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The allure of an all-steel home 

Some assembly required

PHOTO COURTESY OF FLIKR USER ZILLAFAG

Some assembly required

This is what a Lustron house smelled like: spicy Spanish hamburgers and Kraft macaroni and cheese with fried mush sizzling in the skillet. The ozone scent of radiant panel heat melting the snow from our boots by the back door.

This is what a Lustron house sounded like: The rumble and reverberation of steel pocket doors running along their tracks. The purr of a kitchen exhaust fan and a click as my grandma snapped its long chain.

This is what a Lustron house looked like: My grandparents and their older daughter lived in a two-bedroom 1,085-square-foot Westchester Deluxe model made from enameled dove-gray steel. Perched on a hill, it had a bay window in both the living room and the dining room. That's where my family played bridge, my grandma smoked Winstons and my grandpa puffed on cigars and yelled "Goddamnit" when he drew a bad hand.

Lustron homes, part of the pre-fab trend of the mid-to-late 1940s, were built in Columbus, Ohio, to help alleviate a housing shortage when veterans returned from World War II. More than 13,000 tons of steel and 3,000 parts were shipped on a truck to awaiting homeowners and then assembled from a kit. A "kit" sounds quaint, as if assembling a toy helicopter on Christmas Eve. Here's an example from the 167-page Lustron "Erection Manual": "Thread anchor shield on No. 1 size Phillips pilot-holder and use shield end to drill hole in concrete full depth of shield (method similar to star drilling)."

Even with those instructions, a Lustron assembly team could build a house in 360 man hours, once the concrete slab foundation had been poured. And because of that foundation, the floor did not give, and carpet did little to absorb the impact of a fall.

The steel panel exterior of a Lustron home - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLIKR USER ZILLAFAG
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF FLIKR USER ZILLAFAG
  • The steel panel exterior of a Lustron home

Touted as the house "that America is talking about," Lustron promised a "new standard for living." Cheap—just $9,000, or $89,000 in today's money—easy to maintain and clean, fire-proof, decay-proof, termite-proof, these houses could withstand several natural disasters except for a hurricane or tornado. Then they would fold like aluminum foil, as if they had been hit with a wrecking ball.

Lustron made 3,000 homes before the company went bankrupt in 1950, leaving 20,000 orders unfilled. A few hundred Lustron homes survive, including about a dozen in the Triangle (see box, this page).

How strange it would be to live in a steel house, I thought in the 1970s. Pictures were hung with magnets, every door slid into its pocket, and every drawer and shelf was built into the walls.

Now I wish I had a Lustron, specifically my grandparents' Lustron. But after they died, my aunt stayed in the house. She suffered from several mental disorders, and hoarded odd items, including Radio Shack stereo systems and assault weapons. She installed bars on those beautiful bay windows and on the doors—including the back door where I would remove my snow boots after a day of sledding.

She canceled the garbage service and began storing her trash in my grandparents' old bedroom. The bedroom where I would spend the night decades before. My grandparents had separate beds, so on those occasions, my grandma would take to the couch. In the darkness, I would lie in her bed, talk to my grandpa about basketball until I fell asleep. In the morning, we'd slide open the pocket door, and there would be eggs, toast and bacon—and the purr of the exhaust fan.

My aunt died in that house, in her bedroom, across the hall from my grandparents', by her own hand. Considering what had happened, we didn't feel right about selling the home. So we razed the Lustron, all 3,000 parts, all 13,000 tons of steel.

Art of the Steel

North Carolina Modernist Houses (www.ncmodernist.org) has compiled a history and list of Lustron houses in North Carolina. Here is a list of Triangle houses to lust after. In addition, at least one is in storage and another was buried in a hole near Jordan Lake.

Raleigh

3612 Buffaloe Road, 406 Yarmouth Road

Apex

274 McCoy Road

Durham

1404 Virginia Ave., 2120 Sprunt Ave.,

2421 Perkins Road, 1811 Glendale Ave.,

1906 Glendale Ave.

Chapel Hill

109 Stephens St., 5 Mount Bolus Road

Pittsboro

425 Credle St.; 603 West St. (for sale)

RIP, destroyed by Hurricane Fran:

2821 Van Dyke Ave., Raleigh

1733 Brooks Ave., Raleigh

RIP, destroyed for a new house:

1700 Banbury Road, Raleigh

This article appeared in print with the headline "Lusting after Lustron"

  • Touted as the house "that America is talking about," Lustron promised a "new standard for living."

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