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Published: Sunday, 7/4/2004

Toledo area boasts large group of all-steel Lustron homes

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Elizabeth Keener has lived in her South Toledo Lustron since it was built in 1950. Shortly afterward, a family room and garage were added. Elizabeth Keener has lived in her South Toledo Lustron since it was built in 1950. Shortly afterward, a family room and garage were added.
ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge

Most area residents know Toledo is the home to Jeep, one of the great enduring mechanical legacies of World War II.

But most may not know Toledo also can lay claim to one of largest collections of a somewhat forgotten postwar legacy: all-steel pre-fabricated homes built by the long-defunct Lustron Corp.

Manufactured in a factory in Columbus and shipped by truck to its site, the Lustron home was a futuristic idea for a maintenance-free, nearly indestructible, inexpensive, quickly assembled home to counter a national housing shortage brought on by returning war veterans.

But Lustron, the brainchild of Ohio entrepreneur Carl Strandlund, fell staggeringly short of its goal to produce 45,000 houses a year.

Only about 3,000 of the steel-paneled ranch-style houses were made between 1948 and 1950, when the company went bankrupt amid a financial scandal and the sudden calling of a $12.5 million government loan.

But in the 18 months that Lustron operated, 32 houses were built in Toledo, according to company records.

"Toledo has got a really good number. If they're all still standing, you may even have the highest number of Lustron homes other than Quantico, Va.," said Tom Fetters, author of Lustron Homes: The History of a Postwar Prefabricated Housing Experiment.

Quantico, a Marine Corps base, has 60 Lustron homes, but all have been remodeled at least three times and have lost many of their distinctive features, he said. The houses were built in many states.

The whereabouts of all of Toledo's Lustron homes is not documented, but Mr. Fetters has found 19 through company records. Nearly all, he said, are the two-bedroom model known as the Westchester. Many are in south Toledo near Maumee. At least one is in Perrysburg, and another is in Sylvania.

They are easily recognizable by their enamel-coated two-foot-square steel panels, their distinctive colors (pink, tan, yellow, aqua, blue, green, and gray), and their steel roofs.

The houses, made of porcelain-enameled steel, were built on a concrete slab, with no basement, and were touted by the company as "fire-safe, rat-proof, decay-proof, termite-proof." They were offered in a two designs and were said not to affect radio or television reception and to be safe from lightning damage.

Elizabeth Keener and her late husband, Leonard, bought a Lustron in 1950 for about $11,000 and had it shipped to their South Toledo site.

She has lived in the house ever since. Recently, the Lucas County auditor's office appraised the house alone at $147,000.

"We saw a folder on it and it just looked practical and ideal," Mrs. Keener said of her yellow Lustron home.

The house arrived on a truck and was assembled in a week. Shortly after the Keeners bought their Lustron, Mr. Keener added an attached family room (built of wood) and a two-car garage.

Both were clad in steel panels he purchased from Lustron to make them an aesthetic match.

"It's nice. It's just so easy to clean," Mrs. Keener said. "You just wash it down with a hose." Lustrons used a radiant heating system installed in a hollow area above the ceiling, making them nearly dust-free.

The two styles of houses were a two-bedroom, 1,093-square-foot model with porch, or a three-bedroom, 1,217-square-foot. Optional were breezeways, patios, carports, screened porches, and garages.

Toledo-area brothers Dave and Phil Najarian own two Lustrons. One, on Circular Drive in Toledo, is rented. The other, on South Byrne Road in Toledo, they recently remodeled and will sell.

Lustrons had a number of then-unusual built-in amenities, including shelves and cabinets, bedroom drawers and a vanity, a kitchen vent fan, and even a combination dishwasher-washing machine. Dave Najarian said many of those things had to be removed because the house had fallen somewhat into disrepair. He updated some fixtures and doors.

The overall durability and nearly maintenance-free aspects, however, are no myth, Phil Najarian said. "It's a cool house. Sometimes you get pit marks on the outside because it's baked enamel. But you really don't get a lot of deterioration if you keep it up a little," he added.

The brothers said the roof is in great shape, along with the walls and ceiling. An oil-fired heating furnace that was standard equipment in the house was swapped for gas heat years ago, they said.

Mr. Fetters, the author, said changing the heat system was common, as was removing the dishwasher-washing machine, only a few of which have survived and are highly sought after as collector's items. They are thought to be the first instance of including an appliance with a home.

Mrs. Keener said the dishwasher-washing machine, which required manually switching a water inlet, didn't get much use at her house. "It was a bother having to switch back and forth. It wasn't anything you'd want to use for either purpose. It was a hassle," she said.

Mr. Fetters said other flaws were closet doors that broke down and jammed frequently, cold spots because of the heatin system, and a gutter system that rusted out.

Oddly, because the roof was made of steel, people who added aluminum gutters caused rust damage to the roof because steel, aluminum, and water combined to make a chemical reaction like that of a battery.

For their first 49 years, Lustrons were mostly forgotten. But in 1999 they jumped back into prominence because they became eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. "Several homeowners have done that," Mr. Fetters said.

An award-winning Public Broadcasting Service television documentary on Lustrons and Mr. Fetters' book has fueled interest, as has an owners group that held its third annual convention in Columbus last month.

Two unrelated groups also have taken an interest in Lustrons: historic preservationists, and surprisingly, allergy sufferers.

"The preservationists were the first to become active, but now there's this second cluster of people - people with severe environmental allergies. Since there's no formaldehyde or other chemicals in an all-steel home, it's perfect for those people," Mr. Fetters said.

Part of the reason Lustrons did not sell well originally was their price: about $10,500 for the two-bedroom model. In 1950, a stick-built house cost about $7,000.

"Ten thousand dollars - that's not a cheap house, and it was supposed to be an economical house for returning veterans. Plus, you had to pay shipping," Mr. Fetters said

Over time, though, the same stick-built house would have cost several times more in maintenance, compared with almost no such expenses in a Lustron, Mr. Fetters said.

The value of the houses has surged, although not far out of line with inflation over that period.

Most are being sold today for about $80,000, Mr. Fetters said. One in Boston recently sold for $500,000, and one near Des Moines has an asking price of $10,000. In the Chicago area, they sell for $80,000 to $140,000. The Najarians paid $67,000 for their Circular Road house in 2001 and $46,000 for the South Byrne Road house last year.

Unfortunately, Mr. Fetters said, many buyers are interested only in the land, frequently demolishing the Lustron home.

"We're losing a lot of them when they could be saved," he added.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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