Ann Arbor’s Steel Houses
Author: Grace Shackman
Once the object of neighbors’ wrath, Lustron homes have emerged as winsome modernist antiques.
Lustron homes were one of the most innovative solutions to the post-World War II housing shortage. Nine of them can still be found in Ann Arbor, in close to their original condition despite dire predictions at the time of their construction (1948-1950) that they would soon be a pile of rust.
Except for the cement slab they rest on, Lustron homes are made entirely of steel. The outside walls consist of two-foot square, porcelain-finished steel panels in either yellow or tan. The roofs are made of interlocking steel tiles. The inside walls are also of steel, as are the doors, ceilings, and the built-in furniture. A clever room layout of halls, sliding doors, and large windows makes maximum use of the space, and the 1,025-square-foot, two-bedroom houses feel much roomier than they are. Jane Barnard, owner of the Lustron at 3060 Lakeview, says, “The use of space is perfect. There is nothing I would change.”
Lustron homes were the brainchild of Carl Strandlund, an industrial engineer who worked for a Chicago company that manufactured porcelainized steel panels for gas station exteriors. Strandlund’s great inspiration was to use essentially the same material for housing.
For start-up money, Strandlund got a $15.5 million loan from the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation, followed by several other loans. He used the money to take over a huge, twenty-three-acre factory in Columbus, Ohio. There he set up his sheet-metal presses, high-speed welding rigs, enamel sprayers, and drying ovens. His house kits, designed to be set up like giant Erector sets, began coming off the line in 1948. Each kit consisted of 3,300 individual parts and weighed 10 tons. The original price was $7,000.
Lustrons came to Ann Arbor through the efforts of visionary businessman Neil Staebler, who heard about them while working in Washington for the Federal Housing Administration in the years just after the war. He recalls, “I thought they were a swell idea. Lustron promised to be a durable material, which it has proved to be.” When he returned to Ann Arbor to live, he applied for the local Lustron franchise.
In all, Staebler was able to arrange for nine Lustron homes to be built: at 605 Linda Vista; 3060 Lakewood; 1121,1125, and 1129 Bydding; 1711 Chandler; 800 Starwick; 1910 Longshore; and 1200 S. Seventh. All but one were put up by Clarence Kollewehr, a carpenter who went on to become the business manager of Local 512 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. Kollewehr and his crew, which consisted of two other carpenters and two laborers, had some trouble erecting the first few Lustrons, but soon became so adept that they hardly had to refer to the building manual. If there were no snags, they could erect a Lustron home in less than a week.
Kollewehr has fond memories of the Lustrons, which he describes as “an engineering monument when you consider how they were built.” The only problem he remembers is that the outside panels would sometimes get chipped while being pounded in. But the kit was so well designed that it even included enamel paint in the color of the model, so that the crew could do quick touch-ups at the end of the day.
The Lustrons’ practical, progressive aura appealed especially to people at the U-M. But probably the best-known Lustron buyers were Ray and Olive Dolph, builders of the Dolph mansion in the Lakewood subdivision off Jackson Road. When they decided to move to a smaller house, leaving the mansion for their son, Charles, and his family, the Dolphs chose a Lustron, appreciating its nice house plan and new materials. Says Charles’s ex-wife, Marge Reade, “We were liberal about those things.”
Few people, it turned out, were as liberal as the Dolphs. “The city didn’t care much for [Lustrons], or the neighbors either,” recalls Clarence Kollewehr. “There were comments wherever we worked. The neighbors were not tickled.” After selling nine Lustrons, Staebler decided to switch to more conventional prefabs, finding the opposition to Lustrons “a hornet’s nest.” Lustron was going out of business anyway. Although the houses were well designed, the company never became financially stable and went bankrupt in 1950.
During the Lustron bankruptcy hearings, it was revealed that Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, one of Carl Strandlund’s staunchest supporters in his loan requests, had been paid $10,000 by Lustron to write a 36-page article explaining how veterans could get housing loans. Although a direct connection between payment for the article and McCarthy’s support for the Lustron loans was never proved, many found it curious that McCarthy earned more per word than Winston Churchill, whose war memoirs then held the record.
In spite of the scandal and the warnings of early death by rust, ihe local Lustrons and others around the country have held up remarkably well. Ron Hin-terman, a former owner of the Lustron on Seventh, says, “It looks the same now as it ever did.” Of the Lakewood Lustron, Marge Reade says, “It looks as good as it first did. It will be recorded by history as quite a little card.”
Some Lustron owners have had to endure quite a bit of teasing. Rachel Massey, who recently moved from the Lustron on Chandler, says her friends dubbed it “the little Fleetwood.” Richard Sears, who lives on Bydding, says his friends compare his home to a refrigerator, asking him if a light comes on when he opens the front door.
When Bob Preston moved into the Lustron on Linda Vista, his friends threw a housewarming party. Most of the gifts were magnets, plus a can opener that came with a note: “In case you forget your house key.”
Owners find Lustron maintenance relatively easy once they get used to it. The outside is easily cleaned with a garden hose, while the inside walls respond nicely to soap and water. Rust is a problem only when the walls chip, and then it can be treated with a car-body product such as Rustoleum or Bondo. Over the years, owners have also taken highly divergent approaches to interior decorating. Massey had fun with Art Deco. Claire and Paul Tinkerhouse, the current owners of the Lustron on Linda Vista, have painted the walls with textured paint and decorated with antiques to downplay the shiny steel look. Jane Barnard keeps her decor clean and open so as not to let the lines dividing the steel panels make the house seem too fussy.
Jazz musician Ron Brooks, owner of one of the Bydding Lustrons, moved one of the walls to enlarge his living room and added dry wall. (Brooks was intrigued to hear of the Staebler connection, since his jazz club, the Bird of Paradise, is located in the garage that was part of Staebler and Sons car dealership, a business begun by Neil Staebler’s father.) The only current owner not to sing the praises of his Lustron is artist Richard Sears. “It’s not terribly efficient, hard to insulate,” says Sears. “If I could afford it, I’d tear it down and donate it to the landfill.” Sears has also made the most dramatic interior changes of any Lustron owner: he’s removed all but the bathroom walls so he has room to stand back and view his paintings.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: The innovative all-steel Lustron kit house made the cover of Architectural Forum in June 1947. When production started in 1948, the ten-ton, 3,300-piece prefab houses sold for just $7,000.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Lustrons’ diverse room layout made the small homes feel surprisingly roomy. “The use of space is perfect,” says owner Jane Barnard. Barnard’s Lustron in the Lakewood subdivision was built as a retirement home by Ray and Olive Dolph; they moved into it from the nearby Dolph mansion.