Lombard, Illinois has a particularly interesting mix of housing from every period since its founding in 1833. We are staying in a house built from a kit purchased from Sears Roebuck in 1926, and there are several of these around town, but there is another experimental type, the Lustron House, that has more than a dozen surviving examples in Lombard. We took ourselves on a self-guided tour of some of these very intriguing houses.
Lustron Houses were developed as part of the post WWII effort to construct housing for returning GIs and their families. Carl Strandlund, a Chicago industrialist and inventor, was going to build gas stations for Standard Oil, but was told he could only get an allocation of steel if he were to build homes. He came up with the idea of building an all steel house using enameled steel panels for a maintenance-free exterior, pitching his homes as a way for families to maximize their free time together.
Between 2500-3000 Lustron houses were built, and many are still standing, due to the sturdy steel panels, the same material used to make enameled cookware, though heavier. Even the roof tiles have lasted 50 years or more. These are relatively small houses, 700-1100 sq ft. and those that have been demolished were generally removed to make way for larger homes. The enameled steel construction was quite strong and durable, but didn’t lend itself to remodeling or additions. As anyone who has chipped the corner of an enameled pot knows, the chips can’t be mended. Most surviving examples are in their original form in one of the four colors that were available. On our tour, we wondered whether the relatively small size of these houses has turned some into rental properties. About half of the Lustrons we saw had minimal landscaping and outdoor maintenance.
The built-in metal bookshelves and cupboards were handy, but there was no way to add a picture hook except for magnets. This might be an excellent house for a true minimalist. Having seen all four exterior colors in different settings, we concluded our tour, intrigued by the concept. Today Lustron houses are a collectors item, though the use of steel in home construction was ahead of its time.
You can read more about Lustron Houses, why the company founded by Strandlund failed, the politics of the time, and where to find examples in 36 states.