When I asked Marty Peak what surprised him about the steel-paneled Lustron home he bought six years ago, he smiled.

“They never had any locks on these doors,” he said, referring to the sliding pocket doors between bedrooms and bathrooms. 

Lustron homes were manufactured after World War II to help absorb two decades of pent-up demand for inexpensive housing. 

Before Lustron Corp. declared bankruptcy in 1950, 23 homes were assembled in Polk County, according to Thomas T. Fetters’ 2002 book “The Lustron Home.” Fifteen are still occupied – 10 in Des Moines, four in Windsor Heights and one in Grimes.

The homes were the brainchild of Swedish-born Carl Strandlund, who in 1946 suggested an alternative use for prefabricated steel panels that were being used for gas stations and diners. 

Roofs, walls, doors, cabinets, everything in the homes except windows and mirrors, were made of porcelain-enamel-coated steel panels that were bolted together on-site.

Des Moines architect Steve Stimmel explained during a recent meeting of the Des Moines Historical Society that each home was delivered by truck to a concrete slab, where 3,300 separate pieces were assembled in two days.

There were two models, a two-bedroom and a three bedroom. Both were single-story “ramblers,” smaller versions of ranch homes, Stimmel continued.
You never had to paint inside or out. When the exterior got dirty, you washed it off with a garden hose. Roofs were also of porcelain-coated steel; no shingles or tiles to replace or repair. 

Peak said that while his home has no basement, he believes the steel shell would hold up well in a tornado. A bigger concern, he said, was that an aging tree might fall and shatter his 70-year-old roof for which there are no replacement parts. n 1948 was around $8,000 – about $85,000 in 2019 dollars, or roughly what Peak paid in 2013. 

The first Lustron home assembled in Des Moines was at 4343 Chamberlain Drive, near Roosevelt High School. An advertisement in the July 16, 1948, Des Moines Tribune said it was the first Lustron house in Iowa and the fifth in the nation.

When the home opened for public tours, “More than 1,800 men and women … lined up for a block to gain admission,” the Des Moines Register reported. 

“Men generally were interested to learn that the radiant-heated house has no radiators and the furnace is in the attic,” the article said. “Women gave the sliding doors for the wardrobe closets and bedrooms a good workout.” 

“Visitors learned pictures can be hung without damaging the porcelain walls,” the newspaper said. (Peak uses small, industrial-strength magnets to attach artwork to his walls.)

Potential buyers saw few downsides in the homes that were priced 25% below comparable housing.

Experts predicted Lustron homes would do for the housing industry what the Model A Ford did for auto sales. 

But by 1950 Lustron Corp. was in bankruptcy court, and by 1952 the company was out of business. 

A 2003 PBS documentary blamed executives at the U.S. Reconstruction Finance Corp. who wanted to dictate suppliers. When the founder refused to relinquish control, the RFC shut off Strandlund’s financing at a crucial point and the business quickly failed.

The plan had been to build 45,000 homes in two years. Only 2,498 were completed, including more than 240 in Iowa. 

One was in Knoxville, where Peak’s mother lived. Mary Peak was enamored with the design. In fact, she once made an unsuccessful bid to buy the Knoxville Lustron.  

When the Lustron home at 3322 University Ave. in Des Moines went on the market in 2013, she told her son it was the perfect size for him and his young son Peter.