Instant House

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

Sunday, January 29, 2012

More Lustron Stuff

More Lustron Stuff
I recently found a picture on the internet of a Lustron being erected in an urban environment.  This has to be the one-and-only Lustron erected as a model home in Chicago.  Here is the picture:

Check out the building site.  For a supposedly "prefabricated house", there sure are a lot of components being assembled on-site!  Hang onto that thought...

Lustron's (Almost) Savior
I was scouring Carl Koch's (of Techbuilt fame) book about his history with prefabricated housing - At Home With Tomorrow.  Koch was brought on during the last few years of Lustron to re-tool and revamp the Lustron.  He devotes a chapter to his stint with Lustron.  He identified four key problems with the Lustron product.  Quoted from the book:

1.  The original Lustron model used four different sizes of window in a fixed arrangement.  We reduced them to one--but so designed as to be triple-hung and completely interchangeable with solid wall panels of the same size, so that we could make any combination with these few panels.  Putting two such sections side-by-side would permit not twelve but thirty-six variations.  Three, side by side, would offer two hundred and sixteen.  Not all of them would be useful, needless to say, but the law of combinations is one of the pleasant mathematical secrets of modular planning.

2.  Since the enameled walls of the Lustron house were permanent, in and out (the enamel would chip away in places when the house was put together, but was easily patched), it followed that wall color was permanent too.  This could be a little hard on a housewife, who, having lived with green surroundings for several years, might suddenly decide she liked brown better, or yellow, or white.  If green was what she had selected, green was what she had.  So what we recommended was that inside wall color be made as unobtrusive as possible, neutral--shades of gray, in fact.  Then the color motif of the house could be established by the housewife herself, by the generous use of color in rugs, fabrics, furniture, drapes, and the like--things that COULD be changed.

3.  The original Lustron house was fixed, as to size and interior plan.  We discovered, working with a basic size of 29 by 37 feet, and an expanded size of 29 by 45 feet, that Lustron could offer four different interior plans in each, including several for three bedrooms.  Any of these plans, moreover, could be "flipped," that is to say, built as a mirror image of itself.  And all plans, together, would use the same component parts, with virtually no exception.

4.  The number of separate components which would arrive by truck, to be assembled on site by individual builders, we reduced from three thousand to thirty-seven by providing for the assembly of window sections, storage walls, plumbing walls, and so forth in the plant itself.  Lustron, indeed, was already on the trail of this simplification.  

Re-read number four.  3,000 parts to be assembled on-site????   No wonder this thing didn't take off.  One of the three key advantages in prefabricated housing is SPEED.  The second is SIMPLIFICATION.  3,000 parts doesn't sound like either.  37 is more like it.  Sadly, Koch's Lustron didn't take off in time, and only one model home was ever built.  Pics below.

The 1950 Koch Lustron

Living Room

Dining Room

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Leisurama - An Impulse Buy???

The House That Macy's Built  
Americans are impulse buyers.  We buy everything imaginable on impulse--food, clothing, computers, gift cards, cars even.....but a vacation home?  Believe it or not, Macy's tried to extend this American way of consuming to the housing market, with a little-known project entitled "Leisurama".  The scheme was this--offer a modestly-priced turn-key vacation home in Montauk within walking distance to the beach that the average New Yorker could afford.  Add to this a complete model of a home for viewing on the 9th floor of their flagship store, and have sales associates standing by ready to take orders before people could think twice about it or even VISIT THE SITE!!!!!  The shocking the early 1960s, it almost worked.

The Location  
These homes were located in Culloden Point in Montauk, Long Island.  Because of their identical appearance and the iconic front window, the neighborhood was soon known as the "Levittown at the beach".  Culloden was the ideal place as the land could be acquired relatively cheaply because of its location on the north side of the island and its relative proximity to Camp Hero (with its spooky tales of invisibility, mind control, time travel and "Reptoids").  The Montauk location was also convenient for most New Yorkers - a fairly short drive or a short trip on the Long Island Railroad.  Culloden was the bargain beach with all the glamor of the Hamptons.

1965 view of the development.  The landscape has since grown in.
Original design concept for the Leisurama

The Design  
The Leisurama homes had a striking modern appearance.  The front window and the carport figured prominently in the design of all the Leisuramas.  The homes were one story with a low-pitched roof which also added to the modernist appearance.  Because the homes weren't really designed for permanent living, the footprint of the homes was kept small--two bedrooms was a big Leisurama.  Like many other mass-produced houses, they were constructed on slab constructions.  There were three models constructed--the "Convertible", the "Expanded Convertible", and the "Villa" (see below for floor plans).  The Covertible and Expanded Convertible were offered for sale.  The Villa was designed as a rental unit for people to test-drive the Leisurama lifestyle.  

