Time Capsule: Lustron Photos & Memories from the 1950s

lustron home in brentwood, mo, historical photo from owner2529 Louis Avenue
Brentwood, MO

My friend Tim Wahlig (he of the Popular Mechanics Home Handyman encyclopedias) once mentioned that his parents’ first home was a Lustron in Brentwood. I begged to see photos. And now his mother, Pat, has yanked out the old photo album to share with all of us her photos and memories of living in – and remodeling – a Lustron.

The home shown above was built in 1949. It is gray Lustron #1067, according to the Lustron Registry. Pat and her late husband Bob were married in July 1957 and moved into this home over Labor Day Weekend, a month after their wedding.

1957 photo of Brentwood, MO Lustron

They bought it for $15,000 from two spinster ladies, one who was an interior decorator, and both of them gardeners who had a prize-winning garden along the driveway. At the time of the sale, Pat and Bob asked if the flowers would remain, and they said “yes.” Come moving day, they noticed that everything had been dug up!

Pat says they “knew absolutely nothing about Lustron” when they saw it, nor were they looking for a house with no basement. But at 1,093 square feet “that house just fit us. The inside storage was good – the closets ran to the ceilings. Being newly married, we hadn’t accumulated anything, and we had no furniture so the built-ins were just perfect.”

Rear of Brentwood, MO Lustron taken by the owner in 1962

Bob Wahlig was a very handy man, and almost immediately he set about personalizing, rearranging and adding to the Lustron. Like the screen-porch he built on the rear.

Patio addition to Brentwood, MO Lustron from 1962

Bob also pulled out the wrenches and moved some exterior walls to change it from a recessed side entry to a flat front facade with the door facing the street. Pat provided this link, and scroll half way down you will see the original floorplan of their home. She added that the photo under the floorplan drawing is exactly how their home looked before the remodel, and that it “was simple to square off the porch; everything simply screwed together.”

Brentwood, MO Lustron owner adding a chimney to the home in 1958Moving the front door left room on the side for Bob (on the ladder) to build a chimney and add a fireplace inside.

Original owner added a fireplace to their Brentwood, MO Lustron in 1958Bob had a bunch of sample bricks in different colors, so made the patterns you see above. The firebox was a Heatlator “that was very efficient as it blew heat right into the room, even without an interior fan.”

The fireplace left them without porcelain panels for the sides and the ceiling, and they looked into getting panels by contacting gas station builders. They were told none were available, but they could be custom made, but the cost was prohibitive, and color matching couldn’t be guaranteed.  Bob wound up using wood panels for the ceiling, and these matched the new panel he would build for the dining room pass-though (more on that in a bit).

Pat & Bob’s first child, Daniel, was born early in 1962. There he is with his Dad in the recliner by the fireplace. With the leftover bricks from the project, Bob built a planter under the living room bay window and put his aquarium in it!

And that fireplace became the focal point for all official family photos, like Dan with his godparents (above) who look fabulous!

Lustrons came with a floor-to-ceiling, built-in buffet that divided the living and dining rooms. Tons of storage and a handy pass-through space. They needed that storage space, but also needed a bigger living room and space to expand their dining room table. So Bob unscrewed the buffet and moved it against the wall of the service and storage area. In it’s place he built the wood panel wall (shown above), which added 22″ to the kitchen, which was enough room to add this small table and chairs.  Also of note is that rather than the customary ceramic tile floor in most Lustron kitchens, theirs was a dark brown asphalt tile.

This wood panel also gave them the rare opportunity to hang something on a wall! With all the built-ins, there wasn’t much space to hang pictures, so Pat didn’t have to confront hanging things with magnets or screwing them into the steel panels.

They absolutely loved living in the Lustron; “It simply worked perfectly for us. Ours was the party house for all our friends.”
And what did their parents think of them moving into a steel house?

“Mom just loved it! Dad did, too.  He enjoyed the first time Bob’s dad, Tony – who was a trim carpenter – came over to see the place. ‘Tony! Just look at this house. No carpenter needed!’ Tony laughed as he’d come in the back door and had his hand on the kitchen counter. He looked down at it, tapped it and said, ‘Well, this must have taken a carpenter!’ ”

Being an all-steel home, did it have special upkeep issues?
“Absolutely none! Every spring I was up on the roof scrubbing it while Bob worked on the awnings. I washed all the walls and ceilings every year, too. I remember the first year that I washed them, they had a yellow film, but the two old ladies didn’t smoke. Bob concluded it was because the furnace had no filter.”

