After World War II ended, the need for new houses was enormous. Starter houses were built rapidly all across the United States. I lived in such a neighborhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The houses were simple, small, wood-sided, wood-frame structures on concrete slabs. Lots of builders experimented with prefabricating sections of these homes to make their constructin simpler, faster, and less expensive.

Ad in Life magazine, Sept. 13, 1948
Ad in Life magazine, Oct. 11, 1948

One innovative company sold a house made out of steel coated in porcelain enamel. The Lustron Corporation built more than 2,500 of these houses nationwide. When you ordered a Lustron house, all of the house’s parts were delivered to your site on a truck. Workers assembled the house much like a Lego set or a jigsaw puzzle!

Lustron home construction sequence via AIA California

Lustron houses could be had with pink, tan, yellow, aqua, blue, green and gray exteriors. Sources I’ve read say that the interiors could be either beige or gray, but I’ve seen interior photos showing yellow panels. There were three basic models, each in two- and three-bedroom configurations. One model in particlar, the Westchester, was available in Standard and Deluxe editions. The Westchester Deluxe was the most popular Lustron.

Typical Lustron floor plan

These houses were of typical size for their day, ranging from 713 to 1,140 square feet. Inside, everything but the floor was porcelain steel, just like the exterior. Owners used powerful magnets, presumably with hooks attached, to hang things on the walls. Heat radiated from the ceiling, which most owners found unsatisfactory as heat rises, leaving the floors cold.

The Lustron Corporation struggled to break even. The first house was delivered in 1948, and the last in 1950, and then the company was bankrupt. Thankfully, lots of Lustron houses remain across the United States. Around three dozen of them still stand around Indianapolis in particular. Not long ago I photographed the seven Lustrons I know of that stand in the Broad Ripple neighborhood on Indianapolis’s Northside. I shot these images with a Pentax Spotmatic SP II 35mm SLR with a 50mm f/1.4 Super-Multi-Coated Takumar lens on Kodak T-Max 100 film, which I developed in Rodinal 1+50.

Lustron: 1908 Kessler Blvd. East Drive, Indianapolis

1908 Kessler Boulevard, East Drive. This house appears to be in highly original condition from the outside, with original windows intact. It appears to be well cared for by its owner.

Lustron: 2079 Broad Ripple Avenue, Indianapolis

2079 Broad Ripple Avenue. This Lustron could use a power wash, but otherwise looks original and intact.

Lustron: 5638 Indianola Ave., Indianapolis

5638 Indianola Avenue. Over the years, many owners replaced the original aluminum windows with more efficient units. Some owners added custom touches, like the wood paneling around the entry here.

Lustron: 6435 Riverview Dr., Indianapolis

6435 Riverview Drive. This Lustron is on a lot full of vegetation, making it difficult to photograph except in profile.

Lustron: 6466 Central Ave., Indianapolis

6466 Central Avenue. It looks like a tree fell on this poor Lustron, damaging its steel roof and its gutter. This Lustron is next door to the previous one, which is on the corner of Riverside and Central.

Lustron: 6321 Central Ave., Indianapolis

6321 Central Avenue. This owner replaced the original windows with double-hung windows, an unusual choice among Broad Ripple Lustrons.

Lustron: 6212 Central Ave., Indianapolis

6212 Central Avenue. Finally, this cheerful Lustron was in my judgment in the best condition of all of these. It is the only one that retains the original roof pillar at the corner of the porch.

All of these Lustrons appear to be the Westchester Deluxe model, the only one to have the living room bay window, as shallow as it is.

Now that you’ve seen these Lustrons, maybe you’ll recognize some where you live!

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Comments

35 responses to “The Lustrons of Broad Ripple”

  1. P Avatar
    P

    Very interesting history, Jim. I had never heard of a Lustron home. Now that I know what they are, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for them in my neck of the woods. The black-and-white film photography lends itself well here. If it weren’t for the scattered modern vehicles, or some other little detail that gives it away, many of these photos look like they could have been taken back in the late 40’s or early 50’s. Nice job developing and scanning. Your decision to keep the images a bit flatter and lower contrast than what we’re used to seeing in most photos today also helps sell the vintage aesthetic.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Once you know what they are, you will start seeing them!

      Funny, I just dinked with these in Photoshop until I liked the look. I didn’t really think too much about what aesthetic I was going after! I guess unconsciously I decided that moderated contrast was right for these.

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Plenty left in Milwaukee too, and when I lived in Indianapolis, I noticed them around. One of my favorites in my parents neighborhood in Milwaukee, was “ruined” sometime in the 80’s, by being aluminum sided; and it was in pristine shape too! Heresy!

    https://urbanmilwaukee.com/2014/07/07/milwaukee-architecture-the-enduring-luster-of-lustron-homes/

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Whaaaaaat? Aluminum siding a Lustron home is such a waste of money!

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        They were trying to make it more salable….

        1. Kodachromeguy Avatar

          Many traditional homes are ruined when the sellers try to make it more saleable. The worst is glueing down that cheesy Home Depot laminated “hardwood, ” when you know a home of that age had some form of real tongue and groove flooring. Why not restore it the right way?

        2. Jim Grey Avatar

          You know, I can see it if you buy a basket-case old home that needs a complete gutting, and restore it with modern materials because it’s inexpensive and expedient. But otherwise I agree with you: fix the old floors!

