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A past home of the future

GAYS MILLS - On a day trip to Lacrosse late last winter with my friend Hans, he casually pointed out a small house as we drove past it on the south side of town.  

“There’s one of those Lustron homes” Hans remarked. That’s the first I had heard of such a structure. Hans filled me in on the background of these humble and forward-looking (at the time) buildings.

In the years after WWII, there was a shortage of housing for some 2.9 million  returning married veterans and their growing families, the kids soon to be known as baby boomers. People were ready for peace, ready to settle down and raise families, ready to participate in the anticipated post-war boom times—but they needed housing.

Chicago-area Swedish immigrant and inventor Carl Strandlund hatched an idea for modest, affordable housing to fill the huge need. He had been in the business of selling prefab metal buildings used as gas stations. The steel shortage after the war put the kibosh on that business, but steel was available for house construction. He created a house made with a steel frame and sheathed, inside and out, with porcelain coated steel panels. He formed the Lustron Company and with the help of government loans, began building the components of houses in the former Curtiss-Wright aircraft plant in Columbus, Ohio.

The venture was short lived and didn’t really thrive for a variety of reasons. Mainly the financing hit a snag when Congress balked at loaning money to a private business, something that hadn’t been done before. Between 1948 and 1950, though, some 2680 Lustron homes were built and shipped to 35 states, mostly in the Midwest and northeast. Earlier in the century, Montgomery Ward and Sears had offered housing kits that included all the materials needed to build a house, but the Lustron home concept was different. 

Lustron homes arrived by truck, all of the factory-made components, 3300 of them, in one load on a special trailer. The houses were then built by the owners or local contractors on site on a concrete slab, following directions in a construction manual. That must have been quite a book.

Lustron homes were innovative and unique. They were the forerunner of prefab homes that have since become very popular. Lustrons were available in three styles and four colors. All houses were one-story and consisted of between 713 and 1400 square feet of living space. They cost between $8500 and $9500. They were low maintenance and efficient, snug and convenient. They were billed as fireproof, vermin proof, lightning and rust proof. They never needed to be painted. The baked on enamel was like you see on washers and dryers. They also had metal roofs that, theoretically, would last forever. Factory brochures stated that the houses “defy weather, wear, and time.”

About two thirds of the Lustron homes survive. About 20 of the homes are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. There are many computer websites that give information and pictures of this interesting part of American history.