Imagine 3,000 pieces of steel, a 207-page construction manual and a small crew arriving by truck to build you a new home that will be completed before the next issue of the Southwest Journal arrives at your doorstep. While building an entire house in less than two weeks may sound like a dream even with today’s pre-fab construction technology, this was a reality 70 years ago.
In 1948, the Lustron home was introduced as an alternative to the typical wood construction tract housing popping up in suburbs throughout the U.S. (the likes of which can still be seen in Richfield and parts of South Minneapolis). Carl Strandlund, the Lustron inventor, believed houses could be mass-produced like automobiles (in an “Erector Set” sort of way) and used an arsenal of retired manufacturing equipment from World War II to crank them out from a factory in Ohio.
Lustron’s “kit of parts” was very affordable, costing only $9,000 dollars (roughly $100,000 today) plus site preparation. The relatively tiny home packed two to three bedrooms, a living room, a dinette, a kitchen, a bathroom and a laundry —all within about 1,000 square feet.
Marketed to nuclear families seeking the American Dream, Lustron’s name reflected the “everlasting” luster the porcelain-enameled steel homes were supposed to retain. Unfortunately for Strandlund, the company wasn’t as durable as the product — only 2,500 homes were produced before the factory shut down after only about 20 months of operation.
Eighteen Lustrons survive throughout Southwest Minneapolis, but perhaps most recognizable are the consecutive ones on Nicollet Avenue just south of 50th Street. There we find a row of midcentury marvels, one of which, a surf-blue house at 5009 Nicollet, is pending sale through Coldwell Banker. I toured that house as part of the Minnesota chapter of Docomomo US MN, an organization dedicated to the conservation of modernist architecture.
Walking past the signature zigzag column/downspout at the entry is like passing through a portal back in time. Nearly every element of the original kit was still intact — nowadays Lustrons are treated more like collector cars or art rather than simply homes. The impression is that of an absolutely novel relic: every surface of the home is enameled steel — not just the siding or the roof, but even the floors, walls, cupboards and ceilings! No nails are used for artwork; paintings are hung with strong magnets or custom hooks.
Contrary to expectations of entering a cold metal locker, the interior felt cozy and welcoming thanks to a calm pastel palette and thoughtful details like fluted wall and ceiling patterns. Even though every building component came from a factory, built-in adjustable shelves enabled homeowners to bring a personal touch. Space-saving tricks were implemented in creative ways: The walls are about half as thick as typical wood framing, pocket doors slide in the thin walls rather than swinging into rooms, and storage was incorporated into the design to reduce the need for additional furniture.
The novelty of the home isn’t for everyone. The steel assemblage is difficult to retrofit, not to mention most midcentury enthusiasts would find it sacrilege to alter them at all (even with a different paint color). Insulation is sparse and the original heating system was a radiator in the ceiling, which is not ideal for Minnesota winters. The charm of all-metal cabinets and sliding doors might wear off as the squeak of rollers persists.
Strandlund’s experiment in solving the postwar housing crisis didn’t last long, but the artifacts luster on and shed light on our current housing questions. As Minneapolis again faces intimidating housing shortages, prefabricated units (such as the weeHouse by Alchemy Architects), tiny homes and 3D-printing technology are offering solutions. Time will tell if they revolutionize the building industry or someday become a collectors’ item.
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Michelle Singer is an undergraduate studying architecture at Pratt Institute and a summer intern at Locus Architecture at 45th & Nicollet.