The Lustron homes were prefab homes that were popular post-World War II for three years—1948 to 1950. Lustron buildings, the term derived from ‘luster on steel’, were made completely of steel and covered with porcelain. This was at a time when steel was under governmental control and not used as building material. After the war, vets returned home, eager to forget the horrors they’d faced overseas. They wanted to marry their sweethearts, start a family, and basically live the American dream, as it were. Houses had to be built at a rapid rate to accommodate all these new buyers. Builders tried to respond, but it simply wasn’t possible for the supply to keep up with the demand using traditional methods and materials.
Wilson Wyatt, a lawyer and a mayor, was asked by President Truman to find a way to house the plethora of vets who were in need of new housing. Wyatt crafted a plan to build 1,200,000 houses by the end of 1946, which the industry said was impossible. The estimate from the industry? 300,000. During the fall of 1946, a year after the end of the war, an engineer and inventor by the name of Carl Strandlund walked into Wyatt’s office asking for a release of some of the steel so he could build steel service stations and hamburger stands. It must have looked like fate to Wyatt who needed a way to build those million plus houses and fast. Wyatt turned down the request of steel for building service stations and hamburger stands, then told Strandlund about the housing opportunity with the very same steel. Strandlund signed onto the project, and Lustron homes were born.
What, exactly, is porcelain enamel? It’s a mixture of sand and glass baked on a steel sheets to give them a lasting finish. It was used as a coating for appliances such as refrigerators and bathtubs to make them last longer because it will not crack or fade appreciably over time. Architects and builders were not clamoring for porcelain enamel. Rather, the steel and porcelain industries promoted their materials for home building. In 1931, Guy Irwin wrote about how steel would be the ubiquitous building material of the future, then criticized builders for not using a porcelain enamel finish.
In the early thirties, model houses of steel were beginning to proliferate. Different expos around the country featured prefabricated houses of steel in their exhibitions. The requisite porcelain enamel coated appliances from sinks to shingles. Even though the concept was pushed heavily, it did not catch on at the time. For whatever reason, the masses preferred the prefab houses from Sears and such rather than the steel ones. The idea lay dormant until after World War II had ended, but the exploration of steel prefab housing in the 1930s laid the groundwork for the Lustron homes of the late 1940s.
Carl Strandlund and his company Chicago Vic started building in 1946. Though they would have preferred to return to service stations and hamburger stands, they were wise enough to draw upon earlier ideas for their version of the Lustron home. The fact that veterans were eager to buy whatever homes were available made it that much easier for Strandlund and his company to sell their steel prefab homes. His first model was called the ‘Esquire’, which was designed by Roy Blass and M. H. Beckman. This was the first and only time Beckman worked with porcelain enamel. He was mostly adapting an already-known style, the Bungalow, and making it more endurable per Strandlund’s vision.
After much preparation, the Esquire was assembled in Hinsdale, on the grounds of the Hinsdale Nursery, a commercial supplier of trees and shrubs and such. The Esquire included porcelain enamel finish on the exterior, including the walls, the gutters, the downspout and the roof, but the window encasements were made of aluminum. The interior was a mix of porcelain-coated steel and wood painted to replicate the porcelain enamel finish to be installed in the production homes. The house included a formal garden in the back. Inside, the 31’ by 35’ house included a dinette with a built-in cabinet that served as the room divider, living room, kitchen, master bedroom, two other bedrooms, a bathroom and a utility room. In total, the house was 990 square feet of floor space.
The ‘Westchester’ design resembled the Esquire. It was also enduring and everlasting, according to promotional material. It was available in the two-bedroom model as well as a three-bedroom one. Later on, matching outdoor units such as porches and garages were available as add-ons.
The two-bedroom Westchester was easy to spot as it had a notched porch area cleared in the front left living room/bedroom wall. This wall had two large windows, and the living room window sat in a protruded bay area. Earlier houses of this model had pairs of small slit windows high on the wall to illuminate both bedrooms. Later, this changed into one small single window for each bedroom before changing again into one moderate-sized window for each room. The back of the house contained a bigger window for the bedroom, a vertical, slim window for the bathroom, and a back door and a paired window for the kitchen.
The three-bedroom Westchester was a bit different. First of all, it had no place for a porch. Then, there were two different models. The first had two large windows and also a small window high up in the wall for the third bedroom. The second had the small window over the first bedroom while the two larger windows were for the living room and the rear bedroom. The end bedroom endured the same progression of window sizes as the other model over the years.