Time Capsule

The Ohio History Center revisits the era of Lustron homes and offers a glimpse into 1950s America.

On the surface, all is idyllic. The RCA black-and-white console TV in the living room is tuned to “See It Now,” Edward R. Murrow’s interview show featuring newsmakers of the day. A jazz LP by Stan Kenton plays softly on the Crosley turntable in the corner.

But when visitors make their way to the backyard, they quickly stumble upon the unease beneath the tranquility: a hatch for an underground bomb shelter designed to provide safe haven against nuclear attack.

Welcome to the 1950s. It’s a decade that’s clearly a study in contrasts, and one the Ohio History Center is exploring in-depth. An ongoing exhibition, “1950s: Building the American Dream,” chronicles the era that’s fondly remembered with “Happy Days” reverence.

But, as Jason Crabill, manager of curatorial services for the Ohio Historical Society, is quick to point out, the time period wasn’t just about poodle skirts and hula hoops.

“The 1950s are thought of as innocent, old-fashioned America,” he explains. “However, that’s not entirely the case. Media was exploding and a common national identity was being formed. [Through television], people in Des Moines and California could see what was happening in New York and Chicago. As the country emerged from the Korean War, there was a fervent belief we were heading toward a future of unlimited progress and possibility.

“At the same time,” Crabill adds, “Americans were afraid the Russians would drop a bomb at any moment.”

Although the exhibit is one that’s a natural for the history center, fortuitous happenstance spurred the project to fruition. Two years ago, historic preservationists from Arlington County, Va., contacted staff at the historical society and offered to donate a Lustron house to the center’s burgeoning collection of Ohio artifacts.

“As it still is for many today, the American dream back then was to own your own home,” Crabill says. “Lustron houses made that possible. Each sold for between $8,500 and $10,500, not including the land or the slab upon which it would be built. The home in Virginia was being torn down, and the former owner and city officials recognized its significance.

“Many of the Lustrons have been remodeled,” he adds. “So they don’t look like they did when they were built. The one we have is pristine.”

Manufactured in Columbus between 1948 and 1951, prefabricated Lustron homes were an innovative answer to the post-World War II housing shortage. Constructed of porcelain-enameled steel, they were virtually indestructible. The most popular model — measuring just under 1,100 square feet — featured two bedrooms, one bathroom and such thoroughly modern amenities as a clothes- and dish-washer combo attached to the kitchen sink, pocket doors and built-in bookshelves.

The company constructed 2,098 units before production delays and escalating shipping costs led to bankruptcy in 1951. Today, an estimated 2,000 Lustron dwellings still exist in 36 states.

Crabill is thrilled about the Ohio History Center’s acquisition, which consists of 3,000 pieces and took a crew of six more than 200 hours to assemble.

Needless to say, the house is the lynchpin of the exhibit, serving as the lens through which the decade is scrutinized. To augment its ambiance, Ohio History Center staffers filled the home with a treasure trove of pop-culture artifacts. (Remember Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder in a tin, original Lincoln Logs and the days when View-Masters offered stereoscopic glimpses of the world?) Each item was chosen with care — including the bunker entrance outside. Crabill hopes it will serve as a pivotal talking point between generations.

“Although the majority of homeowners did not install bomb shelters, a survey conducted in 1955 reported that 40 percent of Americans wished they had one,” the curator says. “A popular civil-defense film at the time encouraged children to follow the example of Bert the Turtle and learn how to ‘duck and cover.’ ”

Other focal points of “Building the American Dream” include a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air towing a gleaming Airstream trailer. Videos placed around the perimeter plumb topics ranging from Communism, desegregation and space exploration to dating mores and gender roles.

“People who grew up in the ’50s are reaching a point in life when they’re starting to reflect on their youth,” Crabill muses. “Our goal with this exhibit is to help them do that in a balanced way. Yes, the nostalgia is there. But so are the issues.

“We hope,” he adds, “that the meaningful conversations families start here continue after they leave. That’s really what it’s all about.”

Ohio History Center

800 E. 17th Ave., Columbus 43211, 614/297-2300,
Hours: Wed.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. noon–5 p.m.
Admission: $10 adults, $9 seniors, $5 children 6–12