Born in Sunsvall, Sweden, in 1899, Carl Gunnar Strandlund came to the United States at the age of four and grew up in Moline, Illinois. As a young man, he took correspondence school classes in engineering. Aptitude in that field apparently ran in the family—his grandfather was one of the leading engineers in Sweden and his father worked in the United States for agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere, registering more than 300 patents related to farm implements.[i] The young Strandlund was soon putting his engineering training to good use. During twelve years as a production engineer at Minneapolis Moline Power Implement Company, he registered over 150 patents. As president of the Oliver Farm Equipment Company, he increased revenues from $20 million to $120 million in less than five years. Strandlund’s ingenuity and energy brought him national recognition and a substantial income, which allowed him to indulge in horse breeding and racing. He was often accompanied at races by his wife, Clara Sandborg Strandlund, a Minnesotan of Scandinavian descent who was seven years his senior. “Mrs. Strandlund is constantly inspiring me to do bigger and better things,” he once told a reporter. “Best of all, she’s the world’s greatest believer in Carl G. Strandlund.”[ii]
The War Effort
In April 1942, Strandlund directed his considerable knowledge and energy to the war effort. Hired by Chicago Vitreous Enamel Product Company to transform the factory for defense production, Carl quickly proved himself invaluable. His innovations dramatically improved the manufacturing process for military equipment, bringing praise and profits to Chicago Vitreous. The company rewarded him with a promotion to vice president and general manager in September 1943.
Lustron is Born
In 1946, when the post-war economy was shifting back to domestic production, Strandlund went to Washington to seek an allocation of steel-a commodity still under government control-to manufacture gas stations. He discovered that the government was unwilling to support gas stations, but was desperately seeking an answer to the housing crisis. Strandlund seized the opportunity, and the Lustron house was born.
“Mr. Strandlund was then in his late forties,” Colliers magazine later reported, “a stocky figure, with pale-blue eyes, thinning blond hair and a neat little mustache. He wore his expensive clothes in the right degree of rumple, spoke in a rough and genial way, and conducted himself generally with the forthright, positive manner of an engineer with a reputation for being ‘a guy who can design for production.’ An enthusiastic sportsman, with a racing stable of his own, he carried an air of easy opulence.”
Strandlund Invests in Lustron
As vice president and general manager of Chicago Vitreous, Strandlund was making $100,000 a year-a princely sum in that era. He took a 50 percent pay cut to head the Lustron Corporation, when the owners of Chicago Vitreous got cold feet and Lustron was set up as a separate business. Carl and Clara acquired 51 percent of the stock by investing $1,000, plus Carl’s patents and knowledge. Carl also took on personal liability for the company’s $15.5 million loan from the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation. As Ohio State Journal reporter Justin Henley noted in 1949, Strandlund “has ‘shot the works’ in an all-or-nothing gamble.” It was the kind of challenge he relished. “I brought in the patent and the engineering,” he said. “I’m an endorser on all notes. If there is any failure in Lustron, you can meet Carl on the breadline.”[iii]
When problems started mounting, Strandlund seemed unflappable. “Last month as Lustron moved to meet its test in the market,” Architectural Forum wrote, “big Carl Strandlund sat, cool as a cucumber, at his long desk under the photographs of an impressive list of friends of his house-including President Truman, Senator Flanders, and one-time housing boss Wilson Wyatt.” The article observed that “Strandlund had ridden out so many near-disasters, so many rumors of bankruptcy, so many changes of government favoritism, that his initial crusading fervor for his house had shaken down to a quiet but rock-like confidence.”[iv]
Fortune magazine described him as “an enthusiast, a natural promoter, an eternal optimist, a salesman,” adding that “promises flow from him like poetry in an Irish pub.” He was constantly on the move, spreading his enthusiasm for the potential of Lustrons. Between December 1947 and February 1950, he ran up almost $47,000 on his expense account, much of it for train and airplane tickets, hotels, and “entertainment of Lustron guests.” Other expense items included “football guests” and “Christmas courtesies to Lustron people and customers. ” He frequently occupied a suite at the prestigious Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., and regularly visited New York, Boston, and Chicago. “He liked to have a hell of a good time,” a relative later recalled. “He was a real fun-loving guy-more than anyone I can think of. He liked to live high.”[v]
