The new Ohio History Center exhibit 1950s: Building the American Dream features a real porcelain-enameled steel ranch house of the era. Learn more about it in this story from the Ohio History Connection magazine Timeline.
April 1948 was an important month for the Lustron Corporation of Columbus. More than 40 prefabricated model homes made of gleaming porcelain-enameled steel opened for previews in cities all across the U.S.
Roosevelt University’s Douglas Knerr began his article, “Lustron: How an Ohio Company Almost Changed American Housing” in the April 2005 issue of the Ohio History Connection magazine Timeline with that news story.
American veterans returning from WW II battlefields were faced with a critical shortage of affordable housing. Carl G. Strandlund, an executive with Chicago Vitreous Enamel Products, saw an opportunity to use the porcelain-enameled steel panels popular for filling stations to create mass-produced steel houses. He hoped to apply the continuous production lines of the automobile industry to “Fordize” the housing industry and make Columbus, Ohio, “the Detroit of the housing industry.”
Strandlund knew a major investment would be required to achieve the efficiencies necessary for financial success, so he heavily lobbied the federal government for support. The Truman administration saw the potential of his concept and, in 1947, helped him secure a $15.5 million dollar loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a government agency formed to assist industry during the Depression. In addition, Strandlund got the keys to a million-square-foot former Curtiss-Wright plant next to the Columbus airport. It was an unprecedented government venture into the housing industry, but, according to Knerr, that fact actually gave the project greater credibility and notoriety.
It would, however, take more than federal support to encourage American home buyers to invest in a Lustron. Strandlund hired two Chicago architects to create several 1,025-square-foot, two-bedroom, ranch-style prototypes. Consumer appeal came from the homes’ openness and flexibility, and they featured postwar innovations for comfort and convenience, including an efficient heating system and built-in storage in the form of kitchen cabinets, bookshelves, china closet and a bedroom vanity. Certain models also boasted a combination dishwasher-washing machine dubbed the “Automagic.” Structurally, a Lustron house consisted of two-foot-square enameled-steel panels bolted to and covering a steel framework set on a concrete slab. The interior panels were even embossed to resemble wood graining.
In the Factory
Knerr indicated that Lustron staff saw the manufacturing process as if it were a nationwide production line from the arrival of raw materials to the assembly of the house on a lot. A complex integration of materials-handling equipment ensured a steady and smooth flow through the plant’s nearly eight miles of automated conveyors and reduced the need for warehousing. Steel arrived in rolls by road or rail to be fed into continuous shearing, punching and stamping machines. An enameling department used a 14-step process to create the coatings that, in the end, equaled the weight of the steel in a house. A bank of enameling furnaces applied and cured the finishes on the panels at speeds reaching 20 feet per minute. It was a production spectacle that a bedazzled Fortune magazine observer called a “special kind of factory.”
Lustron organized a major marketing campaign in an effort to convince Americans to buy the houses. Ads emphasized the Lustron’s continuity with conventional homes but suggested that durability and superior performance were associated with porcelain-enameled steel. A Lustron was, advertising claimed, a custom-built home that was produced in a factory with high-quality, precision tolerances. The maintenance benefits of porcelain-enameled steel were also highlighted and the liberal use of built-ins and other efficiencies made the home the equal of many more expensive homes.
Concurrent with the unveiling of the series of model homes was a major print and radio ad blitz. Lustron clerical workers were swamped by the letters and telegrams that resulted from a Life magazine ad in 1948, sending them begging for help.
So What Happened?
For all its potential, the Lustron home ran into immediate problems. Not unexpected was difficulty with many local building codes. Banks also were hesitant to give loans for factory-built homes. The company was forced to create its own mortgage lender, another imitation of the auto industry, because traditional lenders feared that factory-built homes would depress property values. About the time that the worst of the housing shortage passed, unexpected factory delays emerged. The final average price tag of $10,500 including lot exceeded many budgets. Additionally, the vagaries of the local building industry made it impossible to establish nationwide uniform pricing.
Federal officials began to lose patience and initiated Congressional hearings that cast suspicion on the enterprise. It exposed the company to political opponents who had criticized the governmental support of an unproven private company during peacetime, especially one that implied a “takeover” of the housing industry. When the Reconstruction Finance Corporation made public Lustron’s inability to cover loan payments, it resulted in a flood of negative publicity. A foreclosure and liquidation sale was held in 1951 and the plant was converted back into defense production for the Korean conflict.
Before the end, nearly 2,500 homes were sold. Many still stand throughout the country, enduring, in the author’s words, “as a small but intriguing part of America’s material heritage.”
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See the Lustron home on exhibit at the Ohio History Center in Columbus. The Ohio History Center museum at I-71 and 17th Avenue (Exit 111) is open five days a week: Wednesdays-Saturdays 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays noon-5 p.m. Ohio History Center museum admission is $10/adult; $9/senior (age 60+); $5/youth (ages 6-12); Free/Ohio History Connection member; Free/child (age 5 and under). The museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Questions about visiting the Ohio History Center? Call 800.686.6124.
Click here for more about the Lustron exhibit and to explore the 1950s via Ohio History Central, our online encyclopedia of Ohio history.