Photographing the Fading American Dream of Prefab Homes
What did the American dream look like in the late 1940s? You don’t have to search much further than advertisements for Lustron, one of the country’s favorite post-war, prefabricated homes, which arrived in 3,300-part kits—think if IKEA delivered homes—and could be built by Lustron in just two weeks.
Full-page ads showed perfectly coiffed, perma-smiling families lounging in sparkling, compact metal bungalows. Housewives washed dishes, wearing lipstick and heels; kids kicked back on the floor, reading the “funnies.” The descriptions flanking these images promised modern, 1,100-square-foot homes in eight different models, with porcelain-coated steel facades of four different colors—“surf blue,” “maize yellow,” “desert tan,” and “dove gray”—to choose from. They were filled with ultramodern amenities, too, like a machine that washed both dishes and clothes.
The company’s aspirational tagline said it all: “What Lustron offers is a new way of life.”
Around 2,500 Lustron homes had been assembled across the country before the company declared bankruptcy in 1950. Buyers were American families looking to bury memories of World War II and build a new, sunnier, more successful existence. Today, around 1,000 Lustron homes still stand.
The remaining houses—marked with the patina of almost 70 years of use—are the crux of Cleveland-based photographer Chuck Mintz’s series “Lustron Stories: Americans at Home,” which features intimate portraits of their current inhabitants.
Mintz was first introduced to the Columbus-made prefab dwellings in 2012, through an exhibition at the Ohio Historical Society celebrating their history. After poring over Lustron’s ads, he became fascinated by the cultural forces that powered their creation, as well as the people that first made their homes in them: “The stereotypical 1950s American family,” he explained from his home in Cleveland.
Mintz also wondered who occupied existing Lustron houses today. “What kind of lives did they live?” he recalled asking himself. “How did they compare to the myth of the 1950s American family?”
With his curiosity piqued, Mintz began mapping the locations of Lustron homes and writing letters to their owners, asking if they would sit for him. He knew that photographing these inhabitants “wouldn’t necessarily say a lot about 1950,” Mintz continued, “but it would say a lot about what had happened in these houses—and to American culture—since they were built.”
After sending around 600 pieces of snail mail, Mintz received a handful of responses and embarked on a circuitous journey across the country, knocking on doors and amassing portraits of the homeowners. After two years of roving, between 2012 and 2014, “Lustron Stories” was born.
But the point of Mintz’s series is not to offer a taxonomy of Lustrons; instead, Mintz shows how the owners of these cookie-cutter houses have made them their own. “I’m not interested in buildings—I’m interested in culture,” he said. “It ended up being about what people’s homes mean to them.”
Mintz met and photographed some original Lustron homeowners—those who bought the prefab home kits in the late 1940s and still reside in them today. One of these is Clementine, who poses with her daughter Anita in their living room in Oak Park, Michigan. Behind them, they’ve lined the standard gray metal bookshelf with shimmering blue fabric covered in a smattering of fake butterflies. “Remember, these houses are all essentially the same,” Mintz said as we looked at the image. “Those butterflies were really what they wanted to do to establish that this home is theirs.”
But other homeowners ended up in Lustrons after they had already been lived in. Mintz met people like Mike and Sandy, a couple living in Salem, Ohio, a small, rust-belt, working-class city with a population of around 12,000. Their portrait shows them on their Lustron porch—he’s wearing a cutoff denim shirt that reveals a bicep tattoo; she’s in pedal pushers an a tie-dye tee. Their chihuahua peeks his head out the window, over a yard decorated with Mike’s collection of gas pumps. The home, with its metal façade and idiosyncratic lawn decorations, looks like a lovingly cared-for gas station.
In another photograph, Richard, a Kansas City-based retired boilermaker with the Santa Fe Railway, stands in front of his surf-blue Lustron. Like Mike from Ohio, Richard is a collector, too. Behind the front door, hidden from view, is a collection of birthday cake tins, limited-edition commemorative dishes, and every kind of penny ever made. While Richard didn’t want his trove revealed to the world, he does hold one of his prized possessions—a
While Mike, Sandy, and Richard ended up in Lustrons without knowing their history, others chose the late-1940s structures on purpose, attracted to their historical underpinnings and mid-century modern aesthetic. Take Joe Williams, a St. Louis-based film critic, and his partner, Kathryn Welch, a psychotherapist. After moving into their dove-gray Lustron, they took to drinking 1950s-inspired martinis and playing Frank Sinatra records. “It's comforting to imagine a world where Sinatra plays on the hi-fi, martinis beckon on boomerang end tables, and the main street through town is called Route 66,” Williams told Mintz when he took their photo.
The couple also celebrated the home’s utopian design. In a 2013 video interview with Broad and High, they gushed over the fact that they never have to repaint the house; instead, they just hose down its metal facade. “To me, the Lustron was at the leading edge of that optimism of the world of tomorrow, where machinery and design would come together and make life better even for the common man, somebody who could afford a house like this,” Williams explained.
During the creation of “Lustron Stories,” Mintz gave the series a subheadline: “The arc of the Great American Dream since the Second World War.” Indeed, Mintz’s images seem to suggest that while today’s Lustron homeowners might look different than the preened, perfect families in 1950s advertisements, the American dream remains the same: to settle in a home—and, in time, make it your own.
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.