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The House of the Future (in 1948)

October 14th, 2011 Sears Homes 1 comment

Yesterday, I pulled off the interstate in Nashville, North Carolina to wait for a phone call from my brother. After sitting around for a few minutes, I decided to drive around Nashville and see what I could find.

And I found a Lustron!

Lustron in Nashville, NC

Lustron in Nashville, NC

It’s had a pretty substantial sun room added to the side, but it’s most definitely a Lustron!

And here’s one I found in Irwin, PA.

Lustron in Irwin

This Lustron in Irwin had been lovingly cared for!

Perhaps my favorite Lustron is the one I found in Danville, Virginia. This is such a beautiful photo, I can hardly believe that I’m the photographer!  :)  The deep blue skies and blossoming dogwood in the foreground are pretty nice, too.

Lustron in Danville

Lustron in Danville, Virginia

Lustron

Close-up of the window on Danville's Lustron.

So, what is a Lustron?

It was an all-steel house,  with walls made of 2×2 20-gage metal panels, with a porcelain enamel finish. The roof was porcelain enamel steel, and unlike traditional roofing shingles, has a lifespan of at least 60 years (and perhaps much more).

“Never before has America seen a house like this,” read a 1949 advertisement for the Lustron, also hailed as “the house of the future.”

The modest ranches were designed and created by entrepreneur Carl Strandlunds to help deal with the severe housing shortage after World War II. Unfortunately, Lustrons never became very popular. Three years after the company first started (in 1947), it went into bankruptcy. Sixty years later, there’s still much debate about the reasons for the company’s collapse. The debate over the reasons for Lustron’s demise became a topic for a fascinating documentary.

Fewer than 3,000 Lustrons were created, and offered in pink, blue, brown and yellow.

Quantico, Virginia was home to the largest collection of Lustrons in the country, but those 60 houses were destroyed by our federal “save the spotted chipmunk, who-cares-if-it’s-a-historically-important-house” bureaucrats.

Yup, all those Lustron houses in Quantico are now gone. Some were moved, most were demolished.

On the inside walls of the Lustrons, nails could not be used. Instead, magnets are used to hang pictures. The porcelain enamel finish on the 2×2 panels is tough, which makes re-painting the panels virtually impossible. The Lustron (seen below) in Danville, Virginia was painted, and it’s trying hard to shed this second skin.

Painting a Lustron is akin to painting the top of your grandma’s 1965 Lady Kenmore washing machine. Painting porcelain enamel never ends well.

Lustron was based in Columbus, Ohio and not surprisingly, Columbus has an abundance of Lustrons. These little post-WW2 prefabs were remarkable, strong and long-lasting houses - definitely ahead of their time. Finding this three-bedroom model in Elkins, WV was a special treat, as the three-bedroom Lustrons were very rare.

Lustron Home in Elkins, WV

Lustron Home in Elkins, WV

Close-up of 2x2 metal tiles on Lustron Walls.

Close-up of 2x2 metal tiles on Lustron Walls.

Lustron

Lustron in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The three-bedroom Lustrons were far less common than the two-bedroom Lustron. This one is in very good condition. Photo is courtesy of Rachel Shoemaker and may not be reproduced without permission.

Close-up

Close-up of Lustron wall and window. Homeowner has done a pretty good job of maintaining the home, with touched-up paint applied to exterior. When the porcelain enamel finish is nicked or chipped, it must be painted to prevent rusting of the steel panels. Photo is courtesy of Rachel Shoemaker and may not be reproduced without permission.

The steel roof on a Lustron outlasts contemporary roofing materials. These shingles are now 60 years old and still in excellent condition.

The steel roof on a Lustron outlasts contemporary roofing materials. These "shingles" are now 60 years old and still in excellent condition. Photo is courtesy of Rachel Shoemaker and may not be reproduced without permission.

The next Lustron is in Rocky Mount, NC. It’s been painted beige, but it should be draped in black for this little house should be mourned. The little home is now deceased, but the body hasn’t been buried yet. There is significant putrification occurring.

Very, very sad.

