What Model Is It?

Introduction

In this section you will find information on the design of Lustron houses and the different models of Lustron Houses.

The Lustron Design

Cover of Lustron promotional brochure
Cover of Lustron promotional brochure

The Lustron home was designed by the Chicago area architectural firm of Beckman and Blass. Morris Beckham, was a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former draftsman for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Roy Burton Blass met Carl Strandlund through work that he had done with Chicago Vitrolite on the remodeling of several Chicago area movie theaters which used porcelain enamel panels as part of the redesign.

Early conceptual drawings of the house show much more “modern” styles—flat roofs, jaunty overhanging eaves and even a curved wall and more open floor plans. Ultimately, these early designs were scrapped. In order to sell the number of houses Lustron planned to produce, it had to appeal to the mass market and the general public wanted a more conventional design. Innovation would be in the materials and manufacture and not in the exterior design. A company publication explained that the “general lines” of the Lustron house “follow the one-story modified ranch style architecture which has proved so popular in the past few years.” The design may have been popular with the public, but not with architectural critics. Because Lustron was on the cutting edge when it came to materials, production, and distribution, many critics felt that the design should have been equally innovative as well-and the” modified ranch style” was anything but.

Once the initial design was established, many other people helped bring the Lustron from paper to production line. As explained by Chief Engineer, Robert Runyan, Lustron’s design “involved expert engineering from many fields. Architects, mechanical, production, cost, ceramic, erection, heating, electrical, structural and plumbing engineers and experts were called upon to engineer the home as a complete unit.”

The first “complete unit” prototype was erected in Hinsdale, Illinois in the fall of 1946. The simple one floor plan, five-room home was designed to be easily replicated. Throughout the turbulent History of the company, the design of the Lustron never deviated dramatically from the initial prototype. According to a memo from the Lustron Corporation, nearly 200,000 hours went into its planning.

In addition to the Esquire prototype, ultimately the Lustron Corporation produced three major model types: the Westchester, the Newport and the Meadowbrook. The homes were available in four exterior colors: Maize Yellow, Dove grey, Surf Blue, and Desert Tan, carefully selected by Howard Ketchum, Inc., described in promotional materials as “one of the nations foremost color experts.” All the Lustron models featured a kitchen, bathroom, living room and dinette. They were designed to be erected without a basement on a concrete slab. The Lustron models differed in their configuration of rooms, window placement and number of bedrooms. For more information on each of the model types, click on the link below.

Customization and Accessories

In addition to choosing the model and color, Lustron owners could further customize their homes with “accessories.” Lustron accessories available from the manufacturer included:

  • Aluminum screen doors
  • Aluminum storm-door insert
  • Aluminum combination storm-screen door
  • Aluminum storm windows
  • Steel venetian blinds in ivory
  • Picture hanger kit
  • Attic fan

By 1949, Lustron was also selling garage panel packages. The form of the garage mimicked that of the house, and the panels were available in the same colors as the house. The packages, however, did not include the underlying structure, so the panels were attached to traditional wood framing. There were two models available :

  • Model G-1, measuring 15 feet by 23 feet, had space for one car plus a work/storage area.
  • Model G-2 was 23 feet square and could hold two cars.

A breezeway package was available to link the house and garage. A Lustron fact sheet distributed in January 1950explained that “breezeways, patios, carports, screened porches can be added by the dealer, at the customer’s option, using Lustron Panels in combination with conventional materials to give unlimited variety to Lustron Homes.”

Distribution System

To get those homes to buyers, Lustron patterned its distribution system, like its assembly line, after the automobile industry. The company planned to come out with new models on a regular basis to attract new buyers and tempt existing Lustron owners to “trade up” to more expensive houses, just like they did with cars. A network of dealers across the country would help consumers select a model and decide on options. By May 1949, Lustron had signed up 43 dealers. Prospective buyers had to go through a dealer.

A major difference between cars and houses, though, was that Lustron dealers were builders as well as marketers. The “showroom” was, most typically, a demonstration house on a lot in a residential neighborhood, or even a booth at a county fair. Lustron advised dealers on how to select good locations for demonstration houses and develop sites to the best advantage. The company’s “Lustron Planning Guide(link)” gave information on installing houses on individual lots in established communities, and also on doing larger “integrated groups” on unimproved land. “The product which you merchandize,” the guide remarked, “is essentially a house, lot and its environment-the Lustron Corporation provides the house-the dealer and the customer provide the lot and environment.”

