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Heavy Metal: Nancy Danforth Norfleet’s Lustron home on Jermain Street in Albany. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

Once Lustron was the house of the future; now it’s a monument to our automobile-age past

By Erin Sullivan

America’s first truly volume- produced low-cost home is now a reality!

It is the Lustron Home, all steel, inside and out, porcelain enameled for beauty, permanence, low maintenance and long life.

The Lustron Home is built in a factory by the same mass-production, unit-assembly and precision methods that have made the motorcar the greatest industrial achievement and economic benefit of the century. . . . It will bring to you and your family what we call “a new standard for living.”

—Lustron sales pamphlet, circa 1948

Nancy Danforth Norfleet remembers the day in August 1949 when her family moved into their new home at No. 8 Jermain St. in Albany.

“We lived on the other side of Washington Avenue then,” she says. “We actually brought our stuff over in doll carriages and wagons and carts, right across Washington Avenue. We moved in piecemeal.”

Her father, Ben Danforth, a former sportswriter for Albany’s now-defunct Knickerbocker newspaper, had the house built for his young family after looking at a model home on the street constructed by Wilson and Victor Sullivan, prominent real estate developers and principals in the Upstate Construction Corp. The Sullivans developed many of the homes in the Jermain Street area (the neighborhood’s Victor Street, in fact, was named for Victor Sullivan), most of which are simple Cape Cods, ranches or modest colonials. But the house that the Danforths lived in—and seven of its neighboring houses—were somewhat unusual by the building standards of the ’40s. In fact, they’re pretty unusual even by the building standards of today.

At first glance, her house looks like a fairly typical, modest, bungalow home. But upon closer inspection, it’s obvious that there’s an unusual finish on the structure that gives it an odd luster. And the color is a gentle pastel gray. Unlike most of the houses in her neighborhood, Norfleet’s home has neither siding nor clapboard. In fact, not a stick of wood, block of brick or piece of stone went into the construction of the Danforth house. Instead, it was made entirely of steel—inside and out.

“It came in on what I would call a kind of flatbed,” Norfleet remembers. “The pieces came just like you see them: little metal squares and steel girders. And they put them together right on the spot. It was amazing to watch.”

In 1949, the Danforths became one of eight Jermain Street families to invest in a short-lived, conceptual housing trend known as the Lustron home. Conceived by Chicago-based entrepreneur-engineer Carl Strandlund, the Lustron house was designed to be a revolutionary, attractive, permanent and affordable answer to the severe housing shortage facing the United States in the late ’40s, as GIs returned from Europe after World War II, ready to settle down and embrace the American dream.

Strandlund’s original line of work was with a company prepared to build service stations made of prefabricated, porcelain-enameled steel anels. But as the war grew closer to an end, Strandlund honed his business plan and introduced it to Washington. He submitted a proposal to answer the pending housing crisis by using postwar surplus steel. He promised to produce 20,000 homes; he also promised to apply the principles of automobile assembly-line production to the construction of these streamlined houses, thereby reducing the number of man-hours needed to build a house from 1,600 to a mere 350. In 1947, Strandlund easily obtained a $15.5 million federal grant to put his dream into action.

The Lustron houses were sold to homeowners by local dealers, delivered from a main plant in Columbus, Ohio, to construction sites in approximately 3,000 mass-produced, prefabricated pieces. The houses were quickly erected on a concrete slab by a team of men who bolted, welded and screwed the pieces together.

“We nearly got laughed out of school, my sister and I,” Norfleet says. “They said if you forgot your house keys, you could use a can opener to get into the house! And people didn’t think they would last or catch on—a metal house?”

Your dealer will announce the price of the erected home when the houses are ready for delivery. The price will include the foundation and the erection of the home. Site improvement and the extension of sewer, water, and other utilities are extra, varying as they do with each lot. Mass production and speedy erection make it possible to deliver the Lustron Home at a price never before available for quality houses in this class.”

