Sixty years ago, a Chicago company offered prefab homes acclaimed as "a model for living." Three of them are still standing in Memphis. Meet one of the owners.
When Sydney Bell's neighbors need to fix up their homes in the High Point Terrace area, they haul out ladders, paint buckets, brushes, scrapers, hammers, and all sorts of tools. His job is considerably easier. "I just take water and a sponge and wash down the whole house, inside and out," he says. "It's pretty much maintenance-free."
Bell owns a rather unusual residence — an all-metal prefabricated home erected by the Lustron Company of Chicago in the late 1940s. Almost every inch of the interior and exterior — including the walls, ceilings, cabinets, and doors — is made of interlocking porcelain-coated panels. The porcelain itself came in an assortment of colors, so no painting is ever required.
"When I first moved in and looked around, all I saw at first were metal walls and shelves and doors," says Bell, a glass-blowing artist and sculptor. "I began to wonder, did I just move into a huge school locker?"
Bell lives in one of only four Lustron homes constructed in Memphis. In addition to his residence on Charleswood, other Lustrons were built on Eastwood in Midtown, Bluebird in Whitehaven, and Barfield in East Memphis. The home on Barfield was demolished 15 years ago.
The Lustron company started out in the 1930s as the Chicago Vitreous Enamel Company, producing gleaming porcelain panels for gas stations, movie theaters, and White Castle hamburger stands. After the war, so the story goes, because of steel rationing, the company was told it could only use its products to build homes for veterans, so that's how it got into the housing business.
The company changed its name to Lustron and produced some 2,500 homes throughout the United States. They created basically three models — the two- and three-bedroom Westchester, the smaller Newport, and a variation on the Newport called the Meadowbrook. In Memphis, potential buyers could order their model and color from a booth set up at the Mid-South Fair. Bell's home is a Westchester model, and it still carries the stamped-metal tag on the kitchen wall that identifies it as a "Lustron Home — A New Standard for Living — Model 0-2."
"An old fellow who lives down the street told me that he remembers watching this home being built," says Bell. "Apparently the whole thing came on a truck, and you just put it together piece by piece."
New Lustron homes originally cost less than $10,000 — about 25 percent cheaper than buildings using conventional construction. They were designed to be erected on a concrete slab in less than three days — a remarkable schedule considering that the Lustron kits contained more than 30,000 pieces. Plumbing, wiring, and a gas furnace system were already installed. Even the roof was formed of colored metal panels. Each home was given a serial number, stamped on the tag in the kitchen (Bell's is #01765). That same tag advises owners, "Call your dealer for service."
That might be a problem. Although the homes were built to last for decades, the company didn't.
"They put a lot of money into things like building the world's largest hydraulic press to stamp out metal bathtubs, instead of just buying the tubs," says Tom Fetters, author of Lustron Home: The History of a Postwar Prefabricated Housing Experiment. "And in some cities, the cost of the homes went up when local electrical and plumbing unions insisted on hooking up services in the homes, which meant pulling out the prefabricated systems already in place." As a result, the company went out of business in 1950.
A Lustron website (lustronpreservation.org) lists most of the homes still standing. Some 1,500 have survived from coast to coast, including 19 in Tennessee. "I would say mine is about 90 percent original," says Bell, who purchased his home six years ago. Over the years, previous owners added a new furnace, replaced the roof (with a green sheet-metal one that closely resembles the original), and added modern fixtures in the bathroom. The windows were also replaced, since the 1940s versions didn't allow for the installation of window air-conditioners.
Almost everything else about the house — including the kitchen sink, door and cabinet handles, bookshelves, and even the nice rippled-glass panel in the front door — has survived. In the kitchen, Bell tugs a pull chain to operate an air vent. A metal flap opens outside, and the fan motor switches on, just as it has for more than half a century.
The house isn't perfect. The forced-air furnace system heats a narrow space above the ceiling panels in every room, but there are no vents. Radiant heat was supposed to warm the house. "But heat actually rises," says Bell, "so in the winter the floors get pretty cold. I don't think they really thought that out."
Like many Lustron owners, Bell had to come up with unique ways to hang pictures. It's hard to tap a nail into those steel walls, so he screwed hooks to sturdy magnets. He also discovered a more recent problem that never occurred to the Lustron designers of the 1940s. "You can't really use a cell phone inside the house, since you're surrounded by steel," he says. "Sometimes I have to stand by a window to get a good signal."
Even so, the advantages outweigh quirks like these. Unlike most homeowners in Memphis, Bell doesn't have to worry about termites. "What would they eat here?" he says. "And it's the perfect house for anybody who has allergies. You just wash away any dust and dirt."
Some people, it seems, still don't understand the benefits of an all-metal home; he can't convince his insurance company that he doesn't need fire insurance. "There's no way this thing could ever burn down, but they won't let me drop fire coverage from the policy," he says, laughing.
Bell says that people stop all the time to snap pictures of his unusual home. "It gets a lot of attention. It was really ahead of its time. Since it's so maintenance-free, it's like Lustron built a 'green' house before anybody was even using that term."