The Lustrons of Broad Ripple

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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Film Photography

Comparing developing and scanning from several labs on the same film stock

Earlier this year I bought five rolls of Kroger 200 color negative film, an expired Ferrania emulsion, from Photo Warehouse. Ferrania stopped making color film sometime between 2008 and 2010, so this film is no newer than that. I don’t know how it was stored, but I presume the whole lot Photo Warehouse had for sale was stored the same way.

I’ve shot four rolls of this stuff now in various cameras. I shot the first roll in a fixed-exposure camera and wasn’t wowed by the color shifts and grain. I shot the other rolls at EI 100, which helped a lot. Yet each roll came back looking different.

Lots of factors play in how images look. The light meters on my old film cameras might not be consistent with each other. The quality of the light varies from subject to subject. Different lenses impart different qualities. But I think the biggest factors are processing and scanning. I sent each of these three rolls to different labs.

Just for grins, I’ll show you a couple images from the first roll I shot. I think Roberts Camera developed and scanned the roll — I didn’t keep a record as I usually do, but the scan dimensions are the ones I get from Roberts. I shot the roll in my Reto Ultra Wide and Slim. The whole roll was underexposed. I remedied that as best I could in Photoshop, to find intrusive grain but reasonable color fidelity.

Little blue house
Yellow box truck on a green wall

I shot the next and all subsequent rolls at EI 100. I sent the first of these to Old School Photo Lab. I wouldn’t normally send them a roll of expired film containing non-critical images, as OSPL is by far the most expensive consumer lab I know of. But I had a few critical rolls to send them, and I just dropped this roll into the envelope, too. I shot my Nikon F3 with the 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor lens on it. Here are a couple images. These look really good to me, with excellent color fidelity and smooth grain. The purple in the first image is just spot on.

Purple flower

I sent the next roll to Dwayne’s Photo. This time I shot my Nikon FA with a 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 Zoom Nikkor. The results were mixed. Images I made at a farmers market had good color fidelity and noticeable, but pleasing, grain. Images I made of old houses in Bloomington, Indiana, looked a little dingy and brown. I was able to remedy that in Photoshop to some extent.

On Bloomington's Brick Streets

Roberts Camera here in Indianapolis developed and scanned the fourth roll. Here I shot a Pentax Spotmatic SP II with a 50mm f/1.4 Super-Multi-Coated Takumar lens. That lens’s wonderful qualities really shone through on these images, but these all had a brown caste that I had to remove in Photoshop. Colors looked more muted than in real life. Grain is managed and looks much like what I experienced in the images Dwayne’s processed.

In Lockerbie
Michigan Road in Burlington

To my eye, Old School Photo Lab wins. The images from that roll look like fresh film to me. But ay yi yi are they expensive, at almost $20 to develop and scan a roll of 35mm color negative film.

I’ll try to make it a point to send my one remaining roll of this film to Fulltone Photo, a lab I use a lot because they do good work for noticeably less than any of the other labs I use.

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Camera Reviews

Pentax Spotmatic SP II

A reader offered to sell me his Pentax Spotmatic SP II with a 50mm f/1.4 Super-Multi-Coated Takumar lens attached. He wasn’t sure the Spottie’s meter was reading correctly, and said that the bottom plate was a replacement after the original was damaged, but otherwise the camera was in good cosmetic and functional condition. Even if the body wasn’t fully functional, I don’t own a 50/1.4 Takumar and I’ve long wanted one. Because it’s the Super Multi Coated version, it includes the pin that lets it meter on my Spotmatic F without the need to stop down. We struck a deal, and he sent it straightaway.

Pentax Spotmatic SP II

The 1971 SP II improves the original 1964 Spotmatic SP with some stouter internal parts, a hot shoe and flash sync, and the ASA range increased from 1600 to 3200. The camera otherwise looks and operates the same as the original. It uses a focal plane shutter that operates from 1 to 1/1000 second. Its onboard CdS light meter needs a 1.35-volt PX-400 mercury battery to function. Mercury batteries are no longer made. Fortunately, the silver-oxide 387 cell is the same size and shape, and it doesn’t matter that it puts out 1.55 volts because all Spotmatics include a bridge circuit that adjusts to the needed 1.35 volts.