But the Lustrons did catch on—at least for a little while. Strandlund’s company assembled more than 2,500 of the houses up and down the East Coast, Midwest and South.

“I know they never got west of the Rocky Mountains because they were trying to figure out how to get them out there,” says Glenn Gibbs, town planner for Ipswich, Mass. “But they never figured it out before they went under.”

Several years ago, Gibbs, who grew up in a Lustron in Amsterdam, conducted his own research project on the company that built the house he grew up in; he was even invited to take part in a tour of the Capital Region’s “commercial antiquities” in the late ’80s. The group was interested in the undersung artifacts of the U.S. automobile-age culture: old diners, roadside motels, early McDonald’s restaurants. And Lustron homes.

“The stop on the tour that seemed to excite more people than anything else was the cluster of Lustrons on Jermain Street,” Gibbs recalls.

Norfleet recalls that day, too: “They stopped by to take pictures,” she says. “And I remember someone looking at the houses and saying, ‘This group may one day qualify as a historic district.’”

That hasn’t happened yet.

Lustrons are a rare species, and in fact, many people (historians included) know little to nothing about the odd-looking, pastel-colored structures that pop up in clusters in some of the strangest places. In addition to the cluster of five remaining Lustrons on Jermain Street, there are three others scattered around Albany, at least half a dozen in the Colonie/Loudonville area, five in Amsterdam, and several in Scotia, East Greenbush and Rexford.

In fact, the lack of awareness about this rather unique house is somewhat troublesome to lovers of the Lustron: Only about 2,500 of the houses were constructed in the entire country in the first place, and now their numbers are shrinking, as many are demolished to make way for larger, more modern houses. For example, once there were 42 Lustron houses in Connecticut; today, only 16 are still standing.

And those that remain often don’t fare much better, in terms of maintenance. In Norfleet’s neighborhood, for example, three of the original Lustrons were displaced to make way for construction of Route 85, Albany’s crosstown arterial. One of the houses was moved to a nearby street, but neglect has taken a toll on the structure. Meanwhile, the owner of one of the remaining houses on the street has given his a complete face-lift: Aluminum siding on the outside, sheetrock walls on the inside. Others Lustron homes in the Capital Region and beyond maintain some of their original character, but their charm has faded into a background of overgrown lawns, lackluster steel panels dulled by acid rain, and weed-choked walkways.

“People are covering them with vinyl siding, which is beyond belief,” says Tony Opalka of the New York state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Opalka says that although a number of other states, such as Ohio, Illinois and Kansas, have gone out of their way to preserve their Lustron homes, there is no concerted effort in New York right now to recognize or protect them. “One of my colleagues thinks that maybe there’s a group in the Ithaca area that’s interested in getting some kind of national-register nomination developed for them,” he says. “But we haven’t officially heard of it yet.”

“It seems to me these houses deserve recognition.” Gibbs comments.

Fortunately for the Lustrons, they were built to last—unlike Strandlund’s ill-fated company, which went bankrupt in 1950, amid rumors of financial impropriety and suspicious connections to government officials (the company never did come close to meeting its promised maximum output of 17,000 per year). Because they were made completely of steel, the houses are incredibly durable, virtually rustproof, fireproof, rodent proof and termite proof.

Ron Allen, a Lustron owner living in Loudonville, points out that the sliding doors of his Lustron house still slide smoothly on their tracks, and he says that when he was doing some renovation to the interior of his house, it took him nearly a week to take a single wall down: “The house is almost indestructible,” he says.

Though all of the remaining ones are at least half a century old, many Lustrons still look much as they did when they were first built: interior and exterior shiny, steel-panel walls with a porcelain-enamel finish, sliding metal pocket doors and all. And fortunately for posterity, there is a small but dedicated cadre of enthusiasts who promise to keep at least some of the quirky homes intact. Norfleet and her family can be counted among the loyal: She and her son now own two of the Jermain Street homes. She lives in one, and her daughter lives in the other.

“I inherited from my parents that one [across the street] and this one,” she says. “I kept both going until my kids went to college. When the last kid graduated from college, nobody wanted to see the house go to anyone else, so my son bought it. I love them, as you can tell.”

