Woman relaxing on patio table next to a Lustron home in the late 1940s (photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection)
Ohio Life

The Rise and Fall of the Lustron Home

Lustron Corp. hoped its prefabricated steel homes would address the need for postwar housing. The company’s Columbus factory closed after making just 2,600 homes, most of which still stand today.

It was a homecoming when Lustron house #549 opened at the Ohio History Center in 2013. The prefabricated family dwelling, constructed entirely of steel, was made in the 1940s at a factory near what is today John Glenn Columbus International Airport. Lustron homes were touted as state of the art, maintenance free and essentially indestructible as they were marketed to young families following World War II. 

The one on display inside Columbus’ Ohio History Center was one of 11 that once existed in Arlington, Virginia. In 2006, the owner, Clifford Krowne, donated the structure to the county where he resided, and the home went on to serve as a display piece, depicting what life was like at the dawn of the postwar era. It was even shown in part at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, before Virginia officials donated the dwelling to the Ohio History Connection in 2011.

The home was scheduled to remain on display at the Ohio History Center for at least five years, but it has proven to be so popular that it is still there today. Baby boomers look at it and see things that existed in their childhood homes, while kids marvel at the technology of the 1950s — many glimpsing landlines and cathode-ray-tube televisions for the first time. Newlyweds have had wedding photos taken in and around the house. 

“It remains one of our most asked-about and visited exhibits,” says Jen Cassidy, director of the Ohio History Center and Ohio Village.
      Truck hauling an unassembled Lustron home (photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection)

A company truck hauls the pieces of a Lustron home to the site where it was assembled. (photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection)

The home’s popularity as a historic artifact belies the story of Lustron, though. Conceived to use assembly lines and cutting-edge technology to help alleviate the postwar housing shortage, the company lived a brief life, undone by its own complexity and political machinations.

The idea of prefabricated homes was not a new one. During the California gold rush in the mid-1800s, houses were built off-site and shipped to be assembled quickly in the boomtowns that developed. In the early 20th century, both Sears and Montgomery Ward sold homes through their catalog that could be bought and assembled on a plot of land. In the 1920s, intellectual R. Buckminster Fuller conceived of the Dymaxion house, a small home that could be taken apart and moved as the situation called for it. And during the Great Depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, advanced the idea of “truckable houses,” which could be transported where they were needed.

But Carl Strandlund, Lustron’s founder, didn’t originally set out to make houses. An inventor and businessman with experience at John Deere and Minneapolis-Moline, Strandlund had helped convert Vitreous Enamel Products Co. to wartime production.
      Woman using built-in washer of a Lustron home (photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection)

The Lustron home was packed with built-in features, including a washing machine in the kitchen. (photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection)

In peacetime, Vitreous Enamel made porcelain-coated steel, used in the construction of gas stations. (The company had a contract with what would soon be called Amoco, one of the companies spun off from Standard Oil.) Strandlund had every plan to do the same after the war, but the transition to a peacetime economy was strained and shortages abounded — particularly in housing, where it was estimated that 3 million new homes would be needed. Strandlund was told if he would manufacture housing, there would be government contracts, and the Lustron Corp. was born.

Strandlund originally wanted to stay in the Chicago area and had his eyes on a plant built by the Chrysler Corp. to make B-29 bombers. But Preston Tucker, who planned to make his eponymous automobile there, bought it. Instead, Lustron found a massive factory in Columbus that Curtiss-Wright had used to build fighter planes, and manufacture of the homes started in 1948. The initial goal was to turn out 85 houses a day (rising to more than 400) and offer three different styles of two- or three-bedroom homes. Each would be put on its own truck and sent to a lot to be assembled on-site. It was estimated that assembly would take less than a week.

But production never reached that level, and distribution was an issue, as a dealer network couldn’t form quickly enough to sell the houses. The company was losing $1.5 million a month. (Among its expenses was a $10,000 check written to U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy — a “fee” for an article he’d written on housing. The payment led to a Congressional inquiry into the Wisconsin senator, who was ultimately censured for, among other things, refusing to cooperate with the investigation into allegations of financial impropriety.) The federal Reconstruction Finance Corp. had made $37.5 million in loans to Lustron and held hearings over allegations of fraud. Ultimately, the federal government foreclosed on the company in 1950. An estimated 2,680 homes were made before Lustron shut down, with 8,000 orders left to fill.
      Interior of Lustron house #549 on display at the Ohio History Connection (photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection)

The Ohio History Center is home to Lustron house #549, which was originally constructed in Arlington, Virginia, and was later donated to the Columbus museum. (photo courtesy of Ohio History Connection)

Today, it’s estimated that around 2,000 Lustron homes are still standing. The ones that are gone were typically located in towns where the land was worth more than the house. (Lustron house #549 at the Ohio History Center was initially donated by its owner so he could build a new home on his property.) The structures were also small by today’s standards — around 1,000 square feet — leading original features to get lost in additions and updates as the years passed.

Of the Lustron homes that remain, some are hiding in plain sight, their pastel colors painted over with more traditional exterior hues or even covered with siding. But a fellowship has evolved among Lustron homeowners — if for no other reason than to scavenge replacement parts that haven’t been made in decades. (The tracks in the pocket doors — one of the many space-saving features Lustron touted — are particularly susceptible to wear and breaking.)

But a lot of owners lean into the postwar aesthetic. In 2022, a Lustron home came on the market in North Olmsted, outside of Cleveland. The surf-blue exterior is now gray, but inside, the home had midcentury modern decor — a monument to the optimism of an era that believed mass production could not only bring about peace in the world, but also solve all its problems.