Dealers were responsible for initiating their own sales and constructing the homes. Lustron conducted a Sales and Management Training clinic at the factory to train dealers. A undated Fact Sheet prepared by the Lustron Corporation optimistically stated, “as dealers become better organized to handle the widespread demand for Lustron Homes, and as financing and arrangements are being simplified, the sales prospects for the months ahead look good.”

Price

Lustron was competing with traditional small-scale homebuilders as well as industry giants like Levitt and Sons. The latter was selling single-family houses at Levittown, its highly publicized planned community on Long Island, for under $8,000 in the late 1940s. Lustrons would have been affordable to lower-end homebuyers at a total price of less than $7,000, as initially intended, but complete Westchesters ultimately cost in the range of $10,000 to $12,000.

Variety and Demise

The Lustron Corporation was just beginning to expand its model selection when it met its untimely end. The model that was by far the most produced was the Westchester, which had the advantage of being manufactured from the start. The 2 bedroom version was the most popular. The economical Newport model, which appeared towards the end of 1949, came in a distant second thanks to its short production run. Few, if any, Meadowbrooks made it to market.

In analyzing Lustron’s demise, some faulted the number of parts in the system and the options for customization, which slowed the manufacturing and erection process. Others blamed problems in the distribution system. Dealers had to pay for houses when they were shipped from the factory; there was no financing available for dealers, as there was in the automobile industry. In addition, dealers had to cover the expense of purchasing lots, installing foundations, and bringing in utilities, none of which was recovered until a house was sold. As a result, dealers had to have substantial up-front capital to reach a volume that justified the effort. In addition, dealers were the front line for the unhappy customers who made a down payment on a house, then spent months and months waiting for the house to arrive. In many cases, it never did.

Sources:

“Bathtub Blues.” Time, July 4, 1949, 55.

“Cash for Lustron.” Time, February 10, 1947.

Lustron Corporation. “Fact Sheet,” n.d. (attached to letter from Carl Strandlund to “editor,”

January 17, 1950). Probably in Lustron Corporation Collection, Ohio Historical Society.

—. Sales information. Typed mss., November 10, 1949. Probably in Lustron Corporation Collection, Ohio Historical Society.

Typed mss, November 10, 1949.

Mitchell, Robert A. “What Ever Happened to Lustron Homes?” APT Bulletin 23 (December 1991): 44-53.

Notes:


Fact sheet attached to “Dear Editor” letter from Strandlund on Lustron letterhead, dated January 17, 1950. Robert A. Mitchell, “What Ever Happened to Lustron Homes?” APT Bulletin 23 (December 1991): 44-53.

Lustron Corporation, “Fact Sheet.”

“The Factor-Built House Is Here, but Not the Answer to the $33 Million Question: How to Get It to Market? Architectural Forum 90 (May 1949): 108.

“That Lustron Affair,” Fortune, November 1949, 94.


3 Responses to “What Model Is It?”

  1. Kevin Stone Says:

    While traveling recently to the town of New Madrid Missouri. I stumbled across a Lustron home located in the quiet Mississippi River town. The house is yellow, with a matching two car Lustron garage. The home appears to be in very good condition (I have photos) with no outer modifications. Looking at the location directly for these homes, I found that it was not listed.

    Mail me with if you have any questions.

    Kevin

  2. Dane Hooper Says:

    I was active in Arlington Heights, Illinois real estate from 1981 until about 2005 and was honored to have Listed and Sold a Lustron Home at a corner of, I think,Campbell Street and maybe Ridge, but ncannot find an image of that house on Mapquest or Google. Curious. Is that house still there band I just cannot remember where it was?

  3. box office, Marshall Square Theatre (1917), 2875 West Cermak Road, Little Village (South Lawndale), Chicago, Illinois, USA Says:

    [...] Levy (1872-c.1955) • architect Roy Burton Blass (1907-1981) — later associated with prefab Lustron homes — accountable for Art Deco-ish 1936 remodeling, famously included a box beam thrust [...]

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