The Luster of Lustron
Eight cool facts about one of Rochester’s most interesting houses (and its owner).
A little slice of homebuilding history sits quietly in a northeast Rochester neighborhood.
Invented in the 1940s to solve the housing need created by returning GIs from WWII, Lustron homes were “the House America Has Been Waiting For.” The 1,000-square-foot homes were constructed entirely of enameled steel, made on a production line, and bolted onto a concrete slab for around $10,000 each—compared to $12,000-$15,000 for comparable stick-built homes—plus the land and concrete pouring costs.
Renee Thoreson’s house, built over the course of two days in 1950, was one of the last Lustrons constructed.
Upon completion, the Westchester Deluxe-style Lustron—in the 700 block of 13th Avenue northeast—served as a model home for the area. In a one-day public showing, Rochester Realtors Stan Mohn and Haven Hodge (of Mohn and Hodge Realtors) received more than 100 home orders—with $100 deposits—while sitting at a desk set up in the Lustron’s dinette.
None of the homes, though, would ever be delivered, they told us for a previous story. The Lustron Corporation was bankrupt by the end of 1950 after producing just 2,560 homes—of which an estimated 1,950 still stand.
That said, Thoreson’s home features many 1950s features that are useful today—like built-in storage, soap-and-water cleaning, and ahead-of-its-time copper plumbing. Read on for more cool features.
What do Lustron homes have in common with Harry Potter?
Well, both ideas were scrawled on a napkin at the very beginning. Carl Stradlund, the Swedish immigrant who moved to Moline, Ill. at age four, sketched out the idea for an assembly-line home on a table napkin shortly after learning about the post-WWII housing crisis.
What’s your number?
Originally, each home had a serial number located in the utility room. Sadly, Thoreson’s not sure exactly when her home came off the assembly line. The plate was removed by a former owner sometime before she—the home’s fifth owner—moved in (1989).
“The squiggle,” a fanciful built-in trellis next to the porch, is also lost from one side of Thoreson’s house. She did, however, find a 1951 fishing calendar stuck behind some furniture, which has joined her vintage-inspired decor.
Weathering the storm.
Ease of maintenance was a huge selling point for the Lustron homes. “They were considered durable, washable,” Thoreson says. “Rodent-proof.” Thoreson’s Lustron home still has its original roof, which has “never once leaked,” she says. “If I’m somewhere else and it’s bad weather, I feel not as safe as when I’m at home.” The house includes pocket doors, which “slide right into the wall and disappear,” and built-in metal closets, shelving, and vanities. And as far as washing the exterior, “you just get a hose,” Thoreson says.
Joseph and Judith Foss, according to Thoreson, purchased the Lustron in October of 1949 from Peter Nelson & Son Inc. in La Crosse, Wis. for approximately $9,900. A crew assembled the house—and its more than 12 tons of steel and approximately 4,000 parts—in just over two days in January 1950.
It’s all in the details.
Thoreson had a vintage decorating scheme to match the outside of her house, but she’s added Scandinavian and Norwegian touches to reflect her heritage in the last few years. She enjoys Norwegian handcrafts like hardanger (embroidery), svidekor (wood burning decoration), and kolrosing and kroting (incised wood decoration). The whole house is coordinated. Magnetic Scrabble tiles spell out “Lustron” on the walk in. And—last but not least—a Little Free Library sits in her front lawn, painted to match that surf blue-and-gray exterior.
Speaking of paint, remodeling a Lustron is a trick.
New doorways would have to be cut into the metal, and expansions obviously won’t look the same. Lustrons weren’t made with modern technology reliance in mind, either. Thoreson got the whole house rewired when she moved in. She added AC and a water softener in ’96. Her kitchen was redone with wood cabinets and counters. One of her walls in the living room was redone in drywall to cover over an inset bookcase—now it houses a television and collection display (of head vases, which used to be sold with small floral arrangements). After all that, getting the house back to original condition is basically impossible. Thoreson texture-painted the walls cream and gray in some rooms “before (she) knew better.” “Sometimes I get purist and I would like to get down to the original,” she says—that’s a porcelain enamel on steel, in case you were wondering. And the original built-in kitchen dishwasher converted into a clotheswasher, but that was removed long ago.
Thoreson’s walls are all metal. So if she wants to hang anything relatively light on the wall, she can turn to magnets to do the trick—which is way easier than trying to hammer a nail into enameled steel. “If I want to remind myself of something, the dining room is good,” Thoreson said. “I’ll just stick something here.”
Join the club.
Being a Lustron owner is more than a personal milestone—it’s a ticket into a super-exclusive club. Lustron owners meet up, make Facebook pages, and register their locations online. Many of the homes have names, as well, like the Lunchbox, Heavy Metal House, Aqua Villa, Bomb Shelter, Lego House, the Jetson House, and Metal Mansion. Until recently, Thoreson’s nickname was the “Lustron Lodge.” She’s since changed it to the “Koselig Cottage” (koselig is Norwegian for “cozy”).
Want to stay in a Lustron house?
There’s a Lustron for rent just an hour away in La Crosse, Wis. Bluff View House Rentals has a Lustron house (Model 02, Serial No. 01752) for rent—and, according to the website, “the exterior still has a shine.” It runs from $115-$150 per night. bluffviewhouserental.com/lustron-history