Story Of Lustron Homes
by Judy Reickert
"During World War II, Kilroy*
When the war ended in the European
and Pacific theaters, Kilroy came back here, rarin to marry
the girl hed left behind, buy a home, start a family and participate
in the post-war American dream of the late 1940s. But realizing
that dreams domestic interludes wasnt a simple proposition.
The G.I.s mass return stateside compounded a residential housing
shortage that had plagued the home front throughout the war years.
During the war, huge portions of the nations population had
crowded into urban areas whose manufacturing centers had retooled
and geared up to produce the ships, planes and armaments that powered
the war effort. With the wars end, the human tide that had
flooded the nations cities showed no indication of subsiding...and
the vets were headed home.
Enter Carl Strandlund, a Chicago-based entrepreneur representing
a manufacturing firm with post-war plans to fabricate porcelain-enameled
cold-rolled steel panels for the construction of pre-fabricated
As the war came to an end, Strandlund traveled to Washington to
investigate the availability of post-war surplus steel, said
Nathalie Wright, of the Ohio Historic Preservation Office in Columbus.
Strandlund learned that, despite the impending end of the
countrys wartime industrial mobilization, a ready supply of
surplus steel for building gas stations was far from a sure thing.
However, he did return from his Washington mission with one
clear and valuable message: that the timely construction of attractive,
permanent, affordable housing for the returning G.I. and his new
family ranked among Washingtons highest post-war domestic
Heeding that message, Strandlund translated the pedestrian principles
of pre-fabricated steel panel construction developed for commercial
construction into an exciting consumer crusade he believed capable
of solving the countrys burgeoning residential housing crisis.
Thus arrived the glorious, albeit short-lived, heyday of the Lustron
Leasing space in a former Navy airplane plant in Columbus, Ohio,
from the federal government, Strandlunds Lustron Corporation
based production of its all-steel panelized prefabricated homes
on the assembly-line methods of the automobile industry. Preparing
to swing into production, Strandlund secured a $15.5 million federal
loan in 1947, and additional loans of $10 million and $7 million
from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 48 and 49.
The initial Lustron Home, a two-bedroom, one-bath, 1000-square-foot
unit, was a critical success with an efficient 31-by-35-foot floor
plan and space-saving built-ins in every room. All interior and
exterior surfaces were porcelain-enameled metal, from the roof,
gutters and down drains to the master bedrooms built-in vanity.
The colors for the Lustron Home have been chosen by leading
designers and color experts, an early promotional brochure
proclaimed. Interior colors are designed to make furnishing
and decorating easy. Permanent finishes cut down maintenance costs.
Exterior colors are distinctive and lend a feeling of quality and
Although Strandlund didnt live in a Lustron himself,
one was erected on the grounds of his Columbus estate, Wright
noted. However, he strongly encouraged his management staff to personally
experience the advantages of the Lustron life by choosing to live
in Lustron homes.
Those advantages, according to Lustron
marketing materials, included:
Low upkeep: No painting or redecorating - just use soap and water
to keep it clean.
Radiant panel heating: This latest of heating systems maintains
constant temperature throughout the home. The absence of air currents
carrying dust and soot makes the house easy to keep clean.
Picture Frame Windows: Large picture
windows in bedrooms, living room, and dining room provide excellent
views and good lighting. One-level Floor Plan: The convenience of
one-floor living - no stairs to climb. With the combination dishwasher-clotheswasher-sink,
furnace and ample storage space on the first floor, you do not need
Built-in Features: Every inch of
space is utilized. Built-in dishwasher-clotheswasher-sink, bookcase
and china cabinets, seven large closets, vanity in master bedroom,
sliding doors, overhead storage cabinets, kitchen ventilating fan
and many other features are included.
Between 1946 and 1948, Lustron received
orders for 20,000 homes through its nationwide dealership network,
a testimony to the effectiveness of the companys thoroughly
modern advertising campaign...and to the scarcity of conventional,
single-family housing in many markets.
Only 2,498 of those orders were filled before the Lustron Corporation
declared bankruptcy in 1950.