Visualize the way the sun’s rays heat the surface of the earth. The same principle is used in Lustron’s radiant panel heating system. It is the latest development in modern heating engineering. Hot air from the overhead furnace unit is forced into a chamber above the ceiling. Heat rays radiate downward from the ceiling panels, heating the floor-to-ceiling area evenly. There are no uncomfortable air currents carrying dirt and soot through the house. The automatic heating plant is economical to operate.

Chances are, you’ve probably never been inside a Lustron home. But in 1948, the Lustron was a dream house for Middle America.

The average model was a 1,000-square-foot, single-story, two- or three-bedroom home with a pitched roof, picture windows and a small, enclosed porch. There was a ton of built-in storage space: little sliding-door closets tucked above doorways, bookcases in the living area and a generous utility room right off the kitchen—and a couple of seemingly extravagant extras that made the houses seem ultra-modern, even a little luxurious for first-time homeowners. Deluxe models came with several pieces of standard, built-in furniture, including an all-steel walk-through buffet between the kitchen and dining area and a china cabinet in the living room.

“This was what sold my mother on the house,” notes Norfleet, as she shows off a recessed, retro-looking structure, complete with three-panel mirror, built into one of her bedroom walls. “A built-in vanity—that was the selling point.”

The houses also came complete with modern conveniences that most post-WWII housewives had never even imagined. Take, for example, the combination dishwasher/washing machine, a standard feature that sounded exotic and exciting—a practical, “house of the future” touch—but wasn’t really all it was cracked up to be. Many of the combo appliances broke after a year or two of use, and in most Lustron homes left standing today, you’ll no longer find the clunky (by today’s standards, at least) appliances in place between the refrigerator and stove.

“Unfortunately, my mother never used it,” Norfleet comments. “It was too easy to just use it as a washing machine.”

The houses were modern, novel and, best of all, extremely low-maintenance.

“My mother used to wax that one over there with car wax,” laughs Norfleet, pointing to a squat, rectangular little Lustron across the street from the one she lives in now. “The only place you ever had to paint was the trim of the windows. . . . It was great because I raised all my kids in the house. And all I ever had to do was wash all my stuff with Spic and Span.”

When Allen first bought his Lustron in 1994, he says he wasn’t sold on it right away: “After I bought it, I was sleeping in bed one night, and I bumped my arm against the wall,” he says. “There was this hollow sound, and I thought, ‘Oh this was a mistake.’ I felt like I was living in a tin can.” However, he says, he has found that the “original selling point” of the Lustron still holds true: “The original Lustron home requires almost no maintenance,” he says. “And there has been zero maintenance on it. . . . It is nice, because I don’t have to worry about anything structurally. I’ve heard this neighborhood is prone to termites. I don’t have to worry.”

The colors for the Lustron Home have been chosen by leading designers and color experts. Interior colors are designed to make furnishing and decorating easy. Neutral shades permit the widest possible variation in choice of draperies, rugs, and individual decorating schemes. Permanent finishes cut down maintenance cost. Exterior colors are distinctive and lend a feeling of quality and permanence.

The Lustron was marketed in the late ’40s as “A New Standard for Living.” Ads for the houses proclaimed that “if you make $50 to $60 a week, you can afford a home.”

“I think the Lustron is important because it represents the adaptation of modern technology to the age-old problem of providing sound, affordable housing,” says Elizabeth Rosin of Historic Preservation Services in Kansas City, Mo. Rosin worked on a comprehensive Lustron research project commissioned by the Kansas State Historical Society in the mid-’90s. The project documented more than 90 Lustron houses still standing in Kansas; the project also managed to put forth a multiple-property submission for recognition on the National Register of Historic Places, and obtained 15 nominations for individual structures for recognition as historic sites.

