The divergence of prefab from its original utilitarian intentions has some buyers in a snit – How did prefabrication turn into a fashion show? Prefab was invented to be affordable!

For those of you who have been complaining about prefab being too expensive – this is your lucky day. Lustron Corporation – the manufacturer of 1950s all-steel prefab houses for returning WWII vets, has recently announced that they are giving away 58 of their candy-colored vintage prefabs to whoever wants them…What’s the catch? Prospective Lustron buyers have to arrange to transport the prefabs from the military base in Quantico, Virginia, at no cost to the company. If you want one of these vintage steel houses, you’d better act fast – the deadline is April 12th! That’s this Wed!

In 1948, many WWII vets returned with dreams of moving into an idyllic home where they could reestablish comfortable lives, but the reality of post-war America didn’t readily accommodate their hopes. Recognizing the need for an economic boost as powerful as auto manufacturing had been two decades prior, an entrepreneur named Carl Strandlund decided to try an experiment in mass-producing cookie-cutter suburban dwellings. Made with porcelain-coated steel panels, the Lustron boasted nearly maintenance-free living — you could literally hose the thing down. Advertisements promised buyers that their new home would be impervious to allergens, pests, mold, fire and rust.

The Lustron cost between $6,000 and $10,000. The owner could choose from several floor plans, ranging from 1,000-1,400ft-sq, and an array of super-saturated pastel exterior colors. A standard home came with pocket doors, built-in shelving, vanities, dressers and buffet tables. It even had a multi-tasking kitchen unit that washed clothes and dishes “automagically.”

These futuristic strides toward an ultra-efficient house gave the Lustrons added allure, but the candy-colored bungalows had their share of problems. Spatial efficiency was trumped by energetic inefficiency. Unlike modern-day radiant heat which permeates the floor, Lustrons incorporated radiant heat into the steel ceiling. Given the conductive nature of metal, and the fact of heat rising, this left floors chilly and bills very high, as the walls drew heat up and out. Many homeowners changed out the original system for forced-air.

But the fatal downfalls didn’t land so much on Lustron owners as on the manufacturers themselves. Systematic as it was, the time and money it took to fabricate a single house never turned a profit for Carl Strandlund. Things spiraled down before they ever broke even and the company went bankrupt less than two years after it launched.

Now Lustrons are a relic of the idealistic post-war period. With approximately 1,500 original homes still standing, they are rare antiques, prized enough among those who know about them that one couple in St. Charles, MO, has turned a Lustron into a visitor destination. “Lunch at the Lustron” pairs a menu with the era, serving up apple pie and egg salad sandwiches.

This sense of openness and community around the Lustron carries over into several of the truly special aspects of the brand. Although original owners in the 1950s didn’t have the modern convenience of internet communities, today’s Lustron dwellers do. A Yahoo group for owners and enthusiasts has over half as many members as there are Lustron houses! And the plans and assembly manual remain freely available, making the design, in essence, “open source.” If you have access to 12 tons of steel, you could have a DIY Lustron all your own…

…Alternatively, you could have an original Lustron for free. This summer in Quantico, Virginia, 58 Lustron houses will be given away to anyone who can haul one off the Quantico Military Base where the collection currently sits. The effort will make room for a new development while saving the antiques from demolition.

In spite of their industrial fabrication, these don’t seem to have been designed for easy disassembly, so you may not want to rent a flatbed today; but it’s a rare opportunity for devoted fans — instead of washing your car, you can spend the summer buffing and polishing the shiny hunk of colored steel you call home.

+ Lustrons at Quantico

Special thanks to David Zaks, who inspired and informed this little research project.