After World War II ended in August 1945, some 7.6 million U.S. soldiers began coming home from overseas assignments, eager to return to the civilian workforce and eager to marry, start a family, and buy a house. Unfortunately, the post-war period in the U.S. was marked by a major housing shortage. For several years, new home starts had been put on hold while all available resources were channeled into the war effort.
Dubuque residents couldn’t miss the full-page Highland Construction Co. advertisement in the April 10, 1949, edition of the Telegraph Herald. “Here is the good news,” the ad said. “We are now ready to accept orders in this community for the famous Lustron Home, the new, low-cost, porcelain enameled steel house that brings you the efficiencies and economics of America’s genius for volume production. All you need to buy is your own cooking stove, refrigerator, and, of course, your own furnishings.”
The Lustron home concept was the brainchild of Chicago industrialist Carl Strandlund. In 1947, in order to address the housing crisis, he founded the Lustron Corporation to produce prefabricated, porcelain-coated steel homes that could be trucked and assembled anywhere in the U.S. Strandlund boasted, “We can have homes like Lustrons because of the perfection of steel and the engineering genius which has produced enamel which lends itself to beautiful architecture and lifetime durability.”
Strandlund had a good track record. His Chicago Vitreous Enamel Corporation had successfully built several prefabricated, porcelain steel gas stations for Standard Oil along with several restaurants for hamburger giant White Castle. The government’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation was so confident that Lustron would be successful in mass-producing prefabricated homes, they granted Strandlund a multi-million dollar loan.
Lustron began producing prefab homes in 1948 in the abandoned Curtis-Wright warplane factory in Columbus, OH. The 23-acre factory had some eight miles of automated conveyor lines, 11 enameling furnaces, and several sheet-metal presses to stamp out tubs, sinks, and other fixtures. Each house required 10-12 tons of steel and one ton of enamel.
The company offered four models with a choice of two or three-bedrooms. The homes were available in four appealing exterior colors – surf blue, maize yellow, desert tan, and dove gray. The two-bedroom, 1,021-square-foot, Westchester Deluxe soon became the most popular model.
A special Westchester display home with the signature corner recessed front porch was quickly assembled on Dubuque’s South Grandview Ave., fully furnished and equipped by local Roshek Brothers department store. The home was open seven days a week – even on Sundays – to attract as many potential homebuyers as possible.
All-metal Lustron homes cost the homeowner an average of $10,500 – some 25% less than a conventionally built wood, plaster, and asphalt shingle home. Each Lustron home contained more than 3,300 parts which the company claimed could be transported to any location and assembled by experienced workers on a concrete foundation in just two weeks.
Lustron homes were fireproof, termite proof, and decay and rust resistant. They boasted a permanent, enameled metal roof fashioned to look like a traditional shingle roof, but unlike asphalt shingles, the enamel roof never needed replacing. The enameled exterior siding panels and metal interior walls were guaranteed not to stain or fade and never needed painting – only an occasional washing. One of the easily identifiable features of a Lustron home was the zigzag, combination downspout and trellis on the homes’ front and rear corners.
Lustron interiors came completely equipped with kitchen and bathroom fixtures, cabinets, built-in shelves, pocket doors, heating and hot water systems, a mirrored alcove in the master bedroom, and even a combination dish and clothes washer. Lustron home ads were written to appeal to women. One ad said, “Women will appreciate the many features that make this ‘the home of cheerful convenience.’ Eight big storage closets – twice the storage space of a comparable conventional house. Radiant heating eliminates radiators and grilles. Choice of charming pastel colors, chosen by leading decorators.” What woman could resist this sales pitch?
By 1949, the Lustron Corporation counted 234 dealers in 35 states – including Dubuque’s Highland Construction Co., Inc. with an office at 122 W. 13th St. Sales were strong, although Lustron met with some stiff challenges when local building codes prohibited homes with steel chimneys and slightly lower than average ceilings.
On May 2, 1949, Dubuque’s Mayor Albert Wharton appointed a special committee to devise and present an updated and more inclusive building code to the City Council in response to several requests for Lustron home building permits. Six months later, the Dubuque City Council had a new building code, and city officials approved three petitions requesting building permits for Lustron homes.
Regina Gilmore was granted a permit to build a house on Lots 32 and 33 of Cooper Heights. Mrs. Bernice Noel received a permit to erect a home on her lot in the 800 block of W. Locust, and Albert and Betty Ujlaky were granted permission to build a home in the “new John Deere area in West Dubuque.” Soon, the city of Dubuque was home to four Lustron houses.
Just months after Lustron homes began appearing in Dubuque, disaster hit the company. Lustron had produced just 2,498 of the 45,000 houses they had promised when a Senate banking subcommittee uncovered a major corruption scandal within the Lustron Corporation. The company’s loans were recalled, and Lustron was forced to declare bankruptcy. Production of the popular, pre-fabricated homes stopped suddenly on June 6, 1950.
The largest number of Lustrons assembled in one area was in Quantico, VA, where some 60 homes were installed at the U.S. Marine Corps military base. The homes were remodeled in the 1980s, but by 2006, it was decided the homes were too small for most families, and they were slated to be eliminated from base housing. Fifty-eight Lustrons were offered “for free” – with an application and $8,000 deposit. Only one person took advantage of the offer, disassembled a home, and moved it to Delaware. Fifty-seven Quantico Lustrons were demolished in 2006 and 2007. Quantico currently has two remaining Lustrons that are used as maintenance buildings.
Today, only about 1500 Lustron homes survive in thirty-six states. Many Lustron homes now have additions, updated kitchens, vinyl windows, composite roofs, new heating systems, sheet rock interior walls, painted exteriors, and even siding covering the enamel panels. Unfortunately, while some Lustron homes have been dismantled, relocated, and reassembled, and some have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, many other Lustron homes have been demolished.
Fortunately, the four original Lustron homes built in Dubuque in the late 1940s have survived. Homes located on Avalon Rd., Cooper Place, and the model home on S. Grandview Ave. represent the traditionally oriented Westchester model. The home located on W. Locust is also a Westchester, although it is set sideways on a narrow lot, and the recessed porch has been enclosed.
Carl Strandlund’s historic Lustron homes may be slowly disappearing from the United States housing market, but it looks like the four homes built in Dubuque are here to stay.