Historic status sought for all-metal Joplin home

Friday, July 25, 2014 | 5:01 p.m. CDT; updated 3:12 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 26, 2014
Constructed from the same porcelain enameled steel as the exterior, the interior of a Lustron home in Joplin, Missouri, features built-in cabinets also made of the same materials.

JOPLIN — Billed as "the house America has been waiting for," it turned out that the Lustron home was one America quickly forgot.

A few hundred of the prefabricated, enamel-clad metal houses were erected in the Midwest after World War II, and there is one in Joplin. Its owner, Janet Garvin, wants to make sure Joplin doesn't forget the history of the little tan bungalow and the other houses like it. She is seeking local historic status for the city's sole Lustron.

Joplin's Planning and Zoning Commission agreed with the idea this month. Commissioners voted to recommend that the City Council grant the request to designate the house at 3534 Oak Ridge Drive a historic structure.

"It's an all-metal home. They built them after World War II so veterans wouldn't have a lot of maintenance," Garvin told the commission.

Nancy Morton, chairman of the city's Historic Preservation Commission, spoke in support of the request.

"It is the only remaining Lustron home we know of" in this area, she said. "Because of the cost of manufacturing, they were discontinued" shortly after production started in 1948.

"There are perhaps 60 in the state but no others in Joplin."

Efforts to preserve Lustron homes have gathered steam since a 2002 documentary film about them was shown on public television.

The filmmaker, KDN Films, was bombarded with questions afterward about whether the houses should be protected from demolition and how best to preserve them.

The filmmakers asked the Midwest office of the Ohio Historic Society to help, since the houses had been manufactured in Columbus, Ohio. That organization, with funding from the National Park Service, which administers the National Register of Historic Places, set up a website to document Lustron homes and their happenings.

A Lustron home was even moved into the Museum of Modern Art in New York as an exhibit representative of the sleek, mid-century models that sprouted up in American suburbia in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They accommodated a compact — some might say cramped — lifestyle. The houses were quick to build and had been intended to be affordable for most folks.

The most popular Lustron model was called a Westchester. It is 990 square feet with two bedrooms and one bathroom.

The deluxe model, which is like the one in Joplin, features built-in bookshelves, bedroom vanities, extra closets and overhead storage. Deluxe models were sold with a Thor brand appliance that could wash both clothes and dishes. A buyer could save $215 by declining the washer and opting for a double sink, according to Lustron advertising.

Although sales of the kit house bombed only three years after it started, proponents and historians say the Lustron's legacy is that it fostered public acceptance of prefabrication methods for housing and established mass manufacturing methods for housing.

The Lustron home was the invention of Carl Strandlund, a Swedish engineer based in Chicago who specialized in enameled exteriors. He designed the look of ESSO gas stations and White Castle restaurants.

Shortly after the war ended, he went to the federal War Production Board seeking a permit to obtain sparsely rationed metal for his gas station projects. Government officials declined, saying it could not justify the use of metal resources at the time for gas stations while the nation was experiencing a housing crisis brought on by the lack of resources to build during the war and the return of 12 million U.S. troops needing places to restart their lives.

That gave Strandlund the idea to apply his enameling process to houses.

In 1946, Congress passed the Veterans Emergency Housing Act, which made surplus war factories available to companies that manufacture prefab housing. That also made materials previously rationed during the war more available and opened access to government loans for housing projects through the government's Reconstruction Finance Corp.

Strandlund put together a plan for making Lustron houses and applied for a loan to start his operation in a former war plant. Hundreds of other companies also applied for the loans, but in the end they were granted to only three companies. Strandlund was not considered creditworthy by the government financing board, but he had one asset that other applicants didn't: He had connections to a native Missourian with clout in D.C. — President Harry Truman — and ultimately won the backing of a number of powerful senators who saw Lustron as fueling America's postwar expansion.

He asked for $9 million and was awarded $15.5 million. He invested $1,000.

Strandlund's plan called for his operation to churn out 30,000 houses a year, but the effort was much more difficult than he conceived. He and his team made several strategic blunders by underestimating the time and money it would take to set up an efficient mass production assembly process and a distribution and delivery system.

The house kits were sold through dealerships, but dealers had to invest $50,000 to make $1,000 on each house. Delivery at first involved three truckloads of parts for a complicated assembly operation at the homesite. Eventually that was pared down to one truckload stacked in the order in which the parts were needed for assembly, but by the time manufacturing and delivery were expedited, the errors had tripled the cost of the houses and the housing shortage was nearly over. The factory made only six houses a day. It would have taken 10 times that number to break even.

There were other setbacks. In Chicago, labor unions required that all windows be taken out and replaced by union workers. Some states would not allow the houses to be put together unless plumbing manufactured in that state was used.

The government attempted bailouts by granting a second loan of $10 million in 1949 and another $7 million a short time later.

A house first intended to cost $6,500 escalated to $10,000 and continued up to $16,000. That price was not within the reach of lower income wage earners.

With that and the Lustron debt, the government withdrew FHA and VA financing for Lustron home loans.

The government foreclosed on Lustron in 1950; Strandlund was fired.

The government tried to sell the company to recover what it could of the loan, but no one ever bought it. A government investigation ensued and then was dropped. Some said he could not have forecast all the setbacks his company encountered; others said he was a poor manager but not a fraud. Lustron's equipment was sold as scrap, and Truman ordered the plant back into government operation building plane engines.

Today it is estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 Lustron houses were made.

Garvin said a popular construction company of the day, Jones Brothers, put up the Joplin house, but she does not know who owned the house originally. She bought it in 2007 to use as a rental.

"I liked it because it was metal inside and out," she said. Asked if she has had to do any repairs, she said, "I haven't done anything. It's very well built."

She adds that all the house's 3,000 pieces still fit together tightly. "It's not slip-shod done," Garvin said. "It's got a place for everything and it makes it feel organized.

"I just feel it's important to honor history," Garvin added. "This will be unique to the neighborhood."

While 60 to 100 of the Lustrons are found in Missouri, there are more in Kansas but only six in Oklahoma and three in Arkansas.

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