We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Recently, an Arlington resident purchased and razed a two-bedroom, one-bath steel house built in 1949. As he cleared the land for new construction, some neighbors cried historic destruction: That modest, light-blue structure was a Lustron home, a relic of an attempted post– World War II housing and architectural revolution.
“We knew it was the new owner’s intention to tear it down and build a new house,” says Shannon Davis, 34-year-old chair of the nonprofit Arlington Heritage Alliance (AHA). “Fortunately, we were invited to go to the site and take some salvage pieces.” The AHA advocates preservation of historic structures and sites in the county, and Arlington’s six remaining Lustron homes are on its shortlist of endangered buildings.
In the mid-’40s, inventor and self-taught engineer Carl Strandlund founded the Lustron Corp. and set out to mass-produce homes from porcelain-coated steel—the same material from which vintage claw-foot bathtubs are made. Strandlund thought that assembly-line, prefab production would quickly ease the postwar housing shortage and that homeowners would enjoy the low-maintenance material inside and out. Congress and President Truman, impressed with the promise of his vision, handsomely financed Strandlund’s plan.
Postwar Americans eagerly anticipated this housing innovation, the idea that a home could be produced in the same manner as an airplane; in fact, a plant in Ohio once used for aircraft production was converted into the Lustron factory. In the end, however, the steel-home craze never took hold. For reasons still debated, the company produced only about 2,500 homes between 1948 and 1950. (Part of the problem could have been the eventual $11,000-per-unit price tag, which was higher than that of other, similarly sized homes of the day.)
And now that single-family housing standards have far surpassed the mainly two- to three-bedroom, 1,000-plus-square-foot Lustron models, the homes are in particular danger of demolition.
“They’re not officially designated as historic by any governmental body, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important,” Davis says. “That’s why [the AHA] goes to community events to educate the public….[Lustron houses are] rare, they use a unique material, [and] they represent the need for postwar housing.”
These days, Davis can tack a preservation success story on to her awareness campaign. Clifford Krowne, a physicist at a naval research lab in D.C., purchased a dove-gray model across the street from the site of the just-demolished Lustron house. Like his neighbor, Krowne wasn’t too interested in the old house on his property. However, he didn’t end up turning to a wrecking ball.
“My original idea was to tear it down, but when I discovered that the thing was historic, I decided it would be better to save it if there was some way,” Krowne says. He donated the house to the county, which will spend between $50,000 and $70,000 transporting it to a designated parcel along Route 50 in Arlington. And, thanks to the owner of the recently wrecked model, there’s a pile of matching parts that can be used to repair potential damage from the move.
Ultimately, the structure may be transformed into temporary housing for needy families or perhaps an art studio, Davis says. For now, the most exciting thing about this Lustron house’s future is simply that it will have one.—Hope Cristol