1962 photo of a Brentwood, MO Lustron bathroom

And was it comfortable in the summer and winter?
“The heating system was just AWFUL!!! The furnace was up in the utility room ceiling, behind the Lustron panels, and hot air just blew through the ceiling – no vents! While the concrete floors were freezing, so we carpeted them.”

1962 photo of a Brentwood, MO Lustron master bedroom

“Bob did cut a hole in the front bedroom wall, under the window, for an air conditioning unit. Back then it was rare to have A/C.

“A couple years after moving in, we bought a washer and dryer. The utility room had built-in hooks for a clothes line to dry laundry.  But since there was no way to vent the dryer outside, the moist air blew right into the house. My windows seemed dirty all the time! But the humidity didn’t bother us. We were young, so it was all OK.”

They sold the Lustron in early 1963 for around $17,000 to a young couple with two toddlers. “We were really surprised they’d be interested in a two bedroom home. But we were glad they were. It wasn’t an easy house to sell!”

The Brentwood, MO Lustron as it stands in 21st century, re-sided photo by Toby Weiss

The Louis Avenue Lustron still stands today, but it now looks like this. When I shared this photo with Pat, she replied, “UGH!!! That’s like putting plastic on a brick house!”

Nice to see that Bob Wahlig’s chimney remains, as does the original roof. Pat remembers that some owners after them turned their screen-porch into a proper bedroom that runs the entire width of the back of the house. County records show that the addition brings the total square footage up to 1,489. They also list its style as “Ranch.”  Eye roll.

Ultra big tons of thanks to Pat Wahlig for sharing her photos and memories with me, and to her son Tim for continually reminding her to dig out these photos and bringing them in for me to scan.

Lustron Life
Lustron Demolished

Lustron: Free To A Good Home

Yet again, someone is willing to give away a doomed Lustron, as long as someone will haul it off.
Here’s the details.

One “selling” point to consider: A dismantled Lustron only requires about 800 square feet of storage space. So, if you don’t quite yet have a plot to relocate it to, it could rest safely in the average-size basement…

Lustron Life
Lustron Demolished
Save Some Lustrons

Lustron Demolished

Friday, October 21, 2005
It was quite the treat to see a full-color Lustron, and its proud owner, on the cover of the Webster-Kirkwood Times newspaper. The more exposure they get, the more people may come to love them, and with a couple of them for sale in Webster Groves, this is great publicity.

Sunday, October 23, 2005
I get this e-mail from the very same Lady Lustron owner currently on the front page of said newspaper:

Oh my gosh, I just randomly fell upon your blog post regarding the Lustrons. I was quite surprised when the first image to load was a shot of my own home! I was further surprised when the next images were of the 540 Ridge interior. My past week of activity has been fully immersed inside that home.

I so hate to be the messenger of bad news, and most especially in this case, as you yourself talked so highly of the home and your desires to acquire it, but the home was demolished this Tuesday, October 18, 2005.

The good news in the case of the Ridge home is that while on the site attempting to salvage parts from the home, a woman from the local Historic Preservation Commission just happened to walk by the home and started a conversation that led to an invitation to the next Webster Groves meeting. They have already proposed that an ordinance be put in place so that all the Lustrons in Webster Groves are designated as historic. This would impose a 120 day wait period for all imminent demolitions of a Lustron (or any historic) site. The saga with the 540 Ridge home will be part of the presentation I plan to deliver to the commission on November 16, 2005, and photos like yours that illustrate the very good condition of its interior would really add to the impact of the loss that was suffered by demolishing this home.
Thanks so much!
Angie Boesch
deolished lustron in Webster Groves, photo by Toby Weiss

She asked if I had any more photos of the dearly departed (yes, I do), and can she use them for the Webster Groves city hall presentation (oh, hell yes, she can!). After several deep breaths to get my heart pumping again after hearing such horrid news, I asked for more details, which she provided:

I’m still in a bit of shock over the whole series of events, still looking back in hindsight thinking of all the things I wish I would have done different to change the outcome (like contacting the owner when the house was listed on ebay, or bid myself on the house and worry about the details after, or simply just not be so ambitious in returning to the site on Monday). But it is demolished.

