Like the Edsel or New Coke, all-steel Lustron houses were a marketing idea that never fully caught on. Yet nearly 60 years after their brief run, a community of Lustron aficionados is working to save these distinct and quirky buildings.
By Kim A. O'Connell | From Preservation | July/August 2007
It's early on a hot morning in May 2006, and Frank Phillips is already cursing. Standing inside a nearly gutted house in Arlington, Va., sweat darkening his long hair and white T-shirt, he casts a weary glance at the wall frames and ceiling panels yet to be dismantled. For three weeks, Phillips and his colleagues from Capstone Properties, a local construction firm, have been systematically disassembling the structure so it can be stored and reassembled later. I'm there as a board member of the Arlington Heritage Alliance (AHA), a volunteer group, to document the day's progress in a logbook. AHA had placed the house and a half-dozen others like it on its annual most-endangered list two years running, and we had supported the disassembly as part of a long effort to save the dwelling from demolition.
It hasn't been easy. The crew had taken the manual used to erect the house in 1949 and worked backward, but it didn't account for such unexpected issues as rust and asbestos. Looping a facemask over my ears, I step carefully around the piles of fiberglass insulation and loose screws on the floor to join Phillips in what was once the living room. Pointing toward the roof, he notes that it has taken multiple cans of WD-40 to loosen the dozens of rusty screws and wing nuts holding the cement board asbestos panels in place. "This [bleep] fights you every step of the way," he says. "These houses were definitely overconstructed. They were built to be tornado proof."
The object of this determined toil was a Lustron. Called "the house America's been waiting for," Lustrons were prefabricated, porcelain-enameled steel residences manufactured after World War II to house returning veterans, government workers, and middle-class families. For a brief shining moment, the weather-resistant, vermin-proof, virtually maintenance-free houses caused a national sensation that captivated booming families and reached all the way to Capitol Hill. Lustrons were built in at least 32 states and the District of Columbia. Yet the company that produced them erected fewer than 3,000 before declaring bankruptcy in 1950. Today, the small two- and three-bedroom houses have become teardown targets, and only 1,200 to 1,500 are thought to remain, in various states of preservation. In Arlington, Lustrons have been demolished with astonishing rapidity. Just this April, a developer leveled a blue-and-yellow model, allowing no time for anyone to rescue it. Only four of the county's original 11 Lustrons remain intact.
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