COLUMBIA — Phyllis Nichols didn't expect to purchase a piece of history when she bought a tract of land off West Boulevard North in the fall of 2005.
Hoping to use the property to build a new State Farm Insurance building and parking lot, Nichols ended up buying an existing home and garage, too.
The building was a Lustron home, a porcelain-enameled steel house engineered for mass production after World War II.
Knowing something about these homes, Nichols said she couldn't tear it down.
“I felt like it was something and should be kept around,” the State Farm agent explained.
Nichols decided to donate the house to the Boone County Historical Society. She and David Sapp, president of the society, had it disassembled and moved the pieces to Nifong Park, where it will become part of a village of vintage homes.
Lustron homes were developed after World War II, when the U.S. was facing a major housing shortage. The government also needed to revive vacant factories no longer needed for military production.
In January 1947, the Lustron Corp. in Columbus, Ohio, received a $12.5 million government loan to manufacture homes built with interlocking steel panels as the roof and exterior walls.
Carl Strandlund, a Chicago inventor and entrepreneur, developed the company and patented the process after constructing pre-fabricated gas stations. In business for only four years, the Lustron Corp. shipped nearly 2,000 homes around the country at its peak in 1949. Ninety-seven of them ended up in Missouri.
A typical Lustron home looks more like a compact bungalow than an extravagant vision of the future.
The homes fit a simple, one-story plan with a small covered porch. They followed the trend at the time of ranch-style architecture with five rooms in approximately 1,000 square feet of floor area.
Everything was standardized and duplicated on an assembly line, from the steel panels to the furnace, wiring boxes, plumbing and cabinets.
Lustron homes required little maintenance. Soap, water and a damp cloth were the only cleaning materials required, and the roof and walls never needed replacing.
Features inside included built-in bookcases and cabinets, a combination dishwasher and clothes washer, a built-in china cabinet with a “pass-through” to the kitchen, an automatic water heater, a built-in vanity and storage cabinets in the master bedroom, large closets, bathroom fixtures and screens.
Just two Lustron homes were built in Columbia. The one that is being reconstructed was located at 1006 West Blvd. N.
"Timing is everything," said Byron Claghorn, 66, who lived in the house for a year. "It just didn't take off."
The Claghorn family moved in during the spring of 1949, when Byron was 7. It was the same house that would catch Phyllis Nichols's eye more than 50 years later.
In 2005, Claghorn heard from Sapp, who told him the historical society had obtained the old house as a donation. Sapp was planning to add it to the village of historical homes taking shape in Nifong Park, called Boone Junction.
"It was rather amazing to see a picture of it 55 years later because Lustron homes do not need to be painted and do not require much maintenance," Claghorn said. "All the panels were made of polished metal similar to the finish on an automobile."
He said Lustron homes were relatively inexpensive for the time period, ranging from $2,000 to $3,000.
Claghorn remembered the house being cold in the winter. It had an integrated heating system in the ceiling that didn't heat the floors. The house was also built before the advent of air conditioning.
"In those days, buildings, homes and automobiles normally were not air-conditioned,” he said.
The Lustron home will be set up in Nifong Park near the Gordon-Collins log cabin, built in 1818 and moved there from Stephens Lake Park in 2005. Next to come, in 2007, was the Easley country store, a building constructed on the banks of the Missouri River in 1890 by William Greene Easley. A shotgun house built in the 1920s on Garth Avenue and owned by a black realtor and developer was moved to Boone Junction this year. Historical society officials hope the Ryland House, a Victorian home built by William Ryland, will be reconstructed this fall.
The Boone Historical Society is currently offering an exhibit on the Lustron home, including photos of exteriors, rooms and furniture.
The furniture ranges from an old-fashioned black sewing machine to a set of yellow chairs, and a set of blue, green and brown dishes from the post World War II era.
Reconstruction of the Lustron House is expected to be completed in the summer of 2010 at an estimated cost of $35,000.
“We’re depending a lot on fundraising,” Sapp said.