Pentax Spotmatic SP II

Except for the light meter, the SP II is entirely mechanical. It takes M42 screw-mount lenses, of which Pentax made a huge range. Even though the SP II came with the Super Multi Coated lenses that included the pins for open-aperture metering, only the Spotmatic F and the Electro Spotmatic/ES/ES II cameras could take advantage of those pins. On the SP II, you still had to stop down to meter.

Pentax Spotmatic SP II

That’s what the big switch on the side of the lens mount is for. When you’re ready to meter, push it up. The needle at right in the viewfinder comes to life. Then to set exposure, adjust aperture (on the lens barrel) and/or shutter speed (with the dial atop the camera) until the needle is horizontal, or at least within the small empty space between the upper and lower black vertical lines of the meter scale. Then press the shutter button to make the image.

If you like Pentax SLRs, also see my reviews of the Spotmatic SP (here), the Spotmatic F (here), the ES II (here), the H3 (here), the venerable K1000 (here), the KM (here), the ME (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

Pro tip: Don’t leave the stop-down switch on overnight. It kills the battery. Ask me how I know.

I tested this Spottie with two rolls of film, using the already attached 50mm f/1.4 lens. First I loaded some Kodak T-Max 100, which I developed in Rodinal 1+50. I had occasion to be in Washington Park North cemetery in Indianapolis, which was right by my previous house. It was nice to be back. This replica of the Liberty Bell has found itself in my viewfinder dozens of times.

In Washington Park North Cemetery

The person who sold me the camera thought that one of the two CdS cells must be dead in the meter, as he didn’t get accurate readings. But I checked the camera against my phone’s light meter app, and the two meters lined up well enough. I got good exposures right down the line.

In Washington Park North Cemetery

I had a few days off from work, so one afternoon I had lunch at The Friendly, a pub that is an institution here in Zionsville. Here are some of my usual photographs from Main Street.

Black Dog Books

I’m lukewarm on T-Max 100. I love its ISO 400 brother. I shot ten rolls of that stuff in Ireland in 2016 and got gorgeous exposures. I’ve yet to make a photo on T-Max 100 that grabs me. I wish its blacks were richer. At least its sharpness is outstanding.

Downtown Zionsville

I continued with a roll of color film. Some time ago I found some expired ISO 200 Ferrania film that was branded Kroger, which is a prominent grocery chain in the US. I’m not in love with the stuff, which makes it a great choice for testing old cameras. My wife and I took a photo walk through Lockerbie, an old neighborhood in Downtown Indianapolis. This is Lockerbie Street, the only street in town still paved with cobblestones. The Spotmatic’s meter is center weighted, despite the word Spot being in the camera name. It had a little trouble with the sun on the cobblestones as it appropriately exposed the houses. No amount of Photoshoppery could save those cobblestones. It didn’t help, I’m sure, that this film is at least 10 years old.

In Lockerbie

This Spotmatic’s light seals are either missing or gummy, thanks to age. Fortunately, the channels they rest in are deep. Closing the film door creates enough of a seal that no light leaked in.

In Lockerbie

The 50mm f/1.4 lens is delightful, and I’m very happy to finally own one. If I ever pass this Spottie on to its next owner, I’m keeping the lens.

In Lockerbie

I owned an original Spotmatic SP many years ago, and back then I did not enjoy stopping down to meter. But nine years have passed. I’m considerably more skilled with an old camera now, and I don’t at all mind stopping down. This former gas station stands on the Michigan Road on the north edge of Michigantown, Indiana.

Old gas station, Michigantown, IN

This Spottie handled beautifully. The controls felt substantial and sure. The lens focused with a feeling of heft. The shutter made a sweet click; the mirror didn’t shake the camera as it flipped. Here I was on the Michigan Road just south of the tiny town of Deer Creek. This grassy flat spot was State Road 218 a long time ago. The current path of SR 218 connects with the Michigan Road immediately north of Deer Creek.

Old SR 218

To see more photos from this camera, check out my Pentax Spotmatic SP II gallery.

If you find a Spotmatic — any Spotmatic, the SP, SP II, 500, 1000, or F — in good condition, buy it. These cameras are supremely satisfying to shoot, and the Takumar lenses are uniformly good. I like the Spotmatics slightly better than the first K-mount cameras (e.g, the K1000) that followed them. Those cameras were heavily based on the Spotmatic, yet mysteriously they don’t feel as good under use as any Spotmatic. It’s the great Pentax mystery.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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