  3. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Interesting article and great photos! I had heard about old prefab houses but I had no idea that some were made of steel! Very interesting!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It was a super cool idea. Hard to expand the house though, if you wanted more room!

  4. Marc Beebe Avatar

    The more famous version was “Levittown”. But such ‘kit’ houses had been around before (Sears sold them in the 1920s, for example) and continued afterwards. Much of the town I live in was “brought in on a truck” and bolted together (we owned one of them for a while); modular housing it was called. The most infamous company is probably Sterling Homex who built ‘rooms’ that could be configured together multiple ways. The concept is valid as “factory built” housing has advantages. The latest incarnation is 3-D ‘printed’ housing which is being experimented with.
    Good of you to capture these few on film before someone decides to bulldoze them in favour of twenty story warehouses for humans.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I lived in a wood frame house until I was 9 that was partially assembled elsewhere and assembly was finished on site. That house was built in 1951.

  5. DougD Avatar
    DougD

    That’s wild, just need a magnet to hang a picture. I wonder if they were really noisy inside, sheet steel isn’t great for sound absorption.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wonder if the porcelain finish helped with sound. I also hear that the ceiling heat wasn’t awesome as heat does rise.

  6. gg1978 Avatar

    Fallout 4 (the video game) has Lustron type houses in some of the settlements in game, given that was the aesthetic / parody timeframe the game is based off, i do find it interesting..

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Wow! That’s awesome. Isn’t that the same game series that uses old songs in the background?

      1. gg1978 Avatar

        Indeed it is!!

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          My sons play this. When they were still teenagers I used to hear the soundtrack playing. I couldn’t believe that one of the songs was “Civilization” by Danny Kaye and the Andrews Sisters!

  7. Mike Connealy Avatar

    Interesting that none of your examples seem to have attached garages or carports. That would not have been a viable design and marketing choice where I grew up in the Northwest. It seems like the fundamental ideas behind the Lustron ultimately stimulated the popularity of mobile homes.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That simply wasn’t part of these houses. It wasn’t unusual in these days in the Midwest at least for houses to be built without a garage or carport. The neighborhood I lived in until I was 9 was full of little wood frame houses built in about 1950-52 and none of them had a garage. Many owners built them subsequently, including the original owners of our house. It was a detached garage.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        I lived in a beautiful older neighborhood in Milwaukee called BayView, built in the teens and twenties, and practically none of the houses on my block had garages: they were all ‘infill’ from the 50s and 60s. In the 20s, those neighborhoods were ten to fifteen minutes away from downtown, where most people worked, from a nickel a ride trolley that was a block away! What idiot would own a car?

  8. adventurepdx Avatar

    I remember seeing one of these near where I grew up in Connecticut. The “tile” exterior wall definitely stood out.

    It must have been cheaper or something to have “ceiling” heat because as you say heat rises. A friend of mine lived in a crappy apartment that had that, and the place could never get warm, especially since the thermometer for the thermostat was next to the vent!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      They touted their ceiling heat as a good thing but Lustron owners soon learned otherwise!

  9. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    Hunting Lustrons is fun. I discovered the ones around the Indiana Dunes area, and then have seen another 20 or so in Michigan and northern Indiana/Ohio. They did offer a detached garage, but it was just regular wood framing with metal roof and wall parts to match the house.
    http://www.lustronlocator.com/ has a map of known locations.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Now that you mention it I’ve seen photos of Lustrons with detached garages that looked like they matched. Nice to know they’re just frame structures with the panels attached.

  10. brandib1977 Avatar

    Love the images, the ads and the story Jim! Isn’t it wonderful being able to recognize a style or brand of home in your own area?

    These homes were made in central Ohio and the state historical society had one on display as part of an exhibit about the fifties a few years ago. Here’s the link if you’re interested.
    https://makethejourneyfun.wordpress.com/2020/03/04/1950s-building-the-american-dream/

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think the central Ohio construction is why they’re prevalent in the Midwest compared to other parts of the country. Thanks for sharing your link!

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        That makes sense to me! I loved that exhibit and being able to explore inside the house. The interior was as nifty as the outside!

    2. DennyG Avatar

      I’m pretty sure that house is still on display at the museum. It has become more or less permanent. Also Ohio has the only known Lustron motel (near Canton on the locator map) built of parts left over when the factory shut down.

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        I looked that motel up — how cool is that!

      2. brandib1977 Avatar

        I wondered if they might try to keep that house given how popular it was. It’s one of the most interesting and certainly the most interactive exhibit inside that museum. I’m glad!!

  11. Michael Avatar
    Michael

    I’m curious how they did electrical/plumbing inside the walls and whether they had thicker foundations to handle the weight. I’m also surprised they haven’t all rusted away by now.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I don’t know about the electric and plumbing, but I do know that the porcelain coating made the steel very resistant to rust.

  12. Michael Avatar
    Michael

    Yes, as long as it doesn’t crack or chip.

  13. J P Avatar

    I love these. I remembered noticing a gray one in Fort Wayne during my youth and later read something about them. I have always thought these would be a good CC subject but I have never made the effort.

    I love the photos, but this is one subject that cries out for color, given the bright hues of some of them. I am amazed that these have withstood time so well.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wondered if anybody was going to say that these would have been better in color. It’s true. I just had b/w in the camera while I was out!

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