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Thursday, 29 October 2015 15:46

"Steel' standing: Lustron homes once were a modern marvel

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Michael and Joyce Cleinmark of Beloit in the living room of their 1949 Lustron home on Arlington Avenue. Michael holds a copy of the assembly plans that Joyce downloaded and put into a book. Sold widely after WWII, the homes are prefabricated and made up of metal panels. Below: The siding features the distinctive square, metal panels. Michael and Joyce Cleinmark of Beloit in the living room of their 1949 Lustron home on Arlington Avenue. Michael holds a copy of the assembly plans that Joyce downloaded and put into a book. Sold widely after WWII, the homes are prefabricated and made up of metal panels. Below: The siding features the distinctive square, metal panels. Dan Plutchak/staff

STATELINE NEWS -- Michael Cleinmark leafed through a well-worn scrapbook where he keeps a Beloit Daily News front page from Oct. 22, 1949, with a photograph of his home being delivered by a specially designed truck.

"It’s the uniqueness of it," Cleinmark said, sitting in the living room of his Lustron home on Arlington Avenue in Beloit. "It’s maintenance free. Sixty-four years and it’s never been painted."

(PHOTO GALLERY of Stateline area Lustron homes)

Cleinmark and his wife, Joyce, didn’t own the home back then when it first was assembled, but Michael was very familiar with them having grown up in the Chicago area and seeing the prototype home that was built in nearby Hinsdale.

Square enameled steel panels -- known as Lustron for its "luster on steel" -- had been used in the 1940s to build businesses, but a residential version was the brainchild of Illinois inventor Carl Strandlund. He thought Lustrons could be built quickly during a post-World War II housing boom that saw scores of veterans returning to the states, marrying and starting families in their own new homes.  

His Ohio-based manufacturing company could churn out, assembly-line style, 100 prefabricated steel houses a day, according to some estimates. A grand total of 2,553 Lustrons were built between 1948 and 1950, before the company, tied up in financial and political difficulties, filed for bankruptcy.

While the designs primarily were simple rectangles and the colors were limited to tan, blue, green or gray, the ranch-style homes proved immensely popular with buyers. The modern-looking houses offered such features as pocket doors, built-ins and even an optional futuristic combination dishwasher/clothes washer. The homes’ steel exteriors and interiors were touted as maintenance free. Their cost averaged between $8,000 and $15,000.

Michael Cleinmark, who worked in the trades all of his life, and Joyce, a graphic designer, raised their family in Rockton and the couple remained fascinated with this unique slice of Americana.

When they decided to downsize about 10 years ago, the hand of fate made them Lustron homeowners.

They were familiar with the Lustron house in Beloit while driving past it over the years running errands.

About the time they decided to move, Michael happened to drive past and saw a for-sale sign hanging out front. He called his wife and told her.

"You’re kidding," she said. But he wasn’t.

They called their Realtor on Friday and scheduled a viewing Saturday morning. After talking about it that evening, they decided to take one more look.

"If we like it as much tomorrow, let’s make an offer," Michael said he told his wife.

By Sunday night, the Cleinmarks had their dream home.

When they bought the home, they stipulated that any historical documents -- blueprints, photographs or news clippings -- stay with the house. Over the years, their collection of Lustron documentation has grown.

For example, Joyce found a website where someone had scanned and uploaded the complete parts and assembly plans for a Lustron home. So, she downloaded the set and compiled the plans into a tidy book.

Over the years, the kitchen has been modernized and an addition with a family room and garage was added to the back side of the house, but as far as curb appeal goes, there’s no mistaking this historic and unique house.

On the other hand, Carol and Arthur Skeel of Janesville didn’t know much about Lustron homes when they moved in, but have since learned that the houses were a marvel of technology in their day.

The Skeels were looking to downsize in 2002 when they purchased their 66-year-old Lustron house at Washington and Maple streets in a tidy neighborhood just down from Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center on Janesville’s west side. 

Carol Skeel isn’t a big fan of the home’s exterior color -- the blue panels on the outside remain in near original condition -- but the maintenance-free convenience is what sold her and her husband on the home.

The Skeels’ home was constructed by Helgesen Builders, which took out a quarter-page ad in the Janesville Gazette announcing a formal opening of the completed home on March 6, 1949. The company hailed the home as "a new standard of living" and noted the porcelain enameled steel will never weather or stain and never need repainting, redecorating or remodeling. More than 65 years later, the Skeels can attest to that.

The 3,000 pieces that made up a Lustron house, from roof trusses and copper plumbing pipes to windows and doors, were packed on truck beds in such a way that pieces could easily be removed and assembled step by step.

The kits were shipped around the country, mostly to states east of the Rockies. A couple of homes went to Los Alamos, New Mexico; two were ordered by the U.S. Air Force in Alaska; and six even made it to a Venezuela oil camp, according to Thomas Fetters, author of "The Lustron Home: The History of a Postwar Prefabricated Housing Experiment."

In a phone interview from his home in Lombard, Illinois, Fetters explained how he’s tracked down as many Lustron homes as he could. He counted 122 of them in Wisconsin, stretching from Appleton and Beloit to Janesville and Williams Bay.

Northern Illinois communities with Lustrons include McHenry, Rockford and Harvard, which is home to the last Lustron ever built. There are a record 40 Lustrons in Lombard, but none in Chicago, where homes without plaster ceilings and walls were not permitted, Fetters said.

Lustron garages also could be ordered, but only the steel exteriors came from the manufacturer, so homeowners had to have wooden framework built for the structures, he said. 

The most common Lustron was the two-bedroom model, Fetters said.

That’s the size owned by Karina Shimer and her husband, who first saw their small steel house on Maxwell Street in Lake Geneva four years ago.

They loved the location -- just blocks from Geneva Lake -- but they had no idea they would be living in a piece of architectural history.

Shimer concedes her two-bedroom house is small, but she wasn’t deterred by its size for their family, which includes their children, ages 15, 13 and 3.

"With three kids, living small has been a challenge, but we just make it work," she said. "Even our Realtor thought (the house) was small, but we said, ‘Look at the location. Look at that price.’ We couldn’t pass it up. I thought it was charming and it has character. I saw potential.

"I love the metal tiles. The ceiling has big, flared metal tiles and the panels of the walls are not flat either. We get character without having to do anything."

Shimer has heard bits and pieces of the history of her house, including from a Chicago woman Shimer described as "a Lustron enthusiast."

Now the Shimers are in a club of Lustron homeowners that her husband discovered online. Club members can swap pieces of the houses they no longer want or need, from kitchen countertops to bathroom cabinets.

The Shimers are in the process of getting a plaque for the house as part of the Maple Park Historic District neighborhood.

Their home has been included on several Lake Geneva walking and carriage ride tours, and Shimer is used to seeing admiring visitors politely standing outside.

"We’re eventually going to buy another house, but I can see having this home forever, even if it’s a vacation house," Shimer said. "It’s definitely been exciting to have a home that’s more than a house, that’s something with history and character."

-- Writer Margaret Plevak contributed to this story.

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