Lustron - The House America’s Been Waiting For

Nov 5, 2003 at 12:00 am

The Lustron home was a factory-built steel house screwed together onsite by the Lustron Corporation. From 1948 to 1950, ill-fated Lustron stamped out about two dozen houses a day on an assembly line and sent them out across the country.

Behind it all was inventor Carl Strandlund, a brilliant “production man,” high-stakes gambler and upstart industrialist who learned what happens when you run afoul of powerful people. Though he successfully enlisted millions of dollars in aid from the government, Strandlund was politically innocent. He soon found himself outgeneraled by conniving Washington insiders and was forced to shutter the troubled company. It’s a story similar to the one dramatized in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 picture Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Certainly Strandlund was of Preston Tucker’s breed, Midwestern inventors who did their bit to make the production miracles of the war and post-war America possible.

But where deft direction and good acting turned Tucker into the story of an embattled visionary, Lustron’s attempts to convey the excitement of Strandlund’s struggle often fall flat. Despite all the slick kinestasis, big band razzamatazz and snatches of file footage, the protagonist is a cardboard cutout, less articulate than Tucker and less dashing than John DeLorean. Strandlund’s lack of dynamism and humanity almost reduces him to a naive industrial promoter falling off the government gravy boat.

Also, the film overstates both the potential impact of the ruined enterprise — which built only 2,500 single-family homes during the postwar housing bonanza — and the aesthetic appeal of a home based on the design for a gas station.

Yet Lustron provides an intriguing glimpse of that brief period when the industrial process was optimistically being applied to every mode of life. That’s why it’s funny when we peek in on a contemporary hipster couple living in a kitsch-clogged Lustron home — because the symbol of cookie-cutter standardization has actually crossed the threshold into quirky lifestyle choice.

E-mail Michael Jackman at [email protected].