising amount of insulation in the walls and attic for the time period.
The living room of a Lustron.  Notice the ceiling.
Living in One 
Enameled steel is quite hearty, and rarely needs painting.  Most homeowners found that their maintenance costs were very low.  The windows were casement and sometimes leaked, but were reliable.  The house was virtually fireproof, termite-proof, and lightning-proof.  None of the models were large, but were adequate for a small family.  The strangest thing about these homes was the heat—it was in the ceiling.  Literally.  A forced-air furnace blew heated air up into a space between the ceiling and the attic floor.  The porcelain ceiling tiles acted as radiators and “radiated the heat downward”.  Knowing anything about elementary physics, you realize this was less than effective. 

The Models
The “Esquire” was the prototype model—only one was built.  The most popular model was the Westchester—this was available in a 2 or 3 bedroom configuration and either a “standard” or “deluxe” model—the deluxe model had more built-in features.  The “Newport” model was a smaller home, and it was usually turned 90-degrees, with the gable end facing the street.  The “Meadowbrook” came later and was essentially a slightly larger Newport model.  Info below.

A Lustron today (windows replaced)
Lustrons Today 
The company folded and was sold off in 1950.  Nevertheless, many Lustrons remain today, many with architectural designations protecting them from destruction.  They also have a devoted following—check out and  Lustron Preservation has many of the original construction specifications and manuals for viewing. Thomas T. Fetters’s The Lustron Home is also an excellent resource.  The houses have blended in to other post-war suburbs, but the space age candy-colored panels are unmistakable.  2,600 homes in less than two years is a great output—imagine what could have been had the company survived.

An almost in-tact Lustron (original windows).  The porch has been enclosed.

The signature support/downspout.  A telltale feature of Lustrons everywhere.

Floor plan of the "Esquire" model.

The "Westchester" Model - 2 and 3 Bedroom

The "Newport" Model - 2 and 3 Bedroom

View of the utility room.  Notice the heat mounted to the ceiling.


  1. For what Lustron might have been, see At Home with Tomorrow, by Carl Koch, chapter 6.

  2. Oh, and your dismissive comment about the heating system is off base. The heat is *radiant*--it doesn't (mainly) heat the air in the house, it heats the objects, including the people. It is much pleasanter, and less trouble, than regular forced-air heat.

    1. A young couple we know is looking at a Lustron house in the Pittsburgh area, and phoned tonight to ask my opinion. My own, primarily residential, architectural practice extended from 1964 until retiring in 2011, with the one remaining project being long-postponed work on our own home which I had designed in 1968. Some-where in those years, I acquired the notion that radiant heat from the floor is preferable to radiant heat from the ceiling, from a comfort standpoint. As radiant effect is distance-dependent, and there's much more blood circulating in our heads than in our feet, it may well be that warmer feet are more comfortable than warmer heads. I don't have firm technical information to support this notion, but suspect that it makes sense.