At the height of the pandemic in 2020, I had the opportunity to purchase a home that many people would have overlooked. It was an odd home. It was built in 1950 and is basically an all-steel house. All steel? Well, almost. Let me first give you a little bit of history.
After World War II there was a severe housing shortage. Soldiers were returning to the states but there weren’t enough homes available. If you think about it, during the war almost all resources were diverted to the effort for the war. Any able-bodied man was fighting in the war. New construction? Well, that pretty much ground to a halt for several years. Not to mention that one of the first things that soldiers wanted to do on leave or after returning from war was kiss their wives…and things progressed from there. You may have heard about Baby Boomers.
With this housing shortage there were many ideas being floated around. One man was looking at acquiring steel to build all steel gas stations. He was told that the government’s focus was on housing. He then saw an opportunity and quickly pitched an idea for an all-steel home. His name was Carl Strandlund.
The homes were not going to be just all-steel, they would be enameled steel. That’s the same type of steel and finish that your appliances have.
Relying heavily on secured government funding for start-up costs, the new company—called Lustron—acquired the use of airport hangar in Ohio to create a massive automated assembly line of parts to build steel homes. The assembly line stretched for several miles.
Strandlund had been working at building all steel hamburger stands (White Castle) and all steel gas stations. To make this project successful he pulled in numerous architects and designers. They worked to create a massive distribution center east of the Rockies.
The first few homes were custom. They were put on display at various locations and had tens of thousands of visitors! Yes, it was amazing! They were considered homes of the future. The all-steel design made for minimal maintenance—designed to create a life of ease for returning soldiers. Ever notice how you don’t need to paint your refrigerator? Well, that was the idea with the homes.
To save space inside, all Lustron homes had pocket doors. Pocket doors are not used often but save a tremendous amount of space. Most Lustron home models had numerous built-ins—pantries, desks, dressers—all designed to free up space in the relatively small homes. They were also considered the first homes designed for people with disabilities—veterans returning from the war.
After some trial and error in figuring out the shipping (which was quite costly), the homes were shipped on a special truck and were designed to be built on site within a few days to two weeks (with the foundation being built on-site already). They all had detailed manuals for assembly of the 3,000 parts.
The company was very meticulous. They tried to make the homes well-built and affordable. One internal discussion involved the steel support beams located in the center of the house. One executive thought it was ridiculous to use enameled steel when the beams would not be exposed to the elements. He was voted down. Everything would be enameled steel. Well, almost everything.
Insulation in between the steel panels was R-19. For 1950 that was very impressive. All the windows were made of strong extruded aluminum frames. They were all casement windows (manufactured by Reynolds Aluminum—you may have heard of the company—or wrapped a baked potato in their aluminum foil).
Interestingly, as far as the plumbing, all of it was copper. Copper is considered better than steel for plumbing—so copper was used.
The steel panels for the outside of the home were made of 20-gauge steel. Basically, strong enough for plenty of wear and tear. Many sinks are built with 20-gauge steel (though 18-guage is a little more durable for a sink). The home was designed to never need painting.
The heating system in most models had a unique design. It had a system that would heat the ceiling tiles (which also were steel) and the heat would radiate down into the house. This system was way ahead of its time…but by most reports it didn’t work well in cold weather areas. One of the last models built, the Lustron Newport (which I have), was built with a gas forced-air furnace.
When completed, the homes were nearly indestructible. Each home weighs approximately 12 tons. They were designed to be fire proof and lightning proof.
The layout of each home was well-thought out. It was efficient and maximized the use of space. The windows were large to allow plenty of natural light.
If you are thinking that these homes were amazing, well they were. In Rapid City there are three Lustron homes. Each has the original enameled steel roof. Our semi-arid climate is pretty much ideal for Lustron homes.
Sadly, by 1950 politics and finances collided. Lustron owed the government lots of money…and suddenly they wanted the money back. Homes could not be produced as fast as they needed to be, even though the factory could create a little over 20 homes a day—they needed to produce significantly more to avoid bankruptcy.
At one point, Lustron had over 20,000 people wanting to buy homes. With government pressure that some people believe was political and went all the way up to the White House, Lustron was forced to file bankruptcy. It was sold for pennies on the dollar.
When an oil CEO was appointed to resume manufacturing at Lustron (after all staff had been let go), he looked at the miles of massive equipment and reportedly said something like, “So that’s where all the money went.”
At the time of its demise, Lustron had manufactured only 2,498 homes.
There are various estimates of how many Lustron homes exist today—ranging from 1,500 to 2,000. My home, a two-bedroom Lustron Newport, is one of only 24 Newports ever manufactured (there are less than 20 remaining). It is also the only one of its kind in South Dakota. As a result of its uniqueness and contribution to history, it is on the National Register for Historic Places as the Cassidy House.
There is a museum in Columbus, Ohio (the Ohio History Connection) that has an entire Lustron home inside it and is a wealth of knowledge about Lustron houses.
With today’s housing shortage, I often wonder if this type of innovation is what is needed to fix the housing shortage.