Lament for a Lustron
Two years ago, I watched as a small, gable-roofed house began a long, unusual journey from its banal suburban lot in Virginia to one of the most impressive destinations in the world — the Museum of Modern Art. Four months after its glittering New York City debut, after thousands of visitors walked through it and marveled at it, that house returned to a Virginia warehouse in pieces. And there it remains today, its future uncertain.
Despite its modest size and traditional profile, that house was no ordinary house, but an all-steel Lustron. Built between 1948 and 1950 in a Columbus, OH, factory, Lustrons are prefabricated, porcelain-enameled steel houses that were designed to meet the postwar housing demand and revolutionize how houses were sold and built. Offered in an array of colors, the homes were advertised as affordable and low-maintenance and came in two- and three-bedroom models. Lustrons represent the perfect marriage of traditional design and mid-century Modernism — a technologically advanced house wrapped in a comforting, suburban form. It’s all metal for sure, but you’ll find no flat roofs or cantilevered balconies here.
With a multi-million dollar subsidy from the federal government, Lustrons became approved homes under the guaranteed mortgage program for returning veterans. More than 2,500 were built nationwide, and thousands more had been ordered when the company went bankrupt. Because of their novel materials, highly ordered building structure and relative rarity, Lustrons are increasingly recognized as historic. Several states — including Alabama, Georgia and Kansas — have successfully listed Lustrons on the National Register of Historic Places.
Virginia, for its part, boasted two major collections of Lustron houses — 60 were built on the Marine Corps base at Quantico and 11 were built here in Arlington County, where I live. Yet in recent years, these houses have nearly all disappeared. In a high-profile case, all but three of Quantico’s Lustrons were destroyed in the last few years to make way for new housing (two were kept on base almost as souvenirs and one was dismantled and hauled away by an enterprising architect). In Arlington, only four Lustrons remain standing, so when the opportunity arose to save one and eventually bring it to MoMA, I jumped at the chance to participate.
This particular Lustron was donated to the county by a generous owner who hoped to see it preserved and reused, with support from county preservation staff and the Arlington Heritage Alliance (a preservation group on whose board I serve). Once the deal was struck, the house was documented and dismantled and placed in storage. (Based on this effort, my colleague Cynthia Liccese-Torres and I co-authored The Illustrious Lustron: A Guide for the Disassembly and Preservation of America’s Modern Metal Marvel).
Then MoMA came calling, looking for a Lustron to reassemble for its acclaimed 2008 exhibit Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling. I worked alongside a group of intrepid volunteers to rebuild the house in the museum for the exhibit, alongside works by Frank Lloyd Wright, Jean Prouvé and others. As I stood in MoMA on the exhibit’s crowded opening night, I imagined its triumphant return to Arlington, where it was to be rebuilt for some new community use — a visitor center, art gallery, performing arts space or something else.
It didn’t work out that way. Ever since the exhibit ended and the economy tanked, the MoMA Lustron has gathered dust in that warehouse, forlorn and forgotten.
But my hopes for its future remain. Lustrons represent a major attempt in our collective history to marry traditional housing design with the wonders of the modern age. They were models of Yankee ingenuity. Now we need more of that ingenuity — not to mention funding and support — to save the MoMA Lustron. I welcome your ideas.