It was bought for tear-down by a developer who is rebuilding on the site a 24 ft wide, 2 story row house. And the timing of the news article printing just after all this occurring feels quite poignant. Here’s a summary of events as I posted them for the online Lustron community a few days ago. I also put together a slideshow of demolition photos from the site.

As many of you may recall, the Lustron located at 540 Ridge Ave in Webster Groves, MO was listed by a realtor earlier this year. Several good prospects were interested in purchasing the home as their main residence. The property was in the end, however, purchased by a developer who sought out this Lustron community seeking a buyer to purchase the structure to be removed from the lot. With no offers, the home was then placed for auction on eBay with an approx 2 month window for its removal. The winning bidder began the process of disassembling the interior of the home and midway backed out of completing the removal due to the time constraints and challenges arranging for its transport.

During the last weeks on its lot, the land developer/owner was very accommodating and open to inquiries on offers to purchase for salvage items from the structure. Neighboring Lustron homeowners made him offers on the items which could be removed themselves from the structure that they were in need of for restoring their own homes, as well as the most commonly needed items requested by the general Lustron homeowner community.

The Lustron at 324 Hazel, with an expanded attached garage will be replacing its asphalt shingle garage roof with original Lustron roof tiles to complement the authenticity of the home and coordinate with the main house.
The Lustron at 330 Hazel, which was for some years a rental property, and now owner- occupied, was hoping to salvage the kitchen passthru unit. After many hours of laboring to disconnect the unit from the structure, the challenging task prevented its salvage.
Many of the original fixtures were salvaged and will find good homes with several Brentwood Lustron owners: the kitchen ceiling fixture, the utility room wall fixture, the hall sconce, the bathroom medicine cabinet, the bathroom vanity cabinet and drawers, the bathroom robe hook, the pocket door track, several inside corner wall trim pieces, the original aluminum front storm door (manufactured by Eagle Picher).

For my own Lustron, I managed to salvage both back elevation bedroom windows, all window screens and clips, the bulk of the home’s window cranks and latches, 4 square interior panels and a handful of random shelf inserts. The bad news is that we in fact had also collected and hauled all of the interior closet doors (tall and short), all of the vanity drawers, all the shelf inserts, all three interior pocket doors and nearly a full elevation of exterior panels.

On Monday, the day prior to the demolition, after two full days working til dark all feelings of a successful partial home salvage were to end. At roughly 8:30 I arrived back to the site and began working the exterior panels off the house. I had accessed the corner panel and began exterior removal roughly 4:30 Sunday, working until about 7.
At 9:30 am Monday about three quarters of the first wall were down. Then a demolition company employee arrived onsite and confronted me, suggested I stop any further work until the owner of the demo company arrived. I explained the situation and the arrangements that were made with the redeveloper/ owner, and he explained to me his perspective that this was a breech of their contract and the structure became his upon entering that contract. He firmly insisted that all the panels be returned to the site.

Stuck in the middle and wishing not to infringe on anyone else’s property rights, I agreed to do so. After a few moment’s contemplation (and angry words of disgust with the situation), he insisted on escorting me and loading all the salvaged steel items that were taken from the location into his truck. I managed to convince him to allow me one request and salvage all the closet door rollers from each door prior to dumping them. The full load of potential replacement parts that we worked to preserve were loaded into a dumpster, all bound for the steel scrap yard.

The demolition company’s view is that they own the structure and with the Lustron, they gain a profit margin from the recycled steel scrap which in turn is part of how they estimated the bid for the job to the developer. Unfortunately we assumed the developer/owner had full property rights to the salvage parts we were seeking and that was the main crux that made even a partial home salvage fail in this instance.

You and anyone else are welcome to attend that meeting, it is open to the public. It will be held the third Wednesday of November (16th) at 7:00 pm on the 2nd floor of city hall, first room on the left. And I’m going to assume further meetings will continue on the topic until they approve or deny the proposal.