And heres a very sad little Lustron (post-WW2 prefab), suffering greatly from carbuncles of the skin. Lustrons were made with 2x2 20-gage metal panels, with a porcelain enamel coating. Painting a Lustron is exactly like trying to paint the top of a 1960s Lady Kenmore washing machine. Never a good idea.

This sad little Lustron appears to have died from carbuncles of the flesh. Lustrons were made with 2x2 20-gage metal panels, with a porcelain enamel coating. Never a good idea to paint a Lustron. There are about 2,500 Lustrons in the country, and they really were ahead of their time. It's heart-wrenching to see one of these remarkable homes abused and abandoned.

Too sad for words.

Too sad for words.

To learn more, I recommend Tom Fetters’ book, “Lustron Homes.” It can be found at Amazon.com

To read more about Sears Homes, click here.

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The Sears Magnolia in Irwin, Pennsylvania!

August 2nd, 2011 Sears Homes 8 comments

Two weeks ago, I drove six hours out of my way (enroute to Elkins, WV) to visit a Sears Magnolia in Irwin, Pennsylvania.

Irwin, it turns out, is not a thriving metropolis but a small town just off the beaten path. However, it does have an Americus, an Alhambra (on the main drag) and a Lewiston. And best of all, it has a Sears Magnolia dressed up in brick.

The Magnolia was the creme de la creme of the Sears kit homes. It was bigger and grander and fancier than any of the other 370 models that Sears offered. You can learn a whole lot more about the Magnolia by clicking here and here.

In short, The Magnolia was Sears’ finest home. And it was also one of the rarest.

For years, we’d heard that there were six Magnolias built in the country. There was one in Nebraska (which burned down many years ago), and one in North Carolina, Alabama, Indiana and Ohio. (Click on the links to read more about those particular houses).

And then in February, I was told about a purported Sears Magnolia in Blacksburg, South Carolina. I put 897 miles on my car that weekend, driving down to Blacksburg to see that house in the flesh. It was close - real close - but it was not a Sears Magnolia. You can read more about that here.

In May, I learned about the seventh Magnolia in Syracuse, New York! So how many Sears Magnolias are there? Perhaps billions and billions and billions.

How delightful is that!?!

And what about our Magnolia in Irwin? Unfortunately, I was not able to get inside despite a lot of serious door-knocking. However, it appears that our wonderful Maggy has been turned into an apartment building.

First, the original catalog image from the 1921 Sears Modern Homes catalog.

Sears Magnolia

Sears Magnolia as seen in the 1921 Sears Modern Homes catalog. The Sears Magnolia was offered from 1918-1922.

house

Unfortunately, there were many obstacles to a good picture, such as a utility pole and stop sign. This Magnolia looks quite different from the traditional Magnolia, plus the third-floor dormer has a full-size door with coach lights flanking it! The Magnolia typically has a gabled dormer, whereas the Irwin house has a hipped dormer. That's one of about a dozen minor differences between this house (above) and the Sears catalog page (below).

Another view of the Magnolia in Irwin

Another view of the Magnolia in Irwin

From the rear

From the rear, it surely looks like this old house has been turned into several apartments. I hope someone from Irwin will tell me that I'm wrong!

Sears Magnolia in Irwin, PA.  (Photo courtesy of Bob Keeling)

This is another view from another time. This photo was sent to me several years ago by Bob Keeling, who then owned the house. As I recall, he was in the process of selling the house at that time. (Photo courtesy of Bob Keeling)

Sears Magnolia in Syracuse, New York

And here's a picture of the Sears Magnolia in Syracuse! (Photo is courtesy of Mariel Proulx and may not be used or reproduced without written permission.)

Details on Sears Magnolias front porch

Details on the Sears Magnolia's front porch. Notice the many differences between this porch (shown in this catalog page) and the house in Irwin!

Close-up of the house itself (1921 catalog)

Close-up of the house itself (1921 catalog)

Sears Magnolia in Canton, Ohio

A beautiful Sears Magnolia in Canton, Ohio

Sears Magnolia

Sears Magnolia in Benson, NC.

