The William R. Knight house is an example of the Lustron Corporation’s Westchester Deluxe two-bedroom model in their line of all-steel homes advertised as “a new standard for living.” Built on a concrete slab foundation, the one-story “modified ranch-styled” house has an area of 1,085 square feet, is encased with porcelain enameled panels, and is covered with porcelain enamel roof shingles. Windows are set in aluminum frames trimmed in yellow porcelain panels. William Knight was the local Atlanta distributor for Lustron Homes, a national manufacturer of prefabricated houses founded in 1947 and headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. Knight lived here until the 1990s, long after Lustron ceased operations.
Built as a model, the Knight residence featured the “surf blue” and “maize yellow” color scheme of standard to Lustron’s demonstration houses. While the company’s color advertisements show this exterior blue to be closer to a blue marine tone, the panels here are darker, a muted or matte celadon green. Of the ten Lustrons built in the Atlanta area by 1949, the exterior panels vary greatly in color: the 1950 Neville Farmer house in Decatur (another Westchester model) has yellow maize exterior panels; “dove gray” panels are in evident on the Lustron on Birchill Avenue in southwest Atlanta, while the Thomas Epting House on Brewer Boulevard has “desert tan” panels.
Though Lustrons are mostly found in the Midwest they exist all over the United States. By the end of 1949 the company had shipped 1,950 houses to thirty-three states and the District of Columbia. Only thirteen percent (approximately 250) Lustrons were shipped to states in the southeast, including eighteen to Georgia. The Lustron phenomenon was short-lived but illustrates a significant episode in post-World War II housing. After 1945, America experienced a high demand for new housing for military personnel returning to civilian life. In addition, huge factories, now vacant, stood ready to be retooled for civilian purpose, including the manufacturing of houses. Indeed, the Lustron factory was housed in a former military plane plant leased from the War Administration. Retooling the factory was expensive and the Lustron Corporation needed a large capital investment to initiate production, arranging for a $37.5 million loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC). By 1950 Lustron was unable to keep pace with demand and the company declared bankruptcy after the RFC recalled its loan. By this point total production had reached 2,080 Lustron houses, each made up of about 3,300 factory parts. The company had successfully demonstrated, despite a slower start, that only 300-400 man hours were needed for erection of a Lustron Home by carpenters, another 40 hours for plumbers, 25 hours for electricians, and 12-16 hours to lay floor tiles. Once the site was prepared, and the Lustron Home truck-trailer delivered the pre-fabricated parts on site, the Lustron could be built in two weeks.
Within this very brief period of production, however, Lustron offered homeowners several models, differing with respect to overall size, number of bedrooms (two or three), amenities, and color options. Accessories included aluminum screen doors, storm door insets, storm windows, an attic fan, picture hanger kits, ivory steel Venetian blinds, and garage panel packages. Colors for semi-matte finish exterior panels included only the four mentioned above: surf blue, maize yellow, dessert tan, and dove grey. The yellow and blue were used inside for kitchenettes, and dove grey for living room and bedrooms.
The process of enameling metal sheets was developed in Germany and Austria in the mid-nineteenth century. It found its way into the manufacturing of signs, various appliances, and bathroom and kitchen fixtures, remaining popular because porcelain enamel was durable, easy to clean, and did not fade. Iron was usually the base metal until low carbon sheet steel replaced it in the early twentieth century. During World War II the availability of a lighter gauge metal, produced by using lower heat for the enameling process, lowered the price of panels. In the 1930s a streamlined aesthetic featuring sleek surfaces and forms was popular in designs for gas stations, bus depots, and other roadside architecture; its application in residential architecture followed shortly thereafter. When Carl Strandlund, a Swedish-born engineer who worked at the Chicago Vitreous Enamel Products Company during the war, retooled and successfully managed a war plant producing tank armor for turrets, he was promoted and encouraged to turn his inventive mind to the creation of an architectural panel for use in housing. Strandlund patented the interlocking panels and sealed adjacent units, which formed the basic building block of the Lustron Home.
The “modified ranch house” was designed by Chicago-area architects Beckman and Blass, who initially proposed a flat-roof and open plan, suggesting that the innovative modern materials, pre-fabrication, and progressive ideas regarding production and distribution demanded a more cutting-edge aesthetic. Roy Burton Blass met Lustron’s Strandlund when he used porcelain enamel panels to remodel Chicago-area movie theaters. Morris Beckman had an architecture degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had worked as a draftsman for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Both were inclined toward more modern designs, but Strandlund emphasized the need to appeal to a mass market, and insisted on domestic imagery more Levittown than Weissenhof. The Beckman and Blass ranch house design embodied this populist orientation. In the fall of 1946, a prototype was erected in Hinsdale, Illinois, the result of approximately 200,000 hours of planning, thus establishing the model from which the company never deviated substantially. The basic five-room Esquire prototype evolved, with only minimal changes, into three other models: the Newport, the Meadowbrook, and the Westchester (the model for the Knight house).
Lustron panels were manufactured in standard 2' x 2' exterior wall panels, 2' x 8' interior wall panels, 4' x 4' ceiling panels, and shaped roof shingles, all coated on both sides to insure permanence. The Lustron home skeleton was a steel frame, welded at the factory into wall sections and roof trusses. Concealed screws fastened interlocking panels to the steel framing, and permanent plastic sealing strips, compressed between panels, formed gaskets to make the walls tight and moisture resistant. The steel houses were advertised as fireproof, rat-proof, decay-proof, termite- and rodent-proof, and, thanks to the porcelain enamel finish, the house never needed painting or re-roofing. Lustron claimed the panels would never fade, crack, or peel; however, if abuse occurred, the company claimed the house could be easily repaired (although repair involved dismantling building parts in the order they had been assembled).
On-site construction was the responsibility of the local dealer but was facilitated by the assembly-line production at the Lustron plant. Steel building parts were loaded onto Lustron truck-trailers in reverse order of the necessary sequence of unloading and assemblage. The Lustron truck trailer was a standard forty-five-foot length with the trailer portion measuring 32.5’ x 8’ x 12.3’ in order to avoid the need for crating. A fleet of 800 trailers and 200 trucks transported Lustron houses from the factory to the building site and when rail was occasionally used, trailers were put on flat-bed rail cars.
Today, surrounded by mature trees and verdant lawns, the Knight House appears modest and unremarkable with little to indicate that it was the result of a national experiment in factory-built, all-steel houses.