FYI: the next local site I’m keeping my eyes open to is the Lustron at 224 Simmons. It also just sold on ebay for removal by December 31. (this is the third Webster Groves Lustron sold on ebay this year). The ebay item #4410237956 in case you want to look up the auction archive. Thanks again so much for your help and your reassurance that there ARE other locals out there just as concerned about the Lustrons as those of us living in them.
details of a demolished Lustron photos by toby weiss
As I griped the other day, I’m pretty much architecturally disgusted with the St. Louis area at this moment. Adding fuel to my toddler-like hissy fit is Angie’s news that the developer tore down the Lustron to build “a 24 ft wide, 2 story row house.” What?! Could that be any more inappropriate for that neighborhood? It goes from the tragic to the absurd.
While I’m, basically, throwing toys and holding my breath until I get my way, I’m thankful there are mature, dedicated and organized Lustron owners ready to fight for what’s right. Once I regain my composure, I plan to help in any way I can.

Goodbye, Norma Jean

On Tuesday, October 18th, Billy Idol disappeared from the window, and excitement brewed within when I saw signs of renovation (above). I saw lamp shades; will Kabbaz add lighting to the Marilyn Gallery? I looked forward to the revamped unveiling of a new Marilyn.

This afternoon, signs say the candle burned out long before the legend ever did…
The black curtain backdrop has fallen to reveal freshly painted red walls, light fixtures, tables, chairs and a man busy on a ladder. Someone has taken over the storefront. That’s not surprising. With major new retail across the street, these old storefronts are now desirable property. If I could sit in the Starbucks’ drive-thru and stare at Marilyn paintings, it would make sense for a business to take advantage of that kind of visability.
I should have knocked on the door to pepper the Ladder Man with questions, but I was too sad and too shocked to do so. I walked away with a funeral dirge in my head and a heavy heart.
So was Billy Idol’s rebel yell Kabbaz’s comment on being evicted? Will a new shrine spot be found? How do I mend my broken heart?

With more bad news, of course.
Today I got word that this Lustron home that I toured in June was demolished on October 18th. Details coming as soon as my anger subsides.

And since my little BELT world was taking so many hits on this Sunday, I decided to really wallow in despair and view the last bits of the Northland carcass. An update is coming soon.

2005 has NOT been a good year for my favorite modern architecture in St. Louis. Death to Lustrons, Northland, Busch Stadium

…if I adore it, it’s coming down. It’s not paranoia, just fact. See the building above? It’s always been a glamorous favorite of mine, so of course it’s coming down any day now. The intersection of Rock Hill & Manchester is getting a massive makeover, so this gorgeous example of roadside jet set Route 66 architecture is toast.
I’ll cover this story in greater photographic detail in the near future. But right now, I’m too sad and angry to care.

Lustron Life

Webster Groves Lustron photo by Toby Weiss
Ridge Ave., Webster Groves, MO
The neighborhood is lousy with ’em, and an architect pal discovered a couple of them were for sale. My friend Marla waved her magic wand and gave us an insiders tour.

While I’ve always admired (and stalked) the Lustron, I’d never been inside. Now that I have, I adore the Lustron.
Interior of Webster Groves Lustron by Toby Weiss
Just a tad over 1000 s.f., the place feels expansive because there’s no wasted space. All is in logical order for efficient living. To the touch, all surfaces have a velvety lustre.
Kitchen cabinets in Webster Groves Lustron by Toby Weiss
Cabinets are the primary kitchen concern. This Lustron has cabinet space to spare, a kitchen both traditional and ultra-modern in the same breath. Laundry and utilities are tucked so discreetly off to the side that you have to purposely search to find them.
Master bedroom metal cabinetry in Webster Groves Lustron by Toby Weiss
The streamline economy of the public spaces is sweet, but the “master” bedroom is decadent luxury. Two built-in closests, a cornice of overhead cabinets and an 8-drawer vanity with picture-window mirror are molded into one piece that fills an entire wall. It’s sophisticated and functional!

I’ve spent the last few years trying to whittle down my possessions, working on achieving a minimalist life. With this bedroom, all I’d need is my bed and the nightstand. Everything else would tuck neatly into the wall!

I want this house real bad like. It fits my aesthetic, but not my pocketbook. When listed, it was a bit overpriced, and even if they were talked down to $110K, still can’t afford it. And now Lustron is the house that got away…
Detail of Webster Groves MO Lustron photo by Toby Weiss