The Convertible

The Expanded Convertible

Pricing and Sales  
The cost of one of these Leisurama homes?  $12,900--furnished in every way imaginable down to the linens and toothbrushes.  You chose from one of two floorplans (the convertible or the expanded convertible), you chose one of four color schemes, you paid your deposit and waited to pick up your key!  Macy's boasted that all you needed to bring was the food for the refrigerator...which was included.  In fact, a full line of General Electric appliances were included, even a combination washer/dryer.  The houses contained a MURPHY BED!  Exciting but impractical, according to those who populated the Leisuramas.
Leisurama Interior - Featuring the Murphy Bed!
Photo of a complete Leisurama on the 9th Floor of Macy's Herald Square
Leisurama's Demise and Legacy
The price was a little too good to be true...for the seller, anyway.  Macy's and All-State Properties lost money on each house.  This, more than anything, led to the quick demise of the Leisurama experiment.  Construction problems also plagued the project.  The project had grand aspirations, but only about 200 Leisuramas were built.  Many still survive and dot the Culloden Shores landscape, but most have been modified from their original appearance.  Some have been sold as "tear downs", others have been enlarged to reflect the current "McMansion" garishness that is typical of contemporary shore homes.  Leisurama Homes reflect something that currently doesn't exist in the Northeast shore culture anymore--modest, affordable vacation homes.  Take a trip on Long Island or down the New Jersey shoreline and look at the beachfront monstrosities--what normal person can maintain a second home of that magnitude?  Or even a primary magnitude????  The Leisurama wasn't perfect, but it was a great way to have a modest getaway home that exhibits modern design.

Models and Floor Plans
Below are the floor plans of the three models as they appeared in a Macy's sales brochure.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Gunnison "Magic" Homes

From the May, 1943 edition of "The Rotarian" magazine
Press a Button, Get a House!
This post returns to the "roots" of Instant House - post WWII housing needs.  During the late '40s and through the 1950s, the Gunnison Housing Corporation churned out many prefabricated houses, billed as "Gunnison Magic Homes".  These homes were built as panelized homes and were screwed together on-site, usually on a slab.  Foster Gunnison, the owner, publicly acknowledged his dream of becoming "the Henry Ford of housing", utilizing mass-production techniques in his factory to create his patented stressed-skin panels that when put together would create a home with a very short amount of time-on-site.  Though originally a lighting engineer (famous project included the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center).

The Gunnison Patented System  
Foster Gunnison filed for a patent in August of 1938 for a panelized system of construction.  This system was specifically designed for "houses of various sizes and a plurality of floor plans [that] can be readily constructed from standard interchangeable parts."  Four figure drawings from the patent are on the right, and they reveal some key features.  The panels were bolted together rather than stick-built.  There actually was insulation in the middle of the panels.  The panels were attached to the slab by bolts.  The panels were structural, but they were also FINISHED!  Joints were covered by moldings--inside and out.  The panels came complete with installed metal-framed casement windows and brass-fixtured pre-hung doors.  Gunnison used these standardized panels in order to create 11 different models--everything from a very modest 24-foot by 24-foot 2 bedroom model to a large four bedroom 2.5 bath model.

Pictures of the Gunnison Factory
"Lustron" Redux?  Not Quite...  
If you read my previous post on the Lustron home, then you know that other companies had tried the factory-mass production model.  Gunnison was more successful than Lustron because of the standardized panel system.  While Lustron used interchangeable parts, every house left the factory as a mishmash of parts (on a specially built company truck, no less).  Gunnison stockpiled panel components which could be shipped on a standard truck with much less hassle.  Also, the Gunnison homes looked more traditional and featured more traditional building materials such as.....wood and asphalt shingles.

Gunnison's End
Foster Gunnison sold his controlling interest in his company to U.S. Steel in 1944 while maintaining oversight.  He retired outright in 1953 and U.S. Steel became the sole owner.  U.S. Steel continued to produce panelized, stressed-skin homes until they closed their housing division in 1974.

Three Gunnisons
Interior View of a Gunnison Home
Present-Day Gunnison in Sayreville, NJ.  Thank you to Eric Dietrich (owner/photographer).
Bay window not original.