Our home is being watched. Men in dark SUVs idle in front of our maize yellow ranch, jot down notes, then speed off. They send boilerplate letters inviting me and my husband, Andrea, to discuss a cash offer. The brief missives don’t mention our cascading phlox or well-placed boulders because the authors are real estate investors, the types who advertise their appetite for “ugly” houses.
Judging by their assault on our mailbox, investors must view our property as the perfect tear-down. After all, it’s a strange, dated home on a large, attractive lot near Decatur Square. But this is a historical Lustron, a modular kit designed completely in steel—from interior walls to roof shingles—during the housing shortages following World War II, in an era when metal was reserved for commercial buildings and instruments of war. They were high-tech at the time and intended to “defy weather, wear, and time.”
From 1948 to 1950, the Lustron Corporation manufactured six models of affordable homes in a former fighter plane plant in Columbus, Ohio. Buyers chose from four exterior colors of porcelain enamel baked onto the steel, and they could assemble the homes themselves over a weekend. The company made fewer than 3,000 Lustron kits before going bankrupt, and only about seven were trucked to metro Atlanta. (We think three remain.)
Today, thanks to renewed interest in prefabricated housing and efficient living, Lustrons are popular subjects in magazines, documentaries, and exhibits. A 1,000-square-foot “Westchester” model identical to ours (except for its dove gray color) was partially reconstructed inside the MoMA in 2008.
But I suppose I can’t blame developers—or anyone, really—for not recognizing a lone Lustron among the Craftsman bungalows on our street. Even I had the home figured wrong when we decided to make an offer in the spring of 2005. Fresh from my honeymoon, I crept behind the vacant house so I could study its puzzling facade in private. The glossy, two-by-two-foot panels were ceramic tiles, I decided.
I got educated during escrow, reading The Lustron Home by Thomas T. Fetters cover to cover. I didn’t just buy a Lustron; I bought into it—the materials, the clean lines, the era’s cheerful spirit. When we added a shed and patio overhang, we dutifully clad them with steel panels salvaged from doomed Lustrons. I scoured vintage shops for Heywood-Wakefield furniture and atomic ashtrays. For the landscape, I co-opted the concrete pavers and pom-pom pine trees pictured in 1950s Sunset magazines.
Living in a Lustron has its challenges. For instance, our nest will never rot, but it does rust. When the rolling bracket for our bathroom’s pocket door broke, we had to prowl online forums to find a fellow owner with a spare. We wrestle with a dizzying array of heavy-duty magnets to hang our artwork and curtains.
But our ranch has perks, too, such as more storage than some homes twice the size. The master bedroom has a built-in vanity with six drawers, two wardrobe closets, and 12 linear feet of overhead closets. Plus, the steel panels clean up beautifully with a soapy cloth, so the original enamel finish remains as smooth and shiny as a brand new coupe.
Andrea and I moved to New York last fall for his work, and we’re renting out our little midcentury oddity in Decatur on Airbnb. Our new-construction apartment, a drywall box without one architectural flourish, is making me lonesome for the Lustron. I’m daydreaming about getting new screen prints for its living room, an S-shaped blue cedar for the front yard. Maybe I’ll have a sign made, too, in gleaming steel: Not for Sale.
Jeanée Ledoux is a lifestyle writer and nonfiction editor. Her stories appear in publications such as Domino, Dwell, and Travel & Leisure. She’s the author of a decorating book for young renters, Abode à la Mode: 44 Projects for Hip Home Decor. She and her husband, photographer Andrea Fremiotti, have moved into progressively smaller homes since marrying in 2005.
This article appears in our Spring 2018 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.