The Lustron Life
Heavy metal housing in Ann Arbor
by John C. Heider
From the January, 2016 issue
It's the first thing visitors ask: "What's it like during a thunderstorm? The lightning! Will you get fried in here?"
"Here" is my all-steel Lustron home. There's not an ounce of the usual home-building materials inside or out: no wood, no brick. Hence the concern about lightning strikes: metal, last time we looked, is pretty good at transferring bolts of lightning to the unsuspecting homeowner. I tell Lustron newbies that I've just learned not to touch the walls during storms, leaving out the boring detail about the copper wire that runs from the roof's peak to ground safely away from the home.
Scaring visitors with tales of potential electrocution is just part of the fun of owning one of the few remaining Lustron houses in the United States. The Lustron Company, based in Columbus, built about 2,500 of these homes between 1948 and 1950. They were meant to fill the housing needs of the GIs returning from World War II in a simple, inexpensive way, giving their owners a practical, maintenance-free home for about $10,000. In addition to its all-metal, mass-production construction, the Lustron had radiant heat, built-in storage cabinets in its bedrooms, sliding "pocket doors" that disappeared into walls, and a combination laundry and dishwasher system called the Thor.
Lustrons, most of which were two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot models, were manufactured and partially assembled in a former Curtiss-Wright aircraft manufacturing plant in Columbus. Wall sections were pre-wired and plumbed, and then the entire house--interior and exterior walls, ceiling panels, roof trusses, and metal shingles, along with thousands of nuts and bolts to hold them all together--was loaded on a single tractor-trailer and driven to its destination.
Mine showed up on the northwest corner of Chandler and Amherst in Lower Town in 1949. Placed on a concrete slab, it was bolted together piece-by-thousand-piece; it typically took a crew of four about a week to put one up. I bought it in 2013 for $110,000--probably the most a Lustron's gone for in recent
years, but then again, this is Ann Arbor.
Lustrons, even when only casually cared for, are ridiculously durable domiciles. I've spent next to nothing on major maintenance, because every exterior and interior surface is porcelain enamel-clad steel. It's similar to the paint finish on your car's metal surface: tough stuff. Certain areas of my Lustron are not spotless; after more than six decades, there's been some wear and tear and rust. It happens. And that's where a wire brush, sandpaper, and some durable oil-based paints come in handy. But for the most part my Lustron is just as it was when it was assembled.
There are an estimated 1,600 Lustrons left. Ann Arbor has eight of them scattered around the city. (One, on Longshore Dr., burned down in the mid-1990s. Though it seems incredible that a steel home can succumb to fire, the owner was a hoarder who had piled up enough newspapers to melt metal.)
The little steel homes are usually well known in their Tree Town neighborhoods for their square, shiny exterior panels that measure two feet by two feet. Some older fans remark that the exterior panels remind them of Standard Oil gas stations. They are right on the money: in the 1930s, Lustron inventor Carl Strandlund manufactured prefabricated gas stations using the same iconic steel panels.
What you get inside your Lustron is the same as you get with its exterior: metal fixtures and surfaces as far as the eye can see, from the "tripartite" aluminum casement windows and rib-textured interior walls to the sliding pocket doors, above-closet storage cabinets, built-in living room bookcase, built-in bedroom vanity, and kitchen "pass-through" china case. Trust me, it makes for a lot of fun in the cold, dry winter months as you move about and attempt to avoid static electricity shocks by not touching any surface.
While normal homeowners get to repaint their homes' exteriors and interiors, Lustron owners get to break out a bucket of warm sudsy water and mop their ceilings and sponge down their walls. Moisture and dust can accumulate there over the hot and humid summer months. Though a neighbor says she used to regularly see a crew wax my home's exterior, I haven't had to break out the Turtle Wax and buff up my home yet.
According to Thomas Fetters' 2002 book The Lustron Home, more of Strandlund's steel castles were sold in Ann Arbor than in any other Michigan city. In a 1989 "Then & Now" article, Grace Shackman credited their success here to local franchisee Neil Staebler, a visionary local businessman and Democratic Party activist. However, neighborhood opposition to the metal homes was so strong--Staebler called it "a hornet's nest"--that he switched to more conventional wooden prefabs even before Strandlund's company went bankrupt in 1950.
I like to think that Lustron owners, like our homes, are unique and ahead of our times. Lustrons certainly are innovative in both form and function. And I've grown to love the tons of sixty-five-year-old steel safely surrounding my head.
Wait! Is that thunder I hear?
[Originally published in January, 2016.]
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