With the financial support of the federal government and a well-designed,
critically-acclaimed product that enjoyed a high degree of public
acceptance in a susceptible marketplace, how did Lustron snatch
defeat from the jaws of victory after fewer than four years of operation?
Opinions vary, but Lustrons slowness to equip its plant and
actually initiate production have been cited most frequently. An
inadequate or erratic steel supply may have been partially responsible
for the firms demise. Marketing experts contend Lustron failed
to establish an effective national distribution system to handle
its high-volume sales. The construction trades may have worked against
the success of a nationally-distributed prefabricated, all-steel
house. Residential building codes in some municipalities may have
discouraged or banned the erection of prefabricated residential
Ultimately, the Lustrons price may have been the deciding
issue. In a prefabricated housing market with average prices ranging
from $5,500 to $8,500 (excluding land), the two-bedroom Lustron
Home model cost $10,000 to $12,000.
In an end-run strategy to address Lustrons price position
dilemma, an updated Lustron product brochure, probably published
in 1949 or 50 and costing 35-cents, included a special
section by Senator Joe McCarthy explaining government (financial)
aids - FHA and G.I. loans - to prospective homeowners.
The Lustron Corporations brief production period notwithstanding,
the homes produced by the ill-fated firm currently enjoy loyalty
from some Lustron residents that borders on fanaticism. My
Lustron survived a big hail storm, a Rochester, Minnesota,
Lustron owner bragged on one of several web sites devoted to the
prefabs.Does anyone have any disassembled Lustron homes,
a prospective owner recently queried on a Lustron e-bulletin board.
Apparently successful, that same
Lustron owner wannabe asked a couple weeks later, Whats
the farthest a Lustron home has been moved?
Other Lustron aficionados are organizing a national Lustron registry
on the web.
Apparently, despite the dreams spectacular failure in reality,
Carl Strandlunds vision of housing post-war America in attractive,
efficient, relatively affordable homes still has an undeniable appeal.
"Kilroy was here" as
reported at Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilroy_was_here]
"Kilroy was here"is
an American popular culture expression, often seen in graffiti.
Its origins are open to speculation, but recognition of it and the
distinctive doodle of "Kilroy" peeking over a wall is
almost ubiquitous among U.S. residents who lived during World War
II through the Korean War.
The phrase appears to have originated
through United States servicemen, who would draw the doodle and
the text "Kilroy Was Here" on the walls or elsewhere they
were stationed, encamped, or visited. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase
and Fable notes that it was particularly associated with the Air
Transport Command, at least when observed in the United Kingdom.
One theory identifies James J. Kilroy,
an American shipyard inspector, as the man behind the signature.
During World War II he worked at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard in
Quincy, Massachusetts, where he claimed to have used the phrase
to mark rivets he had checked. The builders, whose rivets J. J.
Kilroy was counting, were paid depending on the number of rivets
they put in. A riveter would make a chalk mark at the end of his
or her shift to show where they had left off and the next riveter
had started. Unscrupulous riveters discovered that, if they started
work before the inspector arrived, they could receive extra pay
by erasing the previous worker's chalk mark and chalking a mark
farther back on the same seam, giving themselves credit for some
of the previous riveter's work. J.J. Kilroy stopped this practice
by writing "Kilroy was here" at the site of each chalk
mark. At the time, ships were being sent out before they had been
painted, so when sealed areas were opened for maintenance, soldiers
found an unexplained name scrawled. Thousands of servicemen may
have potentially seen his slogan on the outgoing ships and Kilroy's
omnipresence and inscrutability sparked the legend. Afterwards,
servicemen could have begun placing the slogan on different places
and especially in new captured areas or landings. At some later
point, the graffiti (Chad) and slogan (Kilroy was here) must have
merged. (Michael Quinion. 3 April 1999.)
The New York Times reported this
as the origin in 1946, with the addition that Kilroy had marked
the ships themselves as they were being builtso, at a later
date, the phrase would be found chalked in places that no graffiti-artist
could have reached (inside sealed hull spaces, for example), which
then fed the mythical significance of the phraseafter all,
if Kilroy could leave his mark there, who knew what else he could