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Considered an icon of the post-World War II conception of the American Dream, the Lustron home has its place on the National Register.
Charles Gunnard Strandlund, a Chicago businessman who had been toying with the idea of prefabricated structures, was the man behind the revolutionary idea of the Lustron.
Strandlund worked for Chicago Vitreous-Enamel Co., which made porcelain-enameled steel wall panels used by Standard Oil of Indiana for the exterior siding on their service stations. The product trade name was "Lusterlite,” and Strandlund altered the name to “Lustron,” a name that came to represent the hundreds of homes built around the country.
An article published in the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency’s publication “Historic Illinois” in October 1993, told that Strandlund’s abilities as a salesman were nearly legendary.
In 1946, he traveled to Washington as a novice lobbyist, and where Congress was not in favor of subsidizing steel for use in gas stations, they were willing to set aside $37.5 million dollars for the Lustron homes. The project was nearly all federally funded, with Strandlund investing $1,000.
The Commerce Department was upset because steel was scarce and each home would take 12.5 tons of steel in its fabrication. Steel was needed for the war effort, and to siphon off the amount of steel needed to get the assembly-line started was a big deal.
However, homes would be needed for returning GIs, and the Reconstruction Finance Corp. supported the idea of the pre-fabricated houses. Lewis Starr, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, also signed on to the idea of affordable housing for veterans.
Designed by a young architect, Morris H. Beckman, the homes had more than 1,000 square feet living space and boasted radiant heating panels in the ceiling. Cabinets were built in, as was a vanity in the master bedroom, a bookcase in the living room and pocket doors throughout to enhance space.
Strandlund estimated that a home would sell for $7,000, but by the time the 12-ton homes came off the assembly line, the cost had ballooned to $11,000 per unit, which didn’t include the pad … or the lot. His calculation that they could produce 100 homes per day at their Columbus, Ohio, factory never materialized. It was closer to 40. To break even, the factory needed to produce 50 per day.
The first house came off the assembly line in 1946, and was erected in Hinsdale. Model homes were placed around the country, and orders began to pour in. They were durable and available in a variety of colors and models, including the “Standard” and “Deluxe” which were 31 feet by 35 feet in size, and the smaller “Newport” and “Meadowbrook,” which were 25 feet by 31 feet, all with three bedrooms.
Strandlund hired many veterans of the auto industry to work in his Ohio plant, and at its peak in mid-1949, he employed more than 3,400 workers.
By 1951, with the company losing $1 million dollars a day, it closed. Approximately 2,500 Lustron homes were built in the United States by that time, with many standing to this day, such as the one on East Fifth Street in Ramsey.
Those who own this “dream home” of yesterday would be the first to tell you that this it was, and still is, way ahead of its time.