Rock Island's 100 Most Significant Unprotected Structures, 2009
Significance StatementRare, futuristic assembly line porcelain-enameled steel houses of which four of the 2,498 made nationwide are in Rock Island.
Architect / Builder
Beckman, Morris; Beckman & Blass; Lustron Corporation
Move to Mass Production
At the end of World War II, the United States did not have enough housing for the 12 million soldiers returning home. President Harry Truman pressured builders and suppliers to construct affordable housing. Many architects and designers, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller, tried to design inexpensive prefab housing that could be built quickly. But one of the most promising ventures was the Lustron Home by businessman and inventor Carl Strandlund. Vowing to mass-produce steel houses at the rate of 100 a day, Strandlund landed $37 million in government loans.
The first Lustron house was produced in March 1948. A total of 2,498 Lustron Homes were manufactured over the next two years. The prefabricated porcelain-enameled steel houses were made like cars on conveyor belts in a former aircraft plant in Columbus, Ohio. Flatbed trucks transported the Lustron panels to 36 states, where they were assembled on concrete slabs on-site by a team of local workers who assembled the house piece-by-piece from a special Lustron Corporation delivery truck using nuts and bolts. Assembly took about two weeks. The completed house cost between $7,000 and $10,000, not including the foundation and the lot, which was about 25 percent less than comparable conventional housing. Advertisements of the day offered a home that would “defy weather, wear, and time.”
Prefabricated housing had existed before the Lustron home came on the market. However, it was Lustron's promises of assembly-line efficiency and modular construction that set it apart from its competitors. The homes were designed by Morris Beckman of Chicago firm Beckman and Blass, and may have been loosely based on designs for the Cemesto houses in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
There were eight exterior colors: Surf Blue, Blue-green, Dove Gray, Maize Yellow, Desert Tan, Green, Pink, and White. Window surrounds were primarily ivory-colored. The interiors were designed with an eye toward the modern age, space-saving, and ease of cleaning. All Lustrons had metal-paneled interior walls that were most often gray. All models featured metal cabinetry, a service and storage area, and metal ceiling tiles. As an added option, customers were presented with the unique Thor-brand combination clothes- and dish-washer, which incorporated the kitchen sink. The roof consisted of enameled-steel tiles, which were installed shingle-style.
Decline of Lustron Corporation
Orders for some 20,000 Lustron Homes poured in, but by 1950 the Lustron Corporation was bankrupt. Production delays, the lack of a viable distribution strategy, and the escalating prices for the finished product all contributed to the failure. In addition, local building codes and opposition from trade unions may have been a factor. Today, well-preserved Lustron homes are scarce. About 2,000 Lustron homes are still in existence in 36 states. Many have been altered as homeowners added drywall walls and new exterior siding. The promise of a home that never needs painting or maintenance has been somewhat validated after over 55 years of service. The enamel steel roof "shingles" are still keeping many Lustron residents in the dry after five decades of no maintenance.
Rock Island Examples
The four existing Lustrons in Rock Island are located at 3316 7th Avenue, 2920 9th Street, 2113 22 1/2 Avenue and 2507 28th Avenue. All still have their original porcelain enamel exterior panels, and three original colors are represented: maize yellow, desert tan, and blue-green. The house on 28th Avenue has been painted pink, but may have been tan originally. All the Rock Island examples still have their metal roof, and two possess the distinctive, openwork "zig zag" post. Typical of small starter homes, tenure for owners was fairly brief, with the homes changing hands every few years.
See individual historic structure pages for map locations.