Thursday, July 7, 2022

A New Idea of Home: Closter's Lustron House

Here at Hidden New Jersey, we’re big fans of lemonade makers – entrepreneurial spirits who make the most of what some less creative folks might find to be a problem. Edison’s Portland cement business, for example, capitalized on crushing technology that had been used in the inventor’s ill-fated iron ore mining venture, eventually leading to an outstanding, durable concrete product. As you’ll recall from our previous travels, Edison extolled the virtues of the product for use in everything from road surfaces to inexpensive and quickly-erected housing developments.

Another example of ingenuity stands at 421 Durie Avenue in Closter. The one-story enamel-clad home and garage is one of a handful of still-extant examples of a company’s efforts to overcome one post-World War II crisis by attempting to solve another. Originally owned by the Hess family, the house is one of the 2680 prefabricated housing units made by the Lustron Corporation, a division of Chicago Vitreous Enamel Company. It would be no surprise if it puts you in the mind of mid-20th century prefabricated structures like gas stations – Chicago Vit made those, too. Expanding into the post-World War II housing business was one executive’s means of keeping the company in business when the supply of steel was scarce and regulated by the federal government.

Before we get to the business end, though, let’s take a look at the Lustron House that’s been lovingly restored by dedicated friends and the Closter Historical Society. I checked it our on a pre-COVID weekend afternoon during one of its monthly open houses, announced on the Friends of the Hess Lustron House Facebook page.   

The Lustron’s enamel-clad panels and boxy form make it easy to spot among the other homes in the neighborhood. A distinctive zig-zag metal pillar holds up the corner of the roof over a small concrete porch that leads to the front door. Walk through that door, and you’re already in a small living room, tastefully decorated with 1950’s era furnishings. You’d expect that a metal house would feel antiseptic, but it felt cozy despite the metal walls and ceiling, and the linoleum flooring underfoot. As manufactured, the house was equipped with radiant heat, which oddly worked through the ceiling panels, rather than the floor.

Just to the left of the living room, there’s a dining area with a pass-through opening in the adjacent wall.

Step through the doorway and you’re in a small but well-appointed kitchen whose cupboards are stacked with Boontonware tableware and 50’s era grocery items. A mid-century range/oven and refrigerator stand ready for use.

An adjacent laundry room still holds a rotary clothes press on a desk with matching chair – the perfect setting for a mid-century homemaker to continue with her chores even as she rested her feet. The only thing missing from the Hess domestic executive’s original domain was the Thor Automagic, a space-saving combination clothes washing machine, dishwasher and kitchen sink. Yes, you read that right! The same innovative device could wash your clothes and your dinner plates, though not at the same time. Like many other Lustron homeowners, the Hess family eventually discovered that the Thor left much to be desired. Perhaps they grew weary of having to change out the machine’s drums; in any case, they replaced Thor with a standard sink that remains today.

Two bedrooms and a full bath make up the remainder of the house, each with a space-saving pocket door to afford privacy.

The master bedroom feels fairly spacious, with plenty of built-in storage that brought to mind an oversized office cubicle, but without the cloth wall panels. Metal-doored closets stood on either side of a long, built-in vanity backed by counter to ceiling mirrors that lend depth to the room. The second bedroom, decorated with vintage toys, games and a typewriter, probably would have been cramped living quarters for siblings to share. A Fort Lee High School banner was stuck to the wall with magnets, a reminder that interior d├ęcor in a Lustron couldn’t rely on the typical hammer and nails to hang pictures or keepsakes. You could, however, decorate your bedroom wall with refrigerator magnets!

Apart from the large enamel tiles lining the walls, the sole bathroom in the house is pretty typical for a mid-century house. The only replacement seems to be the sink and vanity combo, which ironically seems the most worn of anything in the home.

The entire house is less than 1100 square feet: tight quarters for today’s McMansion families but pretty much the standard for starter housing in postwar America. A Lustron would have felt spacious for young couples relegated to living with their parents and in-laws due to post-war housing shortages.

It might have been just the ticket for recently-married Harold Hess. Lustron caught his eye during a 1949 visit to Palisades Amusement Park, where a model was displayed by the company's local dealer, Better Living Homes of Maplewood. For less than $10,000, the dealer promised that a team of his workers could build the house in less than 360 man hours.

The house purchased, Hess needed a place to put it. He originally hoped to build in Fort Lee but found local planning and zoning boards less than receptive to an enamel-clad house. After a six-month ordeal, he found building codes to be more lenient in Closter, where he got clearance to build at the corner lot at Durie Avenue and Legion Place. The company delivered all the parts for its Westchester model home to the site in one of its trademark tractor trailers, ready for assembly, complete with an optional garage and enclosed connector corridor.

The Lustron Corporation promised a low-maintenance house, and apparently that’s what they delivered. Aside from the problematic Thor Automagic and some predictable wear on light switches and some of the cabinetry, the place looks pretty darn good. The walls and ceilings could be rubbed down with a little wax when they needed touching up.

With all of these advantages, why isn’t Lustron still in business today? A litany of issues arose fairly quickly, due to poor planning that couldn't be overcome by the extensive sales campaign that had gotten so many people excited about the future of prefab steel homes. In fact, Hess reportedly felt fortunate to get his house at all, given that the company was headed into bankruptcy.

In creating a national sales network, the Lustron folks apparently didn’t consider the expense and complications of shipping their product from their Ohio factory to building sites throughout the country. The interstate highway system was yet to be built, and shipping by train would still require transport from railyard to the ultimate destination. The Lustron Corporation was left to create its own shipping infrastructure, using specially-designed trucks that could accommodate the full weight of an entire house. Needless to say, it was neither easy nor inexpensive to ship individual homes. Tract homes could be built much less expensively and were.

Then there were the financial issues. Lustron executives had relied on substantial government assistance to get the business going, securing a $37 million loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a Depression-era federal entity that made loans to banks, railroads and other businesses. Delays in getting the business up and running, however, meant that the company had missed the peak of the housing crisis. After 20 months of production, Lustron was still losing money on every house it produced, leaving it unable to repay its loan. The RFC foreclosed, and Lustron declared bankruptcy, leaving 8000 contracts unfulfilled.

Still, with luck and love, some of the homes the Lustron Corporation did manage to build are still standing today. One has even been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art. Harold Hess lived in the Closter house for half a century, satisfied with his purchase but for the occasional need to find handymen with the creativity to repair things in a metal house.