Rosin’s research included examination of Senate hearings on the eventual foreclosure of the Lustron Corp., scrutiny of the information available in the Lustron collection of the Ohio State Historical Society, and oral interviews with original Lustron owners, dealers and builders. Rosin says that they found that the people who first commissioned the construction of Lustron homes were typically young couples with one or two children. Many were GIs returning from the war, and “all were intrigued by the all-steel concept.”

“They took a risk,” she says, “especially because the houses were often difficult to sell later because they were so different. But, while they were all steel, the design of the Lustron was very traditional. It was a Minimal Traditional form—sort of post-Tudor—rather than a ranch, which dominated new residential construction in the mid-’50s.”

To Rosin, the Lustrons represent what was unique and forward-looking about the time period in which they were built. They represent the hopeful and futuristic values of the postwar generation.

“The post-WWII era was really wonderful in the way it coupled everything new and modern with very traditional family values,” Rosin says. “Someone recently described the ’50s as the 1890s with plastic!”

The Lustron homes also are a testament to another federal corporate-welfare project gone bad. When the Lustron Corp. finally went down, critics jeered and hammered Strandlund, and the experiment with the homes of the future was deemed a colossal failure. In 1949, when Congress conducted an inquiry into Reconstruction Finance Corporation’s subsidizing of Lustron, Stag magazine ran a scathing story on the “government-sponsored housing failure.”

The story criticized the government for making Lustron the “darling” of prefabricated housing and playing “Santa Claus for a project of highly questionable return.” It even took potshots at the houses themselves, still considered more than a little odd in the world of stick-built homes.

“It is a rather unusual looking house,” the magazine quoted Arkansas Sen. William Fulbright as saying. “I have only seen one of them but it sort of reminds you of a bathtub. As a matter of taste, I wonder if people like the thing.”

Harvey Gunderson, director of the RFC at the time, noted: “I think there is merit to your statement. I think some of them that are yellow and blue look pretty much like hot-dog stands.”

Incidentally, we’re proud of our dealers. Through a very careful screening system we are rapidly setting up a nationwide dealer network. If a dealer has not yet been appointed in your area, we ask you to bear with us until we can expand our dealer organization into your locality.

‘I can remember as a kid, my friends used to make fun of me for living in a tin can,” recalls Glenn Gibbs. “I can remember that it was easy to hang things on the walls because we would just use magnets. And I remember thinking as a kid how strange it was that people lived in wooden houses.”

Vanity, they name is Lustron: The built-in vanity in Norfleet’s home. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

Gibbs says his parents weren’t immediately sold on the Lustron, but once they made up their minds to purchase one, they bought the concept whole hog. And his father still lives in that same Lustron house to this day.

“My mother and father, they were both veterans,” Gibbs says. “They got married right after the war when Lustron homes were starting to be built. My mother said to my father, ‘Gee, why don’t we consider that?’ He laughed her off. Wasn’t interested. Then he was on a ship in the Merchant Marines, and he started to think about it. He looked around the ship: Everything was metal, there was minimal maintenance.”

So they built their Lustron home, which Gibbs says has never been painted to this day. The only significant change made to the house, he says, is an addition constructed in the mid-’70s.

“My father wanted it to be in keeping with what was already there, so he ordered the identical ceramic-porcelain enamel from a company in Texas,” Gibbs says. “What’s different is with a Lustron house, everything is steel. In the addition, the interior is wood. The exterior looks identical to the rest of the building.”

Likewise, Norfleet’s house is fairly true to its original state: The interior, steel squares that make up the walls are in impeccable shape, the metal pocket doors slide smoothly on their hinges, the shiny buffet is still in place between the dining area and the kitchen. The house is still heated using the original radiant-heat panels in the ceiling. The house is a true monument to the longevity—and practicality—of the Lustron model.

“Anybody that comes in here, they say it’s cold to them,” Norfleet comments. “But not me. I love it. My daughter put wood [molding] in hers to make it more homey. Me? I don’t even want it. The history is in what you’re looking at. I think it’s just perfect.”

For additional information and images of Lustron homes, visit http://home.earthlink.net/~ronusny/


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