As the numerous companies chasing the idea of affordable mass-manufactured housing suggests, the dream of prefab homes still attracts innovators, bold ideas, and creative design. But right after WWII, a Chicago businessman fashioned his home of the future from wartime technologies and an old airplane factory, creating a line of ceramic-and-steel prefabs called Lustron Homes that are still used by hundreds of homeowners nationwide. Photographer Charles Mintz, who just recently released a book, Lustron Stories, that tells the stories of modern owners of these midcentury oddities, argues that this unorthodox design may have realized the prefab dream decades ago.
“When you think about prefab modern homes, you often think of East German apartment buildings,” says Mintz, who has been working on the project since 2011. “Here you have a stunning example of how it actually worked.”
Lustron was the brainchild of Carl Strandlund, an industrialist and inventor with the Chicago Vitreous Enamel Corporation who had previously worked on buildingprefab gas stations. To fulfill his goal of creating homes that would “defy weather, wear, and time,” just as the postwar housing boom was reaching a boil, he took over an old airplane manufacturing plant in Columbus, Ohio, and in 1947, began cranking out prefab home that could be shipped and assembled across the country. With built-in shelves and pre-installed appliances, these dwellings, ranging from about 700 to 1,140 square feet, were symbols of modern living, delivered as a kit of more than 3,000 pieces on the backs of specially outfitted trucks.
Lustron homes, designed in a handful of styles by Chicago architect Morris Beckman, came with plenty of quirks and futuristic touches. Heated by means of a radiant heating system in the ceiling, they featured sleek exteriors steel walls with baked-on porcelain enamel finishes that were nearly impossible to drill through, requiring homeowners to hang shelving and artwork via magnets (long-lasting and durable, they could also be cleaned with a quick wash and wax). A combination clothes washer and dishwasher came pre-installed in every unit, though that didn’t always work out well.
“On one hand, it was brilliant, and on the other hand, it was a completely ridiculous idea,” says Mintz. “Take your underwear out and then put your plates in; I don’t know
Mintz was drawn to photographing the homes and their owners after seeing old Lustron advertisements which reflected the tenor and times they were manufactured, filled with ‘50s stereotypes. Since many of the roughly 2,500 built are still in use—some are listed on the Lustron Locator preservation site—Mintz decided to interview current owners, delving into the durability of these homes, and how the diverse crowd of current Lustron homeowners contrasts with the midcentury advertising used to promote these homes to the masses.
Mintz found that despite the home’s advanced age, owners loved the eccentricities that come from living inside a “home of the future” from the the ‘50s. They adapted to their “steel Jetsons homes,” and proved Standlund’s designs offered space and the flexibility to customize. Many owners played up the midcentury themes. A St. Louis film critic spoke of cranking up Sinatra on the stereo inside his Lustron and sipping martinis amid period decor.
But Mintz also discovered that the Lustron Company, despite the relatively small, boxy frames and potentially kitschy connotations of its product, was ahead of its time. The enterprise abruptly closed in the 1950, victim of a one-two punch of rising steel prices, due to the Korean War and a loss of government funding (Strandlund received most of his capital from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation).
But as the hundreds of remaining Lustron units suggest, the steel frames and unique panelized walls proved both durable and long-lasting The company was also able to deliver entire prefab dwellings in the pre-interstate highway era, a huge handicap, especially in light of the ways contemporary prefab builders depend on modern transportation networks to make deliveries.
“Lustron was brilliant in some ways, and clearly ahead of its time in others,” says Mintz. “You could argue there’s a huge opportunity now for these types of homes.”