Houses of Steel
What it Takes to Save One of Quantico's Lustrons
By Jennie Phipps | Online Only | Jan. 27, 2006
Houses with a history—and a powder blue, pink, or mint-green tint—are available free for the taking.
The Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Va., is giving away 58 prefabricated, porcelain-enameled steel, ranch-style houses with two or three bedrooms, originally erected nearly 60 years ago to provide homes for returning World War II soldiers.
It's the largest collection anywhere of these steel houses, known as Lustrons, reflecting their sheen. Designed by Carl Standlund and manufactured assembly-line style, they are part of the base that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which is why the Marines are searching for takers rather than just tearing them down. The tree-lined, on-base neighborhood will be redeveloped with 1,800-square-foot houses. The Lustrons, all of which are occupied now, range from 800 to 1,200 square feet—too small to satisfy today's military families.
"When we and the military put together this [development] project, we signed a document agreeing to make a good-faith effort in marketing these before we applied for permission to demolish them," says Bereket M. Selassie, development executive for Clark Realty Capital, the developer with a contract to build the new houses.
The Marines, in partnership with the Navy and developers, prefer applicants who can figure out an efficient plan for dismantling and removing the 11-ton dwellings by the end of this summer. Special consideration will be given to those who can take more than one or who have a charitable use for these homes. Clark has received 150 e-mails expressing interest, Selassie says.
Don't suppose you can jack one up, put some wheels under it, and drag it away. "It doesn't work that way," says 88-year-old Alex James, who is selling copies of his original, 193-page Lustron Erection Manual for $41 to help potential movers understand the problems and possibilities. According to the manual, each house has about 3,300 parts and 4,000 nuts and bolts.
James was one of 3,000 workers who built the Lustrons in the original Columbus, Ohio, Lustron Corp. factory, built in 1947 with $37.5 million in federal loans. The houses were constructed for five years until the operation went bust. In all, about 2,500 homes were built and erected in communities east of the Rockies. Two were sent to Alaska as an experiment in cold-weather housing.
"The walls were pre-wired, pre-plumbed, and then loaded on the special Freuhauf trailer as it slowly moved along on tracks embedded in the floor. Parts were loaded in sequential order," James recalls.
Lustrons came originally in a half-dozen pastel colors and floor plans. Interiors included built-in shelves, storage cabinets, and other design features to make the most of the small spaces. To move one of these houses requires the patience to dismantle the parts, number them, and reassemble them just as painstakingly.
When the houses reached their destinations, they were erected on slab foundations poured with precision so that "L" bolts in the bottom channel of the outer frame of the house could be bolted to the foundation. There are no interior load-bearing walls. The roof trusses span the width of the house and must be bolted down after being spaced equally on top of the frame. The next step is cladding the house with porcelainized-enamel roof and side panels, James says.
"Restoring a Lustron is like restoring an old Chevy. You buy it because it looks great on the outside, then you get under the hood and you find out there's lots of work to do," says Calvin Strayer, a Toronto-based preservationist who specializes in moving old diners, whose construction is similar—but simpler—than Lustrons.
Strayer has dismantled a couple of Lustrons and thinks that anyone who takes a house off the base at Quantico, relocates and reassembles it should be prepared for lots of work and considerable expense—a minimum of $80,000 to $100,000, not including the cost of a new site.
"It's a seriously over-engineered piece of American ingenuity. There's no way to get into the system unless you start at the beginning. And it doesn't tolerate any variance. Packing and moving is easiest. From there every part has to be analyzed. Worn parts have to be fabricated. "You can't go to Home Depot and buy one single thing," he says.
Restoring a Quantico Lustron will be more difficult than restoring one that has had fewer residents in the last half century, Strayer believes. For one thing, Lustrons were never meant to be painted. Painting one is like painting your bathtub: Even with excellent preparation, the paint chips. Nevertheless, the Quantico Lustrons have been painted dozens of times, inside and out.
"These houses have had 40 tenants and 25 or 30 sets of children. They aren't the perfect antiques," Strayer says.
Strayer is concerned about the asbestos insulation and flooring that was part of the original design, but Jim Harris, privatization project manager for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, based at Naval Station Norfolk, who is overseeing the technical aspects of the project, says asbestos isn't a problem. A private contractor, Environmental Resources Management's Annapolis, Md., office, sampled 39 Lustrons and reported that only two contained a small amount of asbestos in the flooring.
Enthusiasts urge would-be owners not to be discouraged by the size or the configuration of the Lustrons because they are very adaptable. Strayer suggests that since the houses have no bearing walls that they would make excellent artist studios or workshops. Or even summer homes.
"A lot of these houses have had additions," says Thomas Fetters, Chicago-area author of Lustron Homes: The History of a Postwar Prefabricated Housing Experiment. "There's one in Des Moines that is actually three Lustrons bolted together—with an indoor swimming pool in one of them."
Jennie Phipps is a freelance writer living in Michigan.
How to Apply: The procedures by which bids will be taken for the Quantico houses are available at http://www.lustronsatquantico.com. Applicants should expect to provide a plan, proof of financial ability, and evidence that they've done something like this before. Deadline for proposals is April 12. Residents are expected to vacate the homes by June 30, and the developers would like at least half the homes to be dismantled and removed by Aug. 1.
Need Help? Lustron enthusiasts with a plan for a Quantico property can get help from the Recent Past Preservation Network (www.recentpast.org), an organization that celebrates architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism in the U.S. after World War II. The president, Christine Madrid French, offers a nonprofit umbrella for those who might need such assistance.
Coming Soon: The National Trust's Midwest Office is developing a Web site for Lustron owners and admirers. The site will include history of the houses, an interactive timeline, technical information for homeowners, repair instructions and demonstrations, a "Lustron Library" of photos and online manuals, a marketplace, and a Google Map-linked database of all the surviving houses. The site is scheduled to launch in April.
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.