Sears Magnolia in South Bend

Sears Magnolia in South Bend. (Photo is copyright 2012 James Layne and may not be used or reproduced without written permission.)

Magnolia in South Carolina

The Magnolia in Alabama is also not a spot-on match to the original catalog image. Most obvious is that attic dormer, which is much simpler than the Magnolia dormer. Yet this house in Piedmont Alabama is a Sears Magnolia.

To learn more about the Sears Magnolia, click here.

To learn about Wardway Homes (sold by Montgomery Ward), click here!

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

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A Sears Magnolia in South Carolina?

February 15th, 2011 Sears Homes 3 comments

Last week, I put 897 miles on the old Camry driving from Norfolk to Raleigh to South Carolina (and making a few stops along the way). I’d heard that there was a Sears Magnolia in western South Carolina, so I decided to check it out.

Here are some photos:

Maggy May

Purported Magnolia in South Carolina.

Sears Magnolia

Sears Magnolia as seen in the 1921 Sears Modern Homes catalog. The Sears Magnolia was offered from 1918-1922.

Windows

The windows in the SC Maggy are right. These are replacement windows, but the original proportions and space are correct. The small lites at the top are original, and they're a spot-on match to the Sears Magnolia.

Details on Sears Magnolias front porch

Details on the Sears Magnolia's front porch. The two-story columns are an eye-catching feature. Also notice the distinctive roof lines and unique details around the front porch. At its core, the Sears Magnolia is a classic foursquare with delusions of grandeur.

Sears Magnolia in SC

Sears Magnolia in SC. While the Magnolia has a fan lite (semi-circle) over the front door, this one has a rectangle. Still, that's not a huge difference and not a deal breaker.

Maggy in Benson

The Maggy in Benson, NC is a spot-on match.

Sears Magnolia in Canton, Ohio

A beautiful Sears Magnolia in Canton, Ohio

Sears Magnolia

Sears Magnolia in Benson, NC.

Sears Magnolia in Irwin, PA.  (Photo courtesy of Bob Keeling)

Sears Magnolia in Irwin, PA. (Photo courtesy of Bob Keeling) Done in brick, this Sears Magnolia also is not a spot-on match to the catalog page.

Maggy May

The Maybe-Not-A-Magnolia in South Carolina.

Magnolia in South Carolina

The Magnolia in Alabama is also not a spot-on match to the original catalog image. Most obvious is that attic dormer, which is much simpler than the Magnolia dormer. Yet this house in Piedmont Alabama is a Sears Magnolia.

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In conclusion, after spending about two hours inspecting the house in South Carolina, I’m of the opinion that it is NOT a Sears Magnolia. The lumber in the house just did not look like Sears lumber. I’ve seen many basements of many Sears Homes, and the lumber in this South Carolina house was much lighter and had a rougher cut.

I suspect that this beautiful old house was offered in a plan book somewhere in the early 1900s, and in later years, architects at Sears discovered the planbook and created the “Sears Magnolia” in the image and likeness of that plan book house. That’s a theory. I really don’t know.

What I do know is that the house in South Carolina was built in 1910*, and while the Magnolia’s footprint is 36 x 40, the footprint of the South Carolina house is 39 x 43, exactly three feet bigger in both directions. The interior rooms are adjusted accordingly. And if the Sears Magnolia began life as a pattern book house, or plan book house, this is exactly what Sears would have done to “modify” the design for their needs. At least a dozen times, I’ve found the identical twins of Sears designs in plan books and architectural magazines, a year or ten before it appeared in the pages of a Sears Modern Homes catalog. Typically, Sears would shave a couple feet off the floor plan and give it a nice name and voila! It’s Sears Modern Home #84736.

However, this is just a theory. I’m not sure. From the exterior, this house surely does look like a Sears Magnolia, but it’s not quite “perfect.” If anyone has any ideas, as Ross Perot once said, “I’m all ears.”

* The construction date of 1910 is not a confirmed fact, but came from tax records. Based on the interior design, I suspect that’s an accurate date. The house had coal-burning fireplaces in every room - no exceptions - and coal-burning fireplaces were very common in that time period (very early 1900s).

To buy Rose’s book, click here.

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