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What's that funny-looking house?

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Walking to his job at Augustana College in Rock Island, Brandon Tidwell often found himself staring at a "really different looking house" on 7th Avenue near Old Main.

He thought of it as the "bathtub house" because it was made of square panels resembling the tiles of bathroom walls, and he and wondered "what the story was."

Interested in history and architecture, Tidwell began doing research and learned that what he was seeing was one of the 15 Lustron homes known to exist in the Quad-City region.

Lustrons were an all-steel, prefabricated home that was produced in a Columbus, Ohio, factory in a 24-month period from mid-1948 to mid-1950 as one man's answer to the post-World War II housing shortage.

After concrete floor slabs were poured, the homes could be built in about two weeks, or 250 to 300 hours, and they would "never need repainting, refinishing or reroofing," according to the promotional brochures.

As a student of history and the new president of the Moline Preservation Society, Tidwell, 36, also was excited to learn that Lustron founder Carl Strandlund grew up in Moline, was a Moline High School graduate and had a noteworthy career in industry.

Tidwell further discovered that Lustrons have something of a cult following on the East Coast, with a Facebook page and numerous blogs, and that they are "becoming relevant again" as part of the "tiny house" movement. About 2,500 were made and, of those, about 2,000 are still accounted for, he said.

He cites "The Lustron Home: The History of a Postwar Prefabricated Housing Experiment," by Thomas Fetters as his "bible" on company history.

A Westchester Deluxe in Moline

One of the Quad-Citians who bought a Lustron back in the day was Columbia Larsen, of Moline, who had a two-bedroom Westchester Deluxe built in 1952. At 1,021-square-feet, the latter was the most popular of four models offered. Larsen chose panels of surf blue. Other color options were yellow, gray and tan.

The 2x2-foot square panels are made of interlocking porcelain-enameled steel in which a layer of glass is fused onto a metal base. "It is not like paint or brushed enamel in any way," the promotional brochure explains. "It will never weather or stain."

Compressed between the panels are permanent plastic sealing strips that form a gasket to assure an air-tight, weather-tight enclosure.

Larsen lived in the home until her death in 1981, single-handedly supporting a family of five boys by making and selling rag rugs and canned produce, according to her grandson, Marty Mahieu.

The home was sold out of the family after her death, but two years ago, Mahieu, a Moline High School health teacher, bought it back to rent out as income property.

A feature that distinguishes the Mahieu home is that it also has a two-car,  Lustron garage.

Steel construciton, pros and cons

More than 12 tons of steel went into the home, and it arrived on site with 3,000 different parts.

The roof tiles are made of steel, as is everything inside — wall panels, ceiling panels, built-in cabinets, shelves, dressing tables, closet doors and room doors. The framing also is steel, held together by nuts, bolts and screws.

Mahieu says the steel construction has lived up to its selling point of needing very little maintenance — the roof is still leak-free after 65 years and the exterior has not faded. But there are drawbacks.

While the manufacturer promoted the idea that Lustrons would never need refinishing, the reality is that homeowners generally like to change things as tastes change and accomplishing that in a home of steel and concrete isn't easy.

A previous owner, for example, remodeled the bathroom and, to meet today's codes, had to add an exhaust fan. The electrician "had to cut into the metal," Mahieu said. "He said it took him hours."

Hanging pictures on the wall is a matter of using heavy-duty magnets.

Central air-conditioning would be nice, but installing it would be cost-prohibitive, Mahieu said. On the plus side, the home's construction is such that "the gas and light bills are almost nothing," he added. The home also is sound-proof.

Original features, changes

Among the original features that remain in the home are the built-in shelf with mirror in the living room, built-in drawers and dressing table with mirror in one of the bedrooms and front and back doors with frosted glass in a reed pattern. The homes also had metal pocket doors that maximized space because there was no door to swing out. As Mahieu attests: "They used every inch of space they could."

In addition to remodeling the bathroom, a previous owner remodeled the kitchen, removing a divider/china cabinet between the kitchen and dining room. She also removed the original steel cabinets, replacing them with wood and a laminate countertop. And despite the challenge of working on the steel ceilings, she had recessed lights installed.

Lustron legacy

In its heyday, Lustron had 234 dealers in 35 states, selling a total of about 2,680 homes, according to author Fetters. The prototype was built in Hinsdale, Illinois, but it is no longer standing. About 2,000 of the homes are still accounted for.

Once dismissed by historians as non-contributing structures in historic districts, Lustron homes have now been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They qualify through age and their significant spot in history.

Because of shipping costs, the majority of Lustrons are located in the Midwest, with 307 in Illinois.

The Lustron Facebook page map indicates that there are eight Lustrons in Davenport, four in Rock Island and one each in Moline, East Moline and Orion, Illinois, Tidwell said.


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