Eventually, though, his lavish entertaining and charisma were not enough to carry him through. Buffeted by congressional hearings and national controversy, Lustron’s luster began to fade. Strandlund’s meager financial contribution for such a large stake in the company began to be questioned, and his assets were put to public scrutiny. A personal financial statement dated January 1950 put his assets at $113,350 with liabilities of $56,216, resulting in a net worth of $57,134. The assets included $23,350 in livestock (presumably his beloved racehorses), $15,000 in automobiles, furniture, and personal items, and $65,000 in real estate, against which there was a mortgage of almost $50,000. The value of his 43,000 shares of Lustron stock was given as “unknown.” A note indicated that the statement did not “take into consideration a contingent liability based on a guaranty of a note of Lustron Corporation in the amount of $15,500,000 held by RFC.”[vi]
After the Fall
When the Lustron Corporation collapsed, the Strandlunds decided to leave Columbus, where they lived on a sizable estate-with a Lustron for a guest cottage. In an interview in 1982, Clara described their life after the Lustron dream ended. “Everything we had went. . . . They took everything but our home. . . . We went to Chicago and marked time a little bit, then we went to New York, went to Florida and had a little home and lived quietly for about 17 years.” The life could not have been completely quiet: Carl designed “a plastic type of housing,” his niece Sally Beiersdorf recalled, “and I think a couple of models were built, . . . but it required a lot of backing and again he ran into problems with unions and different organizations that didn’t want to have him come into their territory and have him make probably a cheaper type of home.” He did consulting projects for various companies, including setting up a factory in South America.
Carl and Clara moved to Minnesota in 1973. “He was dying,” Clara explained, “and this was where I was born and this was where we met, so it had special meaning to us.” He passed away the next year in Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, at the age of 75, and was interred at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. His widow, Clara, survived him by fourteen years, reaching the age of 96.
Bartlett, Arthur. “The House that Lots of Jack Built.” Colliers, November 5, 1949, 15, 68-71.
“The Factory-built House Is Here, but Not the Answer to the $33 Million Question: How to Get It to Market?” Architectural Forum 90 (May 1949): 107-144.
Gendler, Neal. “Lustron Metal Homes: Failed Legacy of a Postwar Dream,” Minneapolis Tribune, September 12, 1982.
—. “Widow Recalls How Strandlund’s Dream Became a Nightmare,” Minneapolis Tribune, September 12, 1982.
Henley, Justin. “Nation Watches Lustron Mass Produce Housing.” Ohio State Journal, April 11, 1949.
Reiss, Robert. “When Lustron Lost Its Luster.” Columbus Dispatch, July 23, 1978.
“Strandlund, Carl G.” (obituary). Minneapolis Tribune, December 28, 1974.
Strandlund, Carl G. Financial Statement and Expense Reports. In National Archives.
“Strandlund, Clara M.” (obituary). Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 5, 1988.
“That Lustron Affair,” Fortune, November 1949, 92-94.
Wideman, Clark. “The Man behind Lustron,” Columbus Citizen, January 25, 1948.
 Gendler, “Widow Recalls”; Robert Reiss, “When Lustron Lost Its Luster,” Columbus Dispatch, July 23, 1978.
 Gendler, “Widow Recalls”; “Strandlund, Carl G.” (obituary); “Strandlund, Clara M.” (obituary), Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 5, 1988.
[i] “Strandlund, Carl G.” (obituary), Minneapolis Tribune, December 28, 1974; Neal Gendler, “Lustron Metal Homes: Failed Legacy of a Postwar Dream,” Minneapolis Tribune, September 12, 1982.
[ii] Clark Wideman, “The Man behind Lustron,” Columbus Citizen, January 25, 1948.
[iii] “The Factory-built House Is Here, but Not the Answer to the $33 Million Question: How to Get It to Market?” Architectural Forum 90 (May 1949): 107-144.
[v] Carl G. Strandlund, financial statement and expense reports, in National Archives, Washington, D.C.; Neal Gendler, “Widow Recalls How Strandlund’s Dream Became a Nightmare,” Minneapolis Tribune, September 12, 1982.
[vi] Strandlund